Real World: Parrish

Long Island

Left: Museum Director Trudy C. Kramer with Parrish Trustee and contemporary-art collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann. Right: Exhibition cocurators Merrill Falkenberg and Eric Fischl. (All photos: Geir Magnusson)

“I should keep going, right? I’m hot now!” As I arrived at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton for Saturday evening’s opening of “All the More Real: Portrayals of Intimacy and Empathy,” the exhibition’s cocurators, painter Eric Fischl and the institution’s Merrill Falkenberg, had already embarked on the first of two double-act routines, and Fischl was making the most of his turn. Circled by a rapt crowd of silver-haired supporters, the odd couple were midway through a tag-team tour of the galleries that revealed as much about their personalities as it did about their project: Fischl was avuncular and unhurried, the younger Falkenberg ambitious and efficient. Fischl was an able guide, if not always a tremendously enlightening one (on a Joan Goldin photograph: “She saw in the watermelon some potential to talk about something outside the watermelon”); Falkenberg was clearer but a touch mechanical in comparison, even seeming a little naive at times (on Robert Gober’s Untitled [Candle]: “Everyone recognized it as a phallic symbol except me!”). This was a show concerned largely with representations of the human body—hardly an unfamiliar theme, but one that allowed Fischl and Falkenberg to sneak in a few works that might otherwise have been considered too confrontational for a museum best known for its Fairfield Porter collection.

“I was going to use this occasion to announce my retirement!” In a subsequent discussion between the curators, introduced by director Trudy C. Kramer and staged in an adjoining hall, Fischl got some mileage out of the idea of giving up painting for curating. He was clearly having fun, but a curmudgeonly side emerged soon thereafter in his comment about contemporary art’s purported “removal from human values.” “I have strong feelings and no ideas,” the artist continued. The line sounded well worn but nonetheless made an impression on those present, who either lapped it up or tutted disapprovingly.

Left: Ross Bleckner with Emily Eveleth. Right: Susan Chereskin and Alvin Chereskin, chairman of the Parrish's board of trustees

Fischl’s denouncement of cosmetic surgery as “denying the process of life” also evinced some uncomfortable fidgets, but perhaps more surprising was his abrupt request of Falkenberg: “Can we talk about that 9/11 thing now?” “This was supposed to be a spontaneous discussion,” she responded, appearing to sense a well-laid plan going astray, “but OK.” At this, Fischl launched into a rant about his Tumbling Woman, a bronze sculpture commemorating the World Trade Center attacks that was withdrawn from display at Rockefeller Center in 2002. His ultimate point, that portrayals of bodily vulnerability are difficult but necessary, was sound but derailed the discussion, and Falkenberg seemed to resign herself to this being the Eric Fischl Show.

Out in the garden for drinks, I searched in vain for familiar faces, having spotted the New Museum’s Lisa Phillips in the galleries themselves, but recognized only LAXART curator at large Jeffrey Uslip. Most other attendees seemed to be at least part-time locals, who buttonholed me repeatedly to offer their thoughts on the show, the museum, and the questionable dress sense of their fellow guests (ice-cream pastel fabrics, big hair, and heavy jewelry predominated). Dinner was a casual plein air buffet, and easy conversation with my tablemates, among them exhibiting artists Jeff Hesser, Emily Eveleth, and Cynthia Westwood, perfectly countered the earlier push-and-pull.

Michael Wilson

Left: Artists Bill King and Connie Fox. Right: Artists Catherine Murphy and Alexandra Moore.