By Michelle Trauring
As dozens of art enthusiasts roamed the 14-acre grounds of the Parrish Art Museum on the evening of August 20, many unwittingly made history.
Not only were they the first to witness the inaugural outdoor exhibition for the Water Mill institution — featuring sculpture by 10 heavy-hitting artists, as part of a new “Art in the Meadow” initiative to extend the museum galleries — but they also interacted with a never-before-seen suite of pieces by Jaume Plensa.
The Barcelona-based artist — perhaps most famously known for “Crown Fountain” in Chicago — could only imagine the museumgoers meandering through the grass of the Great Lawn, eventually finding themselves among his four oak trunks cast in bronze, each carved with a young woman’s face in a moment of quiet reflection.
It was a sight that Plensa would have loved to see with his own eyes — had he not been an ocean away, unable to follow his new work to the East End due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Yesterday, I got a beautiful photo of the opening and, obviously, it was a little bit depressing not to be with all of you over there,” Plensa said on Friday morning during a Zoom call from his studio in Spain, “because it was really, really beautiful to see all the pieces with people together, which is finally the main intention of the sculptor: to share with others your dreams.”
Appropriately named “Field of Dreams,” the exhibit finally activates the museum’s landscape at a time when engaging with art outside is more important than ever — though some sculptors say this is nothing new and the shift is long overdue. For them, showing in public, outdoor spaces is home, and social distancing mandates have forced open a variety of new avenues, including at the Parrish Art Museum.
“Our meadow has been patiently waiting for this opportunity to become a true extension of the museum, allowing the Parrish to fulfill its responsibility to provide an opportunity to interact with art during the pandemic that is safe, socially distant, and rich with potent and timely meaning,” Parrish board president Mary E. Frank said in a statement. “‘Field of Dreams” is a place to conjure the carefree days of summers past, or to dream of what the future might hold.”
For the next year, the sculptures will remain on view in the outdoor space, connected by newly created paths through three distinct areas: the Entry Meadow on the north side of the building, leading to the museum’s entrance; the Terrace Meadow on the west side; and the Great Meadow, a six-acre expanse to the south, facing Montauk Highway, which houses the majority of the works.
“Untitled,” a bronze sculpture by Joel Shapiro, anchors the network of walkways, leading to “Monument in Waiting,” a piece that interdisciplinary artist Theaster Gates created specifically for the site. In it, he responds to the current national reckoning with monuments and historical figures, raising questions as to why some narratives are celebrated over others, especially as it pertains to Black culture and history.
Positioned on the southern edge of the Great Meadow is the 13-foot “Cor-ten Arcs in Disorder: 220.5° Arc x 15” by Bernar Venet, known for geometric sculptures that are at once mathematically precise yet spontaneous. Nearby sits Jim Dine’s “The Wheatfield (Agincourt),” which expands the scope of his original 1989 work by extending the framework of its tractor axle. It plays host to an assemblage of meaningful found objects — tools, branches, parrots, Venuses, Pinocchios, apes and cats, and one large skull.
Rounding out the exhibition are works by Max Ernst and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as Water Mill-based artist Joel Perlman, whose 7,000-pound metal sculpture, “Eastgate,” managed to snag a prime spot close to the entrance of the museum.
“We’re hoping that temporary home will become permanent,” Perlman said. “It’s very meaningful for me because I live out here now. Since the pandemic, we’ve moved out here and after being so close to the museum for so many years, and not somehow being connected, now I am. It did a lot of good things for everybody. It was a tremendous team effort.”
To deliver the simple, minimalistic piece to the museum was anything but. Two weeks before it arrived on site, “Eastgate” — which was originally a commissioned piece in 1989 that, decades later, Perlman bought back — sat in pieces at Liberty Iron Works in Southampton, under the watchful eye of owner John Degen.
“We had to cut it in several pieces to initially move it, because it’s so big, and we brought it back to the steel yard. And there it sat for 15, 20 years,” Perlman said. “When the Parrish wanted a piece, it was John who said, ‘How about “Eastgate?”’ We worked like crazy to weld it back together again, refinish it. Then, the problem became getting it over there.”
In order to lift the sculpture overtop trees and properly place it at the Parrish, the move required a crane with a 200-foot reach, two tractor-trailers for counter weight, and another tractor-trailer to transport it.
“It became like an enormous, almost like an army maneuver,” Perlman said. “I mean, it was spectacular. Now, it just looks like it was always there. But, you know, there was a struggle and a story.”
The longer it remains at the Parrish, the more the raw steel will age and patina — “It gets better and better,” the artist said — and Plensa hopes the salty ocean air will work the same magic on his four bronze sculptures, “Carlota (oak)”, “Julia (oak), “Laura Asia (oak)” and “Wilsis (oak).”Eventually, he imagines they’ll take on a greenish hue, returning to the nature from which they originally came.
“I’ve been working with beautiful wood trunks that I found in France — they are oak trees — and when I found those trees, I immediately thought it was beautiful to try to find the portrait that they were hiding inside,” he said. “In each of them, suddenly, [I] discovered for me this portrait.”
After Plensa and his team carved the faces into the oak trees, the subsequent silicon molds were cast in bronze. “It’s complete when there’s people walking in between,” he said. “It has a certain meta-primitive concept and position that people complete when they are walking.”
Come early fall, “Field of Dreams” will also be complete with the arrival of Isa Genzken’s “Two Orchids,” to tower 34 feet over the Great Meadow, alongside Giuseppe Penone’s “Ideas of Stone,” a 30-foot cast bronze tree among its living counterparts, examining the relationship between nature and mankind — on view through August 2021.
“I miss a lot not to be there, honestly,” Plensa said. “I cross my fingers that, maybe, I could be for the end of the show over there. That will be wonderful — to finish the show and see the pieces that I did will be lovely.”
“Field of Dreams” will remain on view daily, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through August 31, 2021 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. Admission is free. Visitors are asked to observe social distancing practices and are required to wear masks on the museum property. For more information, call 631-283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.