‘Material Witness’ Opens at the Parrish Art Museum

Simone Leigh "Sentinel," 2019. Bronze and raffia. Collection Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman NY. Courtesy The FLAG Art Foundation.

The Parrish Art Museum has opened “Material Witness,” a new exhibition presenting four large-scale sculptures and paintings in which the materials used by the artist are inextricably connected to and imbued with the meaning of the work itself. On view through 2021, “Material Witness” features Simone Leigh’s “Sentinel,” 2019, on long-term loan from the FLAG Art Foundation in New York, plus works from the Parrish’s collection by Ross Bleckner, Louise Nevelson and Donald Sultan.

Leigh was recently chosen to represent the United States at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 — the first Black woman to secure the commission.

“The presence of Simone Leigh’s ‘Sentinel’ in the Parrish galleries instantly reverberated and prompted a new context for several works in the Parrish permanent collection to join the sculpture on view,” said the Parrish’s chief curator, Alicia G. Longwell, Ph.D. “An artist’s choice of materials matters, and each of the four has discovered boundless expressive properties within their chosen medium.”

Simone Leigh (American, b. 1967) mines the experience of Black women throughout history, referencing African tradition, feminism, and racial politics. In “Sentinel,” a corrugated Quonset hut for the body and tropical raffia palm for the skirt underscore both the resilience and femininity of the imposing female figure that is elevated on a pedestal — something the artist points to as a rarity today. Beyond the walls, “Sentinel” is in dialogue with Theaster Gates’s “Monument in Waiting,” 2020, installed in the outdoor exhibition “Field of Dreams” and visible from the gallery window. Gates’s sculpture addresses the concept of monuments, and who is selected to be celebrated in national public spaces.

In the “Material Witness” gallery, “Sentinel” is imbedded among works in the Parrish collection. “Architecture of the Sky,” 1990, is one of the memorials to lives lost during the AIDS crisis by Ross Bleckner (American, b. 1949). The built-up surface of a pattern of dots suggests the lesions produced by AIDS-related sarcomas, and Bleckner exploits the floating imagery to render the material surface both beautiful and terrifying. Louise Nevelson (American, b. Ukraine, 1899–1988) often allowed materials to take over and guide her process in the boxes and walls she created from dismantled furniture and ornaments. In “Untitled,” ca. 1970, among the artist’s all-black sculptures, Nevelson transformed an external world of found objects into a personal landscape. Donald Sultan (American, b. 1951) continues his commitment with process in “Polish Landscape II Jan 5 1990 (Auschwitz),” 1990, referencing a specific landscape freighted with its tragic history by a visceral evocation of the subject in tar and paint.

The Parrish Art Museum is at 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. Galleries are open Friday to Monday for timed visits through pre-registration and online ticketing on the Parrish website, parrishart.org. “Field of Dreams” outdoor sculpture exhibition is open and free to the public daily, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors are asked to observe social distancing practices and required to wear masks on museum property.