One gallery wall of the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed Parrish Art Museum, which opened Saturday in Water Mill - on New York's Long Island - is dominated by a recently acquired painting by Ross Bleckner, who lives just down the road in Sagaponack. The 1990 canvas, a mesmerising constellation of dots in cloudy hues that echo the museum's palette of bright white and bruised concrete, is 'Architecture of the Sky,' a title that could also describe the building in which in now hangs.
'You have the feeling that the sky here is somehow bigger than it is elsewhere,' says Ascan Mergenthaler, the Herzog & de Meuron senior partner who was in charge of the $26.2 million Parrish project. 'It's because of the special landscape and light that so many artists have their studios in this place.'
The 34,400-sq-ft museum is essentially a double-barrelled, extruded version of the classic house-shaped artist's studio, with north-facing skylights that governed the placement of the building - at a jaunty angle on the site of a former tree nursery.
Rooted in vernacular architecture and local construction methods and surrounded by native plants, the 115-year-old museum's new home comes with a twist: concrete walls, for which the architects scouted local basements to find suitably rugged examples.
'The solidity of this building was important to us, because everything in America is wood-framed and clad somehow, and kind of feels hollow,' notes Mergenthaler. Adding a human scale to the long expanses of concrete is a continuous bench along the bottom, sure to become a popular perch for socialising.
Inside, the single-floor museum is wonderfully simple, with public functions (such as reception, store, and café) to the west, administrative offices and art handling to the east, and the galleries clustered in the middle, arrayed in two parallel bars.
Aiding visitors' intuitive navigation of the space from the moment they walk through the blackened wood doors is the work of Konstantin Grcic, whose furnishings and Serge Mouille-meets-Alexander Calder light fixtures appear to float amidst the pale paneling of reclaimed pine.
'It is a simple building, and it should feel very straightforward and natural,' says Grcic. 'That's what we tried to do with the furniture. We tried to find a very simple grammar for it.'
The café and adjacent outdoor terrace are stocked with chairs designed by Grcic especially for the museum and produced by Emeco, which will officially launch the 'Parrish Chair' at Salone Del Mobile 2013 in Milan. The chair was designed to take up a minimum of space. 'It's almost like the drawing of a chair,' adds Grcic, 'just the line, the tube, and the seat.'
Taking centre stage is, of course, the art. With triple the exhibition space of the previous museum, the new Parrish showcases not only temporary exhibitions, such as the inaugural show exploring the role of paper in the art-making process of Malcolm Morley, but also the first-ever installation of works from the permanent collection, including adjoining galleries devoted to William Merritt Chase and Fairfield Porter.
All of the galleries are illuminated by daylight that shifts gradually throughout the day and changes with the seasons. Fluorescents take over at dusk. 'This allows us to experience the artwork in exactly the way in which it was made,' says Parrish Museum director Terrie Sultan. 'Light is key to the creative legacy of the East End of Long Island, which is what we celebrate.'