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The Building “Works:” Helen Frankenthaler’s exhibit at the Parrish Art Museum

Helen Frankenthaler at the Parrish Art Museum. Photo Paul Clemence.

Story & photos by Paul Clemence

At the recent opening of the new exhibit at the Parrish Art Museum, “Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown” , both Lise Motherwell, the painter’s stepdaughther, and Elizabeth Smith, director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, spoke of the painter’s abstract way of invoking the experience of being in a place, or in this case in a landscape. Motherwell and Smith (both speakers) elaborated on how her paintings rather than a direct depiction of the physicality of the place, she rather expressed the feeling of being there, the sensorial experience of it. The focus of the exhibit and the works in it is how the place informs the work of the painter, how an abstract artist interprets and expresses his/her personal experience of that place, exploring feeling memory more than realistic cues. The artist becomes the filter through which the viewer not just see the landscape but how she feels it.

Comparably, it could be said that in some ways the architecture of the Parrish Art Museum functions in a similar way, also filtering and informing our experience of its natural setting without resorting to the obvious but favoring a more subjective approach. The design (by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron) orchestrates the relationship with the surrounding context through a carefully articulated in/out connection, abstracting, so to speak, clues from it.


Parrish Art Museum. Photo Paul Clemence

The long structure composed of a pair of gabled roof borrows its shape from a building typology common in the area, but then gives it a contemporary interpretation with a minimalist feel. Expansive, open porches offer a welcomed counterpoint to the museum galleries, with an ingenious wall-cum-seat detail running the whole length of the building on both sides.

The buildings fenestration placement further informs the dialogue between in and out. Whether through a discrete vertical floor to ceiling opening in the façade or a larger expansive glass wall, the outside is never too far, but never distracting from the art contemplation taking place inside. And from the outside looking in the same rings true: an unobtrusive peek at a gallery, or a view into the museum’s administrative offices, the larger expanse of glass allowing for a more generous observation of the movement inside – all evincing the inner life of the building but with a quiet respect so as not to disturb the introspection required by such a place.


Parrish Art Museum. Photo Paul Clemence

The building materials used, glass, concrete, steel trusses and wood, all widely found in edifications nearby, further create a connection to place, with the richly textured, rough looking concrete of the external walls firmly grounding the building to the site and to the landscape. That landscape design, by Reed Hilderbrand Associates, is natural looking, full of native wildflowers and greenery, is the final touch on a project that seems at once to be something new and at same time have always been there.

“Indian Summer.” 1967. Helen Frankenthaler. Photo Paul Clemence

When speaking of her work, Frankenthaler often would talk about that crucial moment when the artist knows not to add or subtract anything else, that moment when the artist knows the painting “works”. The following photo essay is an attempt to show, in its own abstract way, that this is a case where the building “works.”

The exhibition runs through October 27 at the Parrish Art Museum.



Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross sections of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis,ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

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