Categorized | Arts, Community

The New Parrish: Performance Art

Posted on 06 November 2012

Composer Nell Shaw Cohen

By Annette Hinkle

This weekend, when the Parrish Art Museum opens the doors of its Water Mill facility to the public, its collection of visual art will be the focus in the expansive gallery spaces which are the centerpiece of the new building.

But also worthy of exploration are the museum’s other public areas — especially the new 2,400 square foot Lichtenstein Theater which offers the potential for a range of uses — from films and lectures to live performances.

The availability of the theater and other spaces in the new building opens up a world of possibilities for Andrea Grover, the Parrish’s curator of programs. But while the sky’s the limit, for Grover, selecting offerings for the theater and other public areas is about staying grounded and connected to the museum.

“I feel with any great new expansive space, you have to be cognitive of sticking to the mission of the museum,” she explains. “We’re trying to come up with a way to do that without too much mission drift. We get all manner of proposals. How do we bring in everything programmatically through the lens of the mission?”

For Grover, the best way to accomplish that is by giving the artists as much freedom as possible to drive the programming.

“Artists are better creative thinkers than any of us, so we put them in the driver’s seat,” says Grover. “It always goes through the filter of the museum, instead of ‘let’s go hear a band,’ or ‘see a live performance.’”

As a result, performers in the new space will be selected either because their work offers a specific response to the museum itself, or they will be created new pieces that relate to the facility through its landscape, architecture or collections.

Among the three performers inaugurating the Lichtenstein Theater this Saturday is 24-year-old composer Nell Shaw Cohen whose 15 minute piece “Watercolors” for wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon), will be performed by The Chelsea Quintet at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.

Cohen, a graduate of the New England Conservatory (NEC) of Music, grew up in Sag Harbor and is now pursing her masters in composition at NYU, and while her focus is music, specifically chamber and classical, her compositions are unique in that their inspired directly by visual art.

“Her abilities are as a composer – but she doesn’t just make compositions,” notes Grover. “Her work also has a strong educational element with videos and didadict material — so it’s a 360 degree approach to a composition and it’s also offered in proximity to the visuals while the group is performing.”

In the case of “Watercolors,” Cohen is responding to the art of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). The four movements of the piece correspond to four paintings created by Burchfield between 1916 and 1950 — “An April Mood,” “Autumnal Fantasy,” “Sun and Rocks” and “Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring).” Coincidentally, “Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)” is in the Parrish’s permanent collection and Cohen notes that “Watercolors” was inspired by Burchfield’s connection to the natural world in his paintings.

“His art focuses on place and he has a sensitivity to art and nature. This is my response to him and his art,” says Cohen who acknowledges that while composers have been known to write music in response to works of art, she is not aware of any who have made it a continual and primary focus in their work as she has.

“I’ve written several pieces and plan on continuing in that area,” says Cohen who wrote a composition for string quartet based on the art of Hudson River painter Thomas Cole while she was a student at NEC.

“I found the paintings served as a way to anchor the music aesthetically and structurally and motivated new ideas,” says Cohen. “I used to do a lot of visual art and my favorite painters I love as much as my favorite composers. I want to share my love of visual art as much as possible.”

While these days Cohen is classical composer, ironically, she doesn’t play a classical instrument. Her first foray into music was playing Bach on guitar (under guidance of local musician Peter Weiss). She also studied drums and recorded a rock album of original songs.

“I found I hit a wall with the level of sophistication and professional path I could pursue and at the same time was discovering chamber and classical music,” says Cohen. “I realized I could focus on composing as my favorite art. I was music illiterate a year before I went into classical composition at New England Conservatory.”

But obviously, Cohen has caught up in a big way, musically speaking, and she has discovered an ideal way to merge her love of the visual arts with her talent as a composer.

“I love writing for all kind of things — string quartets, voice and piano. And I do love woodwind instruments. It’s something I come back to,” she says.

“I find this work evocative of sound and music, because he himself connected to the sound and music of nature,” says Cohen. “By projecting images behind the performers, my goal is to open up the audience not only as a way for experiencing art, but involving them in the universe of painting.”

“It’s more like a film score – it may or may not work for all, but I think there are some pretty specific ways I tie the music to the art in ways that move them,” she says.

Also inaugurating the theater will be the Joshua Light Show, founded by multimedia artist Joshua White in the mid-1960s, which performs Friday, November 9 at 6 p.m. and Gray, an experimental band founded in 1979 by artists Michael Holman and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who will perform “A False Sense of Darkness” on Saturday, November 10 at 6 p.m. The piece is a surreal tribute to the silent-film era which will be performed to a film made for this event.

In addition to Lichtenstein Theater performances, Grover is also initiating the Platform Project this weekend, a three month artist-in-residence program in which a rotating slate of artists will tap into their own unique vision and the museum’s expansive space to create original and dynamic works and experiences.

“Artists from every discipline will be invited to make a proposal using any part of the new museum,” says Grover. “Composers, choreographers or visual artists — the possibilities are endless.”

“We won’t dictate what they’re there to do,” she adds. “Maybe they’ll want to use the acoustics of the building for active performance, respond to the collection or respond to something totally different.”

The Parrish’s inaugural Platform Project is “Genius Loci” by Southampton artist Hope Sandrow who will offer site specific events and projects evoking “the spirit of place” now through January 2013. On view will be Sandrow’s video “Untitled Observations” — featuring images of the moon projected onto her body, as well as guided telescope viewings on the museum’s terrace on select Friday evenings in the months ahead in collaboration with the Montauk Observatory, Suffolk County Community College and Dark Skies.

Sandrow will also offer “The Future is Ours” in which museum visitors will share how they envision the new museum in their lives. Those responses will be come part of a sculptural piece and archived by Sandrow. Another component, Observational Findings,” is a temporary installation of a 19th century display case once owned by Samuel L. Parrish containing objects selected as symbols of the “genius loci” of the museum itself such as photographs from the museum’s early days and found objects unearthed on the grounds of the artist’s studio in Shinnecock Hills (property coincidentally once managed by Samuel Parrish).

Opening weekend for “Genius Loci” will also include “Floored,” a sculptural dance by Elke Luyten and Kira Alker (Friday at 7:45 p.m. and Saturday at 5:45 p.m. in the Contemporary gallery) and “Free Advice” by artist, writer and poet Sur Rodney (Sur) who will take on the role of modern day soothsayer by inviting guests to ask a question which he will answer (he will be stationed in a public area in the museum from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and again Sunday from 11 a.m. to noon.)

Sunday, November 11 will by Fall Family Festival day at the Parrish, with art activities and a 1 p.m. performance by BubbleMania.

The New Parrish Art Museum is at 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill (283-2118). Members are invited to visit the museum beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 10, 2012. The museum will be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Monday. For a full list of opening weekend activities, visit

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