PRINT September 2003


VASTNESS IS THE QUALITY THAT CHIEFLY DEFINES ITS CHARACTER: The white, daylight-filled interior of the new Dia facility at Beacon is so expansive that, at first, the very notion of “interior” hardly even seems to apply. To enter is to be transformed from visitor into rapt beholder, all agog in stunned silence and quasi-agoraphobic awe. It could be said that the name dia, a Greek word that translates as “through,” has, in a manner of speaking, become doubly allegorical: Originally devised to characterize the institution as a selfless agent for the ideals and ambitions of the art, it is also now an inadvertent figure for open space. Indeed, a thematics of space subtending a postwar narrative of the studio and the gallery is internal to the emergence of Dia and its apotheosis in upstate New York.

Beacon is a stunning accomplishment—and an unlikely one. In an era when the museum community appeals increasingly to expansionist commercial values, building trophy buildings for art they do not have and playing to the market for popular entertainment while original mission statements and philosophical standards circle the bowl, Dia, now in its second generation of leadership, has more or less preserved an uncompromising commitment to art on art’s own demanding terms. The ambition requires resources. These are the people responsible for maintaining The New York Earth Room and The Broken Kilometer, two important works from the late ’70s by Walter De Maria that occupy what must, by practical museum standards, be judged to represent a colossal waste of Manhattan real estate. If, at times, members of Dia have seemed to resemble a priestly court of entranced true believers, it is the sacred rhetoric of the early founders, beginning with German art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil, that has perhaps preserved their lofty intentions. Long depleted of family cash, Dia’s high-mindedness has now been salvaged—thanks to heroic fund-raising efforts—by enormous infusions of money from private benefactors and foundations (this, in turn, has further inspired some substantial public support). The result, at Beacon, was never intended to be a museum in the conventional sense: Collecting activity is fairly restricted and holdings will not significantly exceed what can be shown. Instead, much of Beacon was designed and constructed as a quasi-permanent home for specific, single large-scale works or small bodies of work by individual artists. This is, of course, anathema to a good deal of contemporary museum programming not only because it means that quality of experience must be derived through ample quantities of patience but also because returning visitors will encounter . . . exactly what they beheld the time before. In other words, while Dia seeks to make the work available to the public, it does not measure its success through levels of attendance. Tellingly, Friedrich is fond of comparing early art projects sponsored by the foundation to decorated Italian Renaissance chapels, permanent sites that are the object of repeated visits. The metaphor is aptly flawed: Chapels are functional sacred spaces served by the art, and only in a secular age would pilgrimage-like visitation be largely motivated by the art itself. It is, in fact, to installation art, broadly defined, that Dia is devoted above all, and this historical reversal of values—transforming art into site—is enacted at Beacon in an inadvertently complex way.

The facility at Beacon is a converted printing plant. As such, it belongs to the postwar art-world phenomenon of the reclaimed industrial space, which has a specific history. Long familiar now from the galleries of SoHo and Chelsea in Manhattan, the broad span and shedlike interior of the factory or warehouse have represented the defining coordinates for art since around 1960, especially in the United States. Buildings of this kind were first settled by the artists themselves, for whom the early-century manufacturing spaces and machine shops that had been abandoned during periods of economic relocation came to serve as the ideal (large, cheap) setting for a working studio loft. Originally necessitated by both a need for space and a lack of resources and settled more or less as is, such facilities are now appropriated and renovated by major architects and designers for formerly undreamt-of sums. But the industrial space—and, specifically, the reclaimed site, once derelict or abandoned—has become as much an ideological domain as a merely convenient physical plant. In the urban setting (prior at least to the phenomenon of the SoHo boutique), such places occupy what, to draw on a poetics of modernist melancholy that dates back to the era of the buildings themselves, Guillaume Apollinaire called the “zone”: an in-between province of open space, labor, depopulated nights, and not a small amount of lumpen ennui. Apollinaire’s referent was collage, with its stuck-on fragments of yesterday’s newspaper and cheap faux bois and its resemblance to poster hoardings on broad boulevards. One related but distinguishing quality of the generation of 1960 is an art produced from industrial or building materials that are marshaled but otherwise untransformed—found materials, but more specifically ones that could also be described as surplus, residual, or left behind: Carl Andre’s bricks; Robert Morris’s thread-waste and felt; Robert Smithson’s broken glass; Richard Serra’s rubber and lead (Serra actually manufactured residue and waste when he threw molten lead into the corners of a Castelli warehouse in 1968). Even Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes, which were, after all, purchased new from suppliers and hardware stores on Canal Street, endowed his work—or so the artist sometimes remarked—with a life span that does not exceed that of the fixture, although museums and collectors now routinely replace faltering lamps. Figured by the way in which so much of the work spreads itself out along the floor, the anti-apotheosis of industrial informe is the scatter piece, in which gravity is the primary agent and gravitas literally derives from this pull. This kind of work is now associated with the category of process art, although the rudimentary procedures (which include chance) and the raw, often leftover materials add up to a genus that might more accurately be referred to as demotic materialism.

The physical nature of the industrial site itself was specifically suited to the way in which new art wanted to inhabit space. In fact, if Dia is understood to embody a unifying aesthetic vision, then it is because the shared character of much of the work that has been assembled at Beacon is premised on a distinct experience of space and time—specifically, on an encounter in real space from which a slow, ultimately attenuated experience of temporality is drawn. The ambient light and seriality of Flavin’s Tatlin monuments; repetition and difference in Andy Warhol’s “Shadow” paintings (1978–79); permutation and interval in Donald Judd’s progressions and plywood boxes; Robert Ryman’s work, in which process is dissociated from image or allusion and speaks in a dilated present tense; Michael Heizer’s shaped abysses, which plunge through the floor (North, East, South, West, 1967/2002); the winding and unwinding spatial phenomenology of Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses”; Fred Sandback’s ambient diagrams; Gerhard Richter’s huge gray panels (divided into pairs by Newmanesque zips), which reflect the gallery, the spectator, and each other in their polished surfaces (Six Gray Mirrors, 2003). These are works with which we share occupancy and duration in the physical confines of the room. In the projected environment of Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001, which might, at first, seem to stand apart, Bruce Nauman both portrays and actualizes real space through a deadpan, disembodied surveillance-tape meditation on anticipation, absence, and elapsed time—ultimately, on death.

None of this is strictly programmatic at Beacon. Rationalizing the complete list of who’s in and who’s out is not always easy. On Kawara and Hanne Darboven, among other Conceptual artists, bear a distant relationship to the fold through temporal strategies that have been embedded more in language than in form. Showing Louise Bourgeois in this company is, however, simply mysterious, while the omission of Carl Andre and Mel Bochner, among others, is inexplicable. Important gray paintings by Cy Twombly, once in Dia’s hands and acutely relevant to the core works at Beacon, are now at the Menil Collection in Houston. Joseph Beuys’s vast stacks of felt and base metal hide out in Beacon at the back of the building like a lurking alchemical presence from the Old World; a separate Beuysian strain is represented by former students Imi Knoebel and Blinky Palermo (Beuys and Palermo were both original to early Dia). The conceit of the selfless conduit notwithstanding, Dia has always been as much subjected to—and shaped by—individual taste and the opportunism of the acquisition process as any collector or collecting institution, and some of the choices that have been made clearly reflect generational biases, perhaps even a deliberate move into new areas. But the genre of work to which Dia’s institutional identity remains almost constitutively attached draws from the founders’ European fascination with American art in American space. That vision is primarily fulfilled at Beacon—and it is one that is both historically and allegorically incarnated by the site.

Go back to the idea of expansiveness and the shadow life of the industrial shed as a once-derelict site. Yawning quantities of actual and mythological space have occupied the center of American postwar culture since Charles Olson’s Melville, and physical reach has been inseparable from the space of the land. Indeed, for the generation of 1960, Land art, even more than the Minimal or post-Minimal art of New York and Los Angeles, signaled the ultimate move. Two of Dia’s original artists, Heizer and De Maria, have produced (or are continuing to produce) enormous works in the desert Southwest under Dia’s auspices, as is James Turrell (another conspicuous absence at Beacon), whose Roden Crater project—the conversion of an extinct volcano in Arizona—is being supported partly through the efforts of the foundation. And Judd (Dia’s Melville) fled the city for the Texas desert, where, in the town of Marfa, he achieved the perfect nesting of interior and exterior space by acquiring and converting abandoned warehouses and army barracks—shed spaces—in order to show work on a vast scale, finally installing pieces on the land itself, under the open sky. What the desert and the factory or related structures share, of course, is availability; but they also possess in common a peculiar sort of emptiness, one that is tough and uninhabited or remote, now intractable to all but the sublime—or, in the case of the interior space, intimations of the sublime. Something like this was proposed by Tony Smith’s memory of a night drive on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, a memory that dates to the early ’50s but was claimed by Michael Fried in 1967 (in “Art and Objecthood,” his critique of literalism and theatricality in Minimal art) as a key text for the characterization of ’60s aesthetic space. Without the aid of lights, lines, or railings, Smith’s drive—at least in the telling—emerged as an encounter with a species of space that seemed culturally unprecedented (previously unavailable in art, perhaps signaling the “end of art”), and he likened it to later experiences of abandoned airstrips in Europe and his apprehension of overwhelming vastness at a drill ground in Nuremberg. What is historically important here (and generationally so, although Smith was significantly older than Judd and his contemporaries) is not only the awesomeness of these “artificial” landscapes, as he described them, but, especially in a postwar context, the significance of desolation: the unfinished and—a word Smith chose to repeat and thereby emphasize—the abandoned.

We might want to pursue other tropes for Beacon. The Crystal Palace comes to mind, but the implication of commerce and populism is all wrong. Spread out, formal, rarefied, exquisitely well-groomed, and separated from the capital (so to speak) by a one-hour excursion into the countryside, Dia—where artists become its artists—is closer to the palace at Versailles. Yet, if the industrial plant at Beacon represents found space as a setting and a medium for art after 1960, then it does so through a spare, bright white conversion. In this way, like so many other reclaimed structures of the past decade or two (including Mass MoCA and the exhibition hall at Schaffhausen, which shows mostly American art of the Dia generation), Beacon also recalls us to the “white cube.” This was Brian O’Doherty’s now classic designation, some twenty-five years ago in this journal, for the modern gallery space, which he was the first to describe as an ideological space distinguished by a placeless “eternity of display.” The white cube, to paraphrase O’Doherty, draws its optical mystique (clean, unshadowed, artificial) from the shallow picture plane of the modernist and late-modernist works it contains, which confirmed the autonomy of the wall. Not a small amount of the Beacon facility has, in fact, been left in a fairly raw state by Robert Irwin, who led the design team that executed the conversion. Most of Serra’s work inhabits rooms and hangars of concrete and brick; the same is true for Beuys; Nauman (of course) occupies the subconscious lower level, a vast, murky, unrefined basement space. But the rest of Beacon is implanted with white galleries, which parcel the open space of the printing plant into domesticated rooms. If O’Doherty was right, the walls of the white cube behave like a membrane through which, for example, aesthetic and commercial values enact an “osmotic exchange.” Dia:Beacon inevitably possesses the double identity of a found space and a placeless one; its transaction, which occurs between the abandoned shed and the disembodied preserve, presupposes the loomings and leavings of the vast derelict interior and the necessary paradox (as we move beyond the shed to the desert, the crater, and The Lightning Field) of an uncollectible art.

Jeffrey Weiss is curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.