Number 9. Dia: Beacon

Published by Bridge Apulia USA N.9, 2003

Having lived many years in New York City, I am accustomed to the visual challenges that this metropolis is constantly offering. Modern art museums, in particular, have competed to offer the greatest impression on the visitor, by proposing ever-different environments for their exhibits. One of these settings is the partially restructured, antiquated factory. It appeared at first as a variation of the artists’ studios that had blossomed in the lofts derived by dismantled plants. The Minimalist movement, specifically, welcomed it because of its large spaces and unusual lighting conditions.

To create a larger adaptation of these galleries or museums in a country setting seemed almost an unrealizable project. After all, who would spend over an hour of train ride to reach a museum that copycats, even if at a larger scale, the preexisting ones of Manhattan? The creators of this new temple of the arts had something else in mind, though.

Arriving in Beacon, a marginal, sleepy town approximately 63 miles from midtown Manhattan, you would expect to find the seclusion that one strives for when visiting such areas. The vast open spaces of the Dia: Beacon Riggio Galleries, 240,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, could not be considered crowded unless an army of invaders would decide it to make it its primary target. Somehow, though, it is atypical, almost bizarre, that the sensation of visiting a NYC museum was in essence recreated in this outlying village, together with the uninterrupted flow of visitors of all ages.

The entry is impressive. A small, darker atrium leads to a vast series of galleries, brightly illuminated by a myriad of skylights, The first room visible is empty, but for a cycle of sculptures by the famed artist Walter De Maria. A twosome formed by a square and a circle having the same areas and raising above the floor only a couple of centimeters or so is replicated six times, each time in a slightly diminished size from the precedent, placing it at a distance equivalent to the sum of the previous two sculptures. The effect that these sculptures would like to obtain on the visitors would be of a gentle visual distortion. What really ensues is that this room appears gargantuan in its deceptive emptiness.

After such a jolt, no surprise should be possible. Even in this, though, I had to amend my thoughts. As an art critic who, as a rule, spurned the Minimalism movement and its works, I can assure you that my experience with these generally uncluttered areas was inspiring and mortifying at the same time.

Placed in the spatial context they deserved, these artistic creations finally seem to express the inspired emotions of their creators. Not anymore constrained in the narrow accommodations of the urban galleries, some of the works project a sculptural implication that could not be evaluated previously. They have a deliberate, cathartic impact on the disinclined admirer, producing visual alterations that range from the inability to calculate the distance to full blast optical illusions. In one case, where the walls of a sculpture (Torqued Ellipse II, by Richard Serra) appear to collapse on the daring visitor who entered its realm, disorientation is the most probable outcome. Some, unfortunately, retain their somber lack of esthetics, typical of the Minimalists.

The genius behind the conception of the Dia:Beacon is not so much in having chosen a well-balanced array of artists, but in having allowed, for the most part, an ample breathing space around the artworks, which generates a response of its own. The observer is therefore absorbed as much by the apparently neutral surroundings as he or she is by the works. The artistic production, more often than not, integrates itself with the locale, producing a thoroughly studied, desirable ambiance. Just as the proper frame emphasizes the chromatic equilibrium of a painting masterpiece, the appropriate balance between the lighting, whether it is natural or artificial, and the quarters in which the artwork is located, decides toward the likelihood of being recognized as the artist desired. Most of the works present in this original museum find a suitable environment and convince the viewer that proportions and textures may be filtered in many different ways and, therefore, beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder.

What I find odd is that an artist can produce such dissimilar works, in terms of quality and esthetics, that one may not recognize the artifacts as originating from the same person. Richard Serra, for example, offers magnificent, colossal, contorted sculptures, which are reminiscent of abstract art in spite of the seeming simplicity of their geometrical forms. In the next rooms, the visitors look upon his other “art” with a puzzled expression and leave almost in disappointment. If the artist intended to portray a room after some careless contractor’s visit, he definitely achieved it. The problem with it, and for that matter also with the works by Robert Smithson and Imi Knoebel, is that the installers decide the position of the components to their liking. Notwithstanding the disputable validity of the composition, no accurate replication of the original project may be obtained. Is the artist really the author? They seem to be more ideas, concepts, rather than artistic creations. Interesting, yes, even original, but somehow more aimed at being a challenge to the accepted art canons than becoming an artwork themselves.

Another artist who offers works of very different significance is the abstract sculptor John Chamberlain, legendary for his utilization of crushed automobile parts. Although most of his sculptures have a solid, well-balanced effect on the onlooker, some fade in undesirable anonymity, even in such a marvelous setting.

When visiting the area purportedly dedicated to the composition “North, East, South, West”, by Michael Heizer, a very awkward situation arises due to the presence of protective plastic barriers, conveniently placed at a distance. In all honesty, the disappointment of not being able to perceive the 20-feet depth of the gigantic, geometrically shaped craters, or displacements as cited by the catalog, is balanced by the awareness of the possibility of injury, in the event of too close a proximity to their edges. Still, the desire to witness such an original, though not unique, the artwork is strangely compelling for someone who, until few hours before, had the conviction that art needed to follow certain guidelines and that this artistic movement did not meet them. When they chose the name Dia (Greek for “through”), the founders, Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich, definitely had in mind people’s reactions to these presentations.

Andy Warhol’s single work, originally composed by 102 individual canvases with the same enigmatic images, colored in varied shades and tonalities, is restricted slightly in number by the wall space availability (really!), but even so, it conveys an unmistakable message of solidity in its chromatic variations of the duplicating images. Even Warhol, in a sporadic, noncommercial urge, described it as simply “a photo of a shadow in my studio”. Positively a decorative, pleasing and convincingly Pop Artwork, Warhol’s compositional elements differ quite clearly, as does the work by Blinky Palermo, from the remaining exhibited artists because of the dazzling use of the colors.

The works by Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, though not necessarily for their choice of subjects, are very brilliant. The brilliance lays in their use of white and off white tints in an all-embracing distinction from the white walls. While Martin attempts to justify her work by filtering shades and gentle lines across her paintings, Ryman tries instead to define its work by the existence of a wood border to the underlying canvas’ structure!  This artistic pretense undoubtedly defies even the most genuine gullibility. All I can surmise is that most viewers will not be sophisticated enough to understand the “contrast” of white on white.

In a separate gallery, upstairs, one can find various works by Louise Bourgeois. This very active and creative nonagenarian is more of a surrealist than a minimalist. Her best work, Spider, a five-meter tall metal sculpture, is located purposely in a dimly lit section, offering the full power of its gloom. Her other works range in media from a tenebrous marble to a shimmering brass and are produced with an intellectual coherence that only an artist of her caliber may possess. On the other hand, her evident obsession with phallic symbols seems to illustrate a possible trauma from her early years. You can also capture the unresolved issues with her father’s authoritative manners in one particular work, “The Destruction of the Father”. Don’t expect to come away unscarred from this viewing experience.

Bruce Nauman’s installations occupy the lower level, a shadowy, open area. The fascinating experience of pacing through his works is vaguely evocative of a visit to a science museum, where the interactive displays often defy human perception.

Hanne Darboven’s monumental Kulturgeschicte 1880-1983, with all the respect that a work of this dimension deserves, if anything at least for the effort, is more of an illustrative project than an artwork. The impact of viewing 1,590 framed sheets pasted orderly, one after the other, in a compulsive filling of every little inch of wall, is a visual occurrence to be experienced. Stamp collectors will appreciate it even more for its daunting similarity to a “collecting album” page assortment.

The appealing formations of colorful lengths of yarns by Fred Sandback are impressive because of their ethereal qualities. They are lines of inconsistencies defining geometrical nonentities, surrounding and penetrating the spaces in an everlasting sensation of serenity. It is such a shame that the artist took his life on June 23rd of this year. He surely will be missed.

I have to confess that the works of Weiner and Kawara did not particularly impress me. There may be a factual meaning to word representation, but where is the individuality of the art piece? Do they constitute eccentricity or talent? I opt for the former.

Bernd And Hilla Becher’s photographic record of industrial architecture is attention-grabbing and rational in its aseptic approach. Joseph Beuyes’ photographs are more intimate and significant in the emotional bearing on the viewer.

Sol LeWitt’s opus is suggestive of abstract expressionists’ early works, with a twist toward linearity and a rebuttal of any chromatic experimentation.

Gerard Richter’s site-specific work consists of six four-meter-square dark mirrors, hanging obliquely from the walls. They offer a complex of reflections that bestow a distinct, dreamy character to the room.

Although celebrated in his times, Dan Flavin seems to have created pleasant compositions with commercial fluorescent tubes that would be more appreciated as front windows’ compositions for an upscale department store than artistic, identifiable and inimitable pieces. The effect on the visitor, though, because of the spatial context into which it is inserted, is mesmerizing and worth the visit.

Dia has launched an educational program in September 2003 with Beacon’s Rombout Middle School, combining writing and personal expression with visits to the Riggio Galleries, focusing on “learning to look”. I am certain that this program will be more than successful. The only objection to the visits of such young students is the risk of possible “accidents” in the areas occupied by Robert Smithson’s works, where the media and the positioning of such works is an open invitation to a dare.

Dia:Beacon Riggio Galleries is undeniably the artistic equivalent of a theme park, with an emphasis on luminosity, visual expansion and spatial methodology that allows the interested visitor to appreciate artwork that normally he would neither view nor be acquainted with.


Dia:Beacon is a museum for Dia Art Foundation’s renowned but rarely seen permanent collection of art from the1960s to the present

Opened on May 18, 2003, the museum is located in an historic steel, concrete and glass industrial building, designed by Nabisco’s staff architect Louis N. Wirshing.  Its most recent owner, International Paper, donated the structure to Dia Art Foundation in 1999.  Leonard Riggio,  founder of Barnes & Noble, and his wife Louise, after whom the galleries are named, made possible the founding of this museum through their philanthropy. Dia:Beacon Riggio Galleries is a five-minute walk from the MetroNorth  train station in Beacon, New York .

For the prospective visitor that is not familiar with this type of installations, mostly minimalist, conceptual and abstract, it is suggested to visit the Dia:Beacon web site before visiting the museum (