The New Hudson River School

John Haber
in New York City


Dia:Beacon serves as a private foundation, a fabulous museum entirely for late Modernism, a day trip along the very source of American art, and an enclave. Here art too extravagant even for New York can at last find a home. Above all, however, it serves as a manifesto.

This art, Dia declares, has lasted half a century. It still matters, Dia says, and no one who sees it can turn away. Call it Minimalism, if one dares, but do not call it minimal, provincial, or small. It looks great even in the hands of me as photographer, in an accompanying visual tour.

But was Minimalism ever that grand or that pure? Besides, collectors and museum institutions can hardly help making art's purity look suspect. Whenever a private collection becomes a museum, one expects a loaded mix of public and private. When Minimalism goes on display, those two terms get scrambled yet again. With Minimalism, the art object always crosses the boundary between the work and the world. redesign and landscaping by Robert Irwin: Dia:Beacon's Riggio Galleries (photo by Michael Govan, 2003)

Dia's manifesto, then, makes for a thrilling collection, but also for some serious special pleading. Fortunately, the art in Beacon often as not refuses to cooperate with its own deification. It helps visitors, too, regain the courage to talk back.

American masters

The site alone declares America's greatness in a broader world of art. On the way up from New York, one passes not far from the Storm King Arts Center, with its breathtaking view of the Hudson valley and its sculpture from such heirs of Abstract Expressionism as David Smith and Mark di Suvero. A little farther north, F. E. Church built his private castle, as a quirky monument to the Hudson River School. On a hot summer afternoon, the hazy sunlight and gently rounded hills around Beacon look straight out of Sanford Robinson Gifford. On a damp spring day, clouds clung to the mountaintops, the mist dropping from the summits in wisps.

One has almost an hour and a half to study them, too, as the train follows the Hudson. (Hint: grab a left-hand window seat at Grand Central Station.) A slightly older crowd drives over from the nearby suburbs. As if to complete a portrait of late twentieth-century America, the former Nabisco box-printing plant could stand for its vanished workers. Then again, at Dia:Beacon, one sees none of that. It may sit on a hill, only a five-minute walk from the station. Do not, however, expect the view from Beacon to resemble the photograph here, taken from the air.

At Dia the river lies safely and carefully hidden—behind trees, the train tracks, a blank façade, and a garden accessible only from within. One never revels in water, land, and sky. One could almost have entered yet another feature of the nearby towns, a prison. Dia's employees look younger, of course, than most prison guards. In their casual, strictly black uniforms, they could be waiting tables at a downtown club.

Robert Irwin, who planned the site's conversion, built his reputation in California, with clear skies and all but empty installations. They resemble the early video art of another Californian, Paul Kos. Think of what Ilya Kabakov calls The Empty Museum.

Irwin has worked on landscape and architecture in a more traditional sense before as well. He has confronted the Hudson itself, at Wave Hill in the Bronx. Now, at Beacon, he also designs the front garden, with concrete diamonds instead of open lawns. Tufts of grass peek through holes in the grid, as if desperate to escape the symmetry. Only on a second visit did I appreciate how many imperfections he retains. Darker spots stain the hardwood floor, and wall beams share more with the work on display than with a white cube.

Dia's interior picks up the same paradoxical themes—of history and stasis, grandeur and hidden beauties, broken symmetries and obsessive control. From the front desk, one sees walls, but also two enormous galleries for a floor piece by Walter de Maria. They draw ample, indirect sunlight, with overhead windows set to one side, rather than in the soaring lofts and cathedrals of many a Chelsea gallery. Fixed galleries, while placed more or less symmetrically, still tailor each space to its installation. Despite the pristine, climate-controlled rooms, one spots old stains on the polished wood floor and the outline of discarded hardware in the exposed brick walls.

Symmetry breaking

Unlike the grass, I clung to the symmetry for dear life, as the only way to catch all two dozen artists and 300,000 square feet. I held out hope of seeing it in order, up one row and down another. Those walls block the view just enough to give each artist his or her due. At the same time, they leave enough open lines of sight to destroy a single, fixed pathway. Eventually, I gave up and allowed myself to grow lost. Instead of innocence to experience, the ideal visitor grows from reason and anxiety to delirium and delight.

The works reflect the same themes, too. Shadows, by Andy Warhol, repeat a few strong colors and dark patterns—so much stronger and starker than in Warhol Polaroids. The canvases pack the walls tightly, like the ultimate in geometric abstraction. Yet they multiply a single chance shadow, from his studio, into a looming chaos. They look like the marks of erasure of their own beauty. Warhol also leaves the panel order to assistants. Symmetry falls where it may.

Dia loves control freaks—at least when they, too, take chances with chance. Richard Serra recreates his early scatter piece. Shards of rubber carpeting fall every which way, as if to build up the gallery's base while tearing it to shreds. They also restrict one's movements severely. Around the corner, two paired steel curves, joined like the hull of a ship, barely let one navigate the gallery. "This room should be larger," I heard someone say, and I myself half wished for something more "unmonumental."

Sol LeWitt, Hanne Darboven, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, or Bernd and Hilla Becher may set out to catalog all of experience. Others settle for directing it. Lawrence Weiner, in block letters, stencils instructions for paintings and installations that may never exist. I enjoyed the irony that his room has some of the most comfortable seating, so that one can lay back and dream about following his directions.

Bruce Nauman, the master of public confrontation, gets an entire dark basement. He invites you to force yourself down a narrow chamber, with the chance to see yourself on a monitor from the rear, or to pick a seat on bleachers with nothing to cheer. Talk about crowd control. As with the Emily Fisher Landau Center or the Met's display of "The Philippe de Montebello Years," is this what the modern museum meant all along?

Those who know the Dia Art Foundation's other sites, from their beginnings in Heiner Friedrich's early Soho galleries to Donald Judd's wide open spaces in Texas, will recognize the choices. One sees American artists of a certain age set in a broader, international context—a context still very much defined by Minimalism. I had not thought of John Chamberlain and his crushed automobile parts apart from pop culture and expressionist gesture. Yet his long wall, Privet, in its ribbons of color looks equally spare and alive amid works in series. And his floor pieces seem almost to scud across the space like Viking ships. They supply one more link to the painterly sculpture of Frank Stella and Nancy Rubins.

The madwoman and the diaries

Louise Bourgeois plays the madwoman in the attic, upstairs from Serra and Nauman. A survey of the Whitney's past, "Full House," had her disrupting art history back with Abstract Expressionism. Here her steel cage, straddled by six spider legs in bronze, looks ominous, machine made, and contemporary. She comes as late and as naturally to the 1960s as Louise Nevelson. And her neighbors a floor below make a short totem pole of stacked wooden blocks look daringly haphazard, dark, and handmade.

One sees Dia's commitment to long-term exhibitions of large works not easily known to New Yorkers. Naturally de Maria has his space, as with Dia in Soho. Louise Bourgeois's Spider (Dia:Beacon, 1997)Serra's Torqued Ellipses are back on view at last, as are oil-slick murals, face to face along a narrow chamber. Michael Heizer thrusts four steel-lined pits twenty feet into the ground. They turn the expectations of a gallery space and geometric sculpture inside out, as fully as Rachel Whiteread at her best. Earthworks have finally come east, but they or the viewer must have flipped upside-down as part of the trip.

One sees, too, as at Dia's abandoned Chelsea museum, an artist's career in depth. Robert Ryman gets a true retrospective. His four rooms include works in series and single panels. They include Ryman's impasto white oils from before 1960, which turn the bare canvas into another element of color. They include smooth, bolted steel panels—hovering between sheer delight in white paint, painting as revelation of object and process, and old-fashioned sculpture. They even have a few recent works, in which the outline of tape and cast shadows turn fields of white into delicate colors.

I should have expected all that. Maybe, too, I should have expected all but a Museum of Modern Art entirely for Minimalism, but that entails more than I ever knew. I could have imagined Agnes Martin, her canvases as shy and luminous as Ryman's—but not the scope of a collection that allows the display to change over time, as stages in an evolving career. I did not expect so many artists. I did not expect the rooms for the Bechers, Bourgeois, Chamberlain, Martin, Nauman, Ryman, Serra, or Judd to span decades apiece.

With enough false starts and doubling back, I finally covered the main floor, and then I fell into the rooms above and below. And this is where I should give up. I cannot treat a museum like a blockbuster exhibition, not even one dedicated to industrial blocks. I cannot pass judgment on so many careers and enigmatic single holdings.

Perhaps one day I can write about a single room as it deserves. For now, I can only call attention to Dia:Beacon itself—the architecture, the collection, and what they represent. Whenever a private collector declares its holdings a museum, as with the Saatchi collection on London's South Bank, alarm bells sound. Commerce has taken on the aura of tradition. Yet every museum begins in just this way, just as the Guggenheim started when Hilla Rebay taught her patron to advocate Modernism. Dia's choices offer a test case in whether the game of art remains in play.

Minimalism as manifesto

Who cares if I do not appreciate On Kawara or Imi Knoebel? Besides, now I know that Kawara painted each date in the vocabulary of the country where he worked at the time, and he destroyed a work in progress if he could not complete it on that day. He makes the bare fact of language into a diary, not so unlike the traces of perception in Martin or Ryman after all. Who cares if the head critic for The Times calls this America's "greatest generation"? Art history can do without an awards ceremony, inspirational literature, or the trappings of patriotism. Beuys fought on the wrong side from Tom Brokaw anyhow.

The choices do not represent a balanced view of their age, whatever that means. Nor, conversely, do they turn on traditional justifications or contemporary critiques of the museum and art history. Critics have done well to explore museums, markets, and Modernism as institutions. They have focused on power and interconnections. Meanwhile, shows at the old and new MoMA and other museums have helped bring attention to multiple, conflicting histories. Dia:Beacon, in contrast, believes in objectivity—art's and its own.

Modernism left a trail of movements and manifestos. In his first manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton asserted a "superior reality," where dreams have "supreme authority." Dia:Beacon, too, is out to define a movement, as Breton put it, "once and for all." For Breton, "whatever thought dictates to us is to be immune from conscious control by our reason." In its own way, Dia:Beacon obliges the visitor to surrender control. Where the Modern offers a linear arrangement of galleries and masterpieces, Dia makes it impossible to follow a time line or to see the art without losing one's way.

Manifestos, then, link Dia's view of the recent past firmly to Modernism. Manifestos naturally mean a bias as well, a strong point of view. They force one to check one's own ideas at the door. They can also make for bravura curating. Only later will one remember all that they leave out. The youngest artist at Beacon, Vera Lutter, had turned forty when she documented the site itself before Irwin's renovation. In more than one sense, the selection excludes the present.

Dia's choices hinge on an ideal of obsession and control, a history of great white artists with no room for, say, Martin Puryear or Melvin Edwards. Instead of wall labels, which could enter and disturb the work, Dia places excellent explanatory notes by each room, the kind that supply a history and real insights rather than empty praise. If one returns the plastic sheet facing the wrong way, the staff instantly sets it right. Still believe in freedom and accidents—or even, like Richard Tuttle, changing an installation from day to day? As Nauman puts it with one title, Fat Chance John Cage.

One sees an emphasis on European art that may surprise visitors expecting a paean to American high Modernism. One will not see many artists with a lighter, quirkier touch, such as Tuttle, Dorothea Rockburne, or Eva Hesse. A few rooms do change from time to time, but just few enough to imply a static view of the past. They also align the ratio of permanent collection and temporary exhibitions with that of other major museums. On my second visit, I caught a glimpse of installations in progress by Warhol and Louise Lawler. Fat chance, appropriation artists. Dia prefers monumental chances.

Giving in

As with its Hudson River setting, all this places art in tradition, like a textbook too heavy to carry to class. The artist speaks, the art object sits still, and the viewer takes it all in. Minimalism, in short, looks an awful lot like art. It looks like painting and sculpture, even when it consists of Serra's trash or, for Robert Smithson, a hall of mirrors, salt, and rubble. Here entropy follows not just the laws of physics, but a higher law as well.

On the other hand, as with its enclosed setting, Dia:Beacon places art as an ideal, outside of time. It accepts change, like the tufts of grass, because it transcends change. Rooms, as for Chamberlain or Ryman, often place side by side works created twenty-five years apart. The works look more subtle and timeless, like variations on a theme, but they eliminate an artist's own history or place. Dia always fears change, in fact. At de Maria's New York Earth Room, in Soho, the staff works hard to keep living things from growing. Here one does best to defer an encounter with de Maria's central floor sculpture until later, so that it serves first as a point of orientation for other, repeated discoveries, rather than a deadening mall.

I believe in other views of Minimalism, encounters that expand the work to enter the visitor's space, time, perception, and experience. I have walked on floor pieces by Carl Andre in Soho. Here, one cannot touch the art—or even enter the space of de Maria's silvery circles and squares. In early work by Dan Flavin, the fluorescent bulbs tilt casually, barely disturbing the wall, while their light fills the room—a far cry from the mind-boggling LED art of Jessica Bronson. Dia picks instead the Monuments to V. Tatlin, laid out as a formidable, solid fixture along a zigzag partition. As officially modern as their title, the thirty-two vertical arrangements of white tubes resemble the Empire State Building with a herd instinct.

Dia's choices help a great deal when one might easily underestimate an artist's commitment to stasis, surely a hallmark of what a legendary exhibition called "Primary Structures." Fred Sandback uses fuzzy threads to trace large rectangles of empty space, an obvious influence on such emerging artists as Jonah Groeneboer. For the first time, I could experience them as slabs of color carving the very shape of a room. I stepped into them with the sensation that I had somehow passed through a solid wall. Blinky Palermo always strikes me as Ellsworth Kelly with a short attention span. Here his few tones give rise to more color than I expected.

A more complex painter like Gerhard Richter fared less well on my first visit. On a second trip, I marveled at the thick, gray glass posing as mirrors onto on a more pertinent reality. They function at any given moment as painting, as sculpture, or as architecture. The reflections displace the windows above into yet another luminous but austere geometry. And how many museums or even galleries still afford that kind of semi-private experience, that close encounter with art? One really does return to the 1970s, before the commercial pressures of art now.

The choices can put anyone off, but admit it: they preserve art for oneself and others. Each artist surrenders control to the work, and ultimately I surrendered, too. In their first Chelsea exhibition, Serra's Torqued Ellipses felt like a fantastic public space for children to play, and a later exhibition grew more dangerously public, like a maze. Here I met up alone with the edge of rusted steel, and I came to know four different notions of enclosure. One follows the spiral into a fearful or comforting private chamber, at the price of giving into it. And one does.

A brief postscript: On February 20, 2007, Dia hired a new director, Jeffrey Weiss, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, to replace Michael Govan, who had departed for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Weiss soon left, and on June 23, 2008, Dia announced that it had hired Philippe Vergne, deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

BACK to John's arts home page

Dia:Beacon opened to the public May 18, 2003, and I first visited in late June. I have now incorporated a number of impressions from other visits. Along with past shows reviewed on this Web site, I allude to Dan Flavin's exhibition at Paula Cooper through June 30, 2003. Related reviews return to Dia:Beacon for a retrospective of Carl Andre and an installation by Richard Irwin. I offer a visual tour of the space and the collection as well.


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