Beacon, Barney and Baker

If New York didn’t know about Dia:Beacon

before, surely it does now. A massive Richard Serra piece dwarfs a black-clad

gallery-goer on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, which inside runs

a 6,500-word

opus by Michael Kimmelman all about the Dia Foundation and the new home

for its permanent collection.

The piece is nothing if not gushing: at parts it reads more like a press release

than a critically-reported magazine feature. "The Greatest Generation,"

it’s called on the cover:

The most influential American artists weren’t Pollock or De Kooning. They

were the ones who came next – Minimalists, Conceptualists, Earth artists

– who redefined what art was and who are now, finally, celebrated in

a spectacular new museum.

Granted, probably Kimmelman didn’t write the cover blurb. But he does contrive

to put Dia (and Barnes & Noble) chairman Leonard Riggio in a very favourable

light, despite being confronted with a man whose quotes would be considered

self-parody if he weren’t so serious:

"When Jay Chiat asked me to join the board, I asked the question everybody

asks: ‘What is Dia?’ He told me it had great parties. My epiphany came when

I saw Serra’s ‘Torqued Ellipses.’ I immediately got the idea of the single

artist space, seeing art in its own environment. I just got the concept of

Judd, Flavin and all the others without even seeing their work yet."

One fears to think what Donald Judd would have said about a man who "just

got" his work before seeing any of it, but Kimmelman doesn’t even pause

to catch his breath before Riggio continues, po-facedly glossing some of the

most élitist artists in the history of the world as champions of the


"I went to Marfa and Roden Crater and visited Heizer in Nevada, and

I thought these artists recognized the genius of the average American. Judd

built his museum in a little Texas town. Turrell was hiring Native Americans

from the area. Heizer was working with local people."

Sure, Leonard. Ask the "local people" of Marfa what they think of

Donald Judd. (Be prepared for invective of a vehemence you probably never normally

encounter.) Ask yourself, for one minute, who else Turrell and Heizer

could have been working with, given where they were constructing their projects.

These are great artists, but recognising the genius of the average American

was never what they were about.

Similarly, Kimmelman seems to have written his article not for the general

public, but for a very small number of art-world grandees. The piece concludes

with our intrepid reporter standing in the middle of the new museum, its walls

still bare, the museum director by his side. Here’s what we learn:

To get acclimated to Beacon is to become attuned to an aesthetic of plainspoken

industrial spaces, simple forms and a kind of meditative silence.

Sure, Michael. "Meditative silence" – that’s bound to be what

most of us find when we squeeze through the "tight vestibule like a small

compression chamber" which Robert Irwin has designed as the entrance to

the museum.It’s "akin to the entrance at the Guggenheim in Manhattan,"

we’re told, an entrance which is usually so bottlenecked that a line ends up

running down Fifth Avenue, often stretching around the corner onto

88th Street.

I saw such a line myself on Saturday: I went up to the Guggenheim to check

out the Matthew Barney

show which they have on there at the moment. It opened back in February,

and it’s on until June, but even so, the crowds were huge and the lines for

people to pay their $15 entrance charge long and chaotic. If this is the kind

of response that Matthew Barney gets, imagine what Serra, Judd, Warhol, Heizer

et al will elicit up in Beacon. "Meditative silence"? I think


I saw the Barney show just after finishing A

Box of Matches, the new book by Nicholson Baker, and it’s interesting

to see how one can consider both Barney and Baker to be direct descendants of

the Dia’s artists.

Few, if any, artists were ever self-declared minimalists: no one liked the

term much, and it only really caught on by default because the alternatives

(like "literalism") were even worse. One of the biggest problems with

the name is that it conceals what Kimmelman refers to as the work’s "crazy

scale and wild ambition". These are artists who blast tons of rock, who

change the shape of ancient volcanic craters, who drill holes a kilometer deep

into the Kassel earth, who buy up entire Texan towns: both ego and hubris are

outsized in most of them, from Judd all the way to Serra. Michael Heizer’s 20-foot-deep

holes, lined in Cor-Ten steel, stand in relation to your average Pollock much

as the Pollock would to a Van Gogh. And those holes are as nothing compared

to Heizer’s City.

Matthew Barney is one of the few artists of the next generation to make work

of similar ambition and magnitude. The Cremaster cycle, a series of five films

and associated artworks which rival Wagner’s Ring cycle in length and complexity,

fills essentially all of the Guggenheim. The show isn’t a retrospective, it’s

one work. Ain’t many other artists, of any generation, who need an

entire museum just to show one piece.

Whatever you think of the Cremaster cycle, there’s no denying the way in which

the sheer scale of the work awes the spectator. The production values, as they

say in Hollywood, are about as high as these things get: no starving-artist

cost-cutting here. Walk in to the Guggenheim, and it’s almost as though the

long circular drain running down the museum’s famous spiral was built to collect

not liquid vaseline, but rather the money which is pouring off every surface

in the exhibition.

Meanwhile, Nicholson Baker has taken the simplicity of minimalism, its focus

on the kind of things we normally don’t even bother to see, and transferred

it into print. This is minimalist minimalism, in all senses: the book is very

short, is broken up into tiny little parts, only a few pages each, and is concerned

with the minutiae of life, the kind of things we never stop to think about in

any detail: how we take our pajama bottoms off, or the sequence of actions we

go through when we take a used coffee filter out of the machine in the morning.

Baker also has a nice line in wry punchlines: at the end of one of his finely-observed

and meandering paragraphs, he’ll suddenly come out with a phrase like "no

animal likes to be pecked on the anus by a duck". Here’s an example:

Once I told a doctor from France that I was able to wake myself up at a preset

time with the help of nightmares, and he said that his father had been a soldier

who had taught him that if you want to wake up at, say, five in the morning,

you simply bang your head five times on the pillow before you close your eyes,

and you will wake up at five. "But how do you manage five-thirty?"

I asked the doctor with a crafty look. He said that in order to wake at five-thirty

you just had to do something else with your head, like jut your chin a little,

to signify the added fraction, and your sleeping self would do the math for

you. I’ve tried it and it works except that it’s much harder to go to sleep

because your head has just been hit repeatedly against the pillow.

Most of the time, however, Baker is doing much the same thing that people like

Robert Irwin and John Cage did in the 70s. Irwin would try to focus attention

on elements of a space which are normally ignored; Cage brought to notice the

kind of sounds which were never previously considered eligible to be classed

as music. More generally, all three are concerned with the processes of perception,

and with foregrounding the normally overlooked.

At Dia, Irwin has designed the car park: a characteristically oblique act in

that most people will rush through it on their way to the Serras, barely giving

it a moment’s thought. But it’s good to see that the legacy of minimalism continues

to run both ways, or even more. You could set up a kind of matrix, with a simple/complex

distinction on one axis ranged against an effacement/hubris distinction on the

other. Irwin would be simple effacement; Serra would be simple hubris; Baker

would be complex effacement; and Barney would be complex hubris. At Dia, they

like to keep things simple. Looking at contemporary work, however, it looks

like complexity is more the order of the day.

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3 Responses to Beacon, Barney and Baker

  1. ariana says:

    Wonderful post. I couldn’t agree more with your comments, especially “These are great artists, but recognising the genius of the average American was never what they were about.” Kimmelman certainly waxes rhapsodic about Serra, Judd, et al. – I admit the term “circle jerk” came to mind. And I love the irony of the term “minimalism” used to describe hulking, oversized pieces that fit in few public spaces (except, perhaps, west Texas). All in all, I love Serra’s work, but Kimmelman’s piece is flecked with a few too many disingenuous assertions. Thanks for the post.

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  3. Clint says:

    What’s this vitriol to be expected in Marfa? I’ve been several times, going again this weekend and have never experienced it. They may have thought he was a kook 25 years ago, but the Marfans I’ve met seem to just take it all in stride. Some guy and his boxes are nothing compared to the three generations of goats who have presided as mayor of a town not to far away.

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