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
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
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.