I went up to Dia:Beacon last month,
and wrote it up for Loft
magazine, available in English at all good Miami newsstands. For those of you
without easy access to a Miami newsstand, however, here’s the article: enjoy!
Since long before the Guggenheim Museum single-handedly revitalised the entire
Basque economy with its Gehry-designed, titanium-clad outpost in Bilbao, it
has been an article of faith among museum directors that new art galleries have
to make a splash. Whether it was Renzo Piano and Norman Foster in Paris or James
Stirling in Stuttgart, architecture has long trumped art: the thing you most
remember after visiting these places is the building, not its contents. Eventually
the process reached its logical conclusion when crowds lined up around the block
to view Daniel Libeskind’s new – and empty – Jewish Museum
But that is all in the past. To see the future, you need to travel 80 minutes
up the Hudson River from New York City, to the characterful if crumbling town
of Beacon. Built on light-industrial manufacturing and long in decline, Beacon
has suddenly become revitalized by the construction and opening of the world’s
biggest museum of contemporary art.
Dia:Beacon breaks all the rules. For one thing, no big-name architect is claiming
credit for it; for another, it’s all but invisible from any direction
until you’re more or less on top of it. The views you remember after a
visit there are not from the outside looking in, but rather from the inside
looking out: standing in a gallery full of John Chamberlain sculptures, with
the verdant riverside forest visible through the characterful old windows which
let in more light than you’ve ever experienced in an art museum before.
Direct sunlight has historically been the enemy of fine art, which can be damaged
by unfiltered ultraviolet radiation. But Dia has an art collection full of pieces
made of steel, glass or string, and these – impervious to light damage
– have never looked better than they do here.
The centerpiece of the collection is a series of monumental sculptures by Richard
Serra, installed where the rail sidings used to be – Dia:Beacon is housed
in a converted Nabisco packaging factory. Serra has bent and torqued enormous
slabs of Cor-Ten steel into previously unimagined forms, and the unidirectional
light coming from the high windows causes them to cast dramatic shadows on themselves
which change in subtle and unexpected ways over the course of the hours and
months. Serra’s most recent sculpture, 2000, takes the visitor on a spiral
journey into a light-and-dark-filled inner sanctum with walls the color and
texture of ancient sandstone. A sign at the entrance to the gallery admonishes
visitors to “please do not touch the artworks,”but everybody does:
they have no choice, in fact, given the narrowness of some of the steel corridors
into which they are forced.
Dia is full of such pieces: works which engage the body of the viewer, rather
than just his eye or brain. Fred Sandback, for instance, uses the simplest possible
means – lengths of acrylic yarn -– to literally carve out spaces
in the gallery. You walk up to them and then you walk through them: almost as
if you’ve become a ghost who can walk through walls. The feeling is one
of heightened sensitivity: suddenly cracks in the poured-concrete floor take
on a sculptural significance.
The idea of art residing not in a single object but rather in the way that a
viewer experiences a space is common to many of the artworks at Dia. Robert
Ryman, for instance, has taken his paintings – which started off as more-or-less
conventional oil on canvas – and both pared them down and expanded them,
so that distinctions between the painting, the wall on which it is mounted,
and the gallery space in which the wall is contained all start to blur in to
each other. And Robert Irwin, who was one of the first artists to explore such
boundaries of what could and couldn’t be considered art, has worked entirely
outside the formal gallery space altogether, landscaping Dia’s gardens
and car park.
Meanwhile, Walter De Maria has a series of highly poliched stainless steel squares
and circles running in parallel down the length of two long, long galleries.
Most visitors don’t spend much time with them, but in a sense that doesn’t
matter: even if they don’t consciously realise that the forms get slightly
bigger or smaller, nearly all the people who visit Dia will on some kind of
level get a frisson of distorted perspective.
Such works change the whole experience of museum-going: rather than simply walking
around looking at paintings on walls, Dia’s patrons become that much more
highly attuned to everything around them, even when they leave the gallery entirely.
This is what happens when artists, rather than architects, take control of a
Dia spent a lot of time and money making sure that the necessary infrastructure
of a modern art museum was invisible to the visitor. “A lot of expense
went into making it look like the building was a raw, mechanical structure,”
says Michael Govan, Dia’s director. Govan likens the roof of the gallery
to a computer chip: in order to maintain the cleanliness of the gallery spaces,
all the pipes, wires and whatnot got bumped up top. “The idea was that
it would have that simplicity and calm and light and space,” he says –
and it does. Such simplicity doesn’t come cheap: Dia:Beacon cost more
than $57 million to construct and renovate, even after having been given the
building for free by International Paper, its most recent owner. The amount
is pretty reasonable on a per-square-foot basis (there are 240,000 square feet
of exhibition galleries alone), but Govan would still take it as a compliment
to be told that it doesn’t feel like $57 million has been spent here.
You’re not meant to admire the architecture: you’re meant to admire
And there’s a lot of art to admire, arranged in rooms which were designed,
mostly, with the active cooperation and involvement of the artists concerned.
Every artist gets his or her own space or spaces, which means that there’s
almost nothing in the way of curatorial mischief. (The closest Dia comes is
probably placing an early Richard Serra scatter piece right next to Joseph Beuys,
emphasizing how similar these titans of European and American contemporary art
So Richard Serra divides up the gallery into narrow, claustrophobic spaces filled
with massive works; Gerhard Richter installs a series of gray mirrors underneath
a clerestory of skylights; and Louise Bourgeois retreats, insect-like, to the
attic, where she installs one of her trademark spiders, as well as a haunting,
darkened shrine full of sexual menace.
But interestingly, often it’s the dead artists who come off the best.
Dan Flavin’s huge series of fluorescent-light “monuments”
are stunning in the daylight next to a window-filled wall, while painting cycles
from both Blinky Palermo and Andy Warhol sit simply and beautifully under the
natural light of Dia’s north-facing sawtooth skylights.
Living artists like Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin, on the other hand, seem to
have done their best work in the early 60s, near the beginning of their careers,
and have indulged their freedom to exhibit what they want by showing too much
of their weaker, later pieces.
But that’s the way that Dia works, and is meant to work. Dia was founded
to be, and remains, a place which supports a few artists in an extremely generous
manner – hence the fact that this enormous museum houses the work of just
24 artists. The vast majority are going to be here permanently: if you come
back in 20 years’ time, this place will look much the same as it does
now. It’s the kind of legacy most artists can only dream of, especially
when they themselves are involved in every aspect of the installation of their
For Dia takes the historical perspective: Govan points out that Walter De Maria’s
Lightning Field – another Dia project – has been seen by some 15,000
people since its installation near Quemado, New Mexico, in 1977, despite only
a handful ever experiencing it at any one time. He’s therefore comfortable
not spending any money on advertising, since over a period of decades it’s
inevitable that a huge number of people are going to pass through his doors.
Here’s one man refreshingly free of the feed-the-masses culture seen at
places like the Guggenheim or the Tate – a museum director who seems genuinely
not to care how many people visit his flagship venue. “Whether it’s
50,000 or 200,000 people a year,” he says, “is not really a huge