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

in Berlin.

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

the art.

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

really were.)

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

own work.

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


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4 Responses to Dia:Beacon

  1. a says:

    is Loft published and distributed only in Miami.

  2. Felix says:

    I believe so, yes — at least in English. In Spanish, it’s available across large swathes of Latin America, as I understand it.

  3. Susan says:

    Yes, I agree that “The views you remember after a visit there are not from the outside looking in, but rather from the inside looking out…” The windows in the space are beautiful, they are multi-panaled wherehouse windows, a frosted border framing each panel, so you don’t get an entirely clear view of what is outside, only little peeks here and there–it makes the nature outside look like a piece of artwork–a kaleidescope of trees and sunlight.

  4. Karen Moss says:

    This is a wonderful review. I will tell my friends and art lovers to read it. My husband and I were so moved by the New Dia- the building, the light and the way the art was displayed (except for Louise Bourgeois) that we decided to buy a house in the town. Its a five room Victorian- walking distance from the DIA, galleries and shops on Main street. We have done some restoration on it and it is now available for rent. Please contact us if you know anyone who wants to be part of the new Beacon art scene. We live in Brookline, MA for now.You can see a photo of the house on this site: New York North Arts. Then click on Happenings at top menu.

    Thanks for spreading the word.

    Karen Moss and Dennis Livingston

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