I went back to Dia:Beacon on Sunday, one of those wonderfully clear and bright winter days which New York seems to specialise in. The light was streaming through the huge windows, and the John Chamberlain sculptures literally glowed. All great art benefits from repeated viewing, of course, but there’s something which makes revisiting Dia especially rich for me – maybe its something to do with the sheer simplicity of the works on show there, that you almost can’t believe how much you missed the first few times round.
It’s also weird which works grow on you and which works don’t, so much. Everybody I know who’s been to Dia has been blown away by the Sandbacks the first time they see them. It’s a bit counterintuitive, perhaps: they’re much more subtle than, say, the Heizers or the Serras, but they more than hold their own in comparison.
On repeated revisits, however, I’ve found myself spending less time with the Sandbacks, as though they’ve done pretty much all they’re going to do for me. It’s amazing what you can do with little more than a piece of string, but maybe ultimately it’s limiting as well.
This time around, it was the Richters which I really discovered for the first time. There’s definitely a sense of art overload when you go to Dia the first couple of times, and it’s hard to give the Richters the time and the concentration they deserve. If they were displayed on their own in a little chapel somewhere, you would be forced to sit down and really engage with them; as it is, they’re almost a corridor, something you pass through on your way from Donald Judd to Sol LeWitt.
It was the light which did it. Richter’s work is profoundly genuine, subtle and beautiful: he’s carefully angled a set of six pairs of gray mirror paintings so that they reflect each other, and the clerestory windows above, in different ways. On Sunday, with sharp, direct light creating reflections in reflections in reflections, it was hard not to be awed by the depth and richness of these ostensibly utterly featureless works. When I next go back to Dia, I’ll have a much better idea of what to look for, even if the light isn’t as bright.
In fact, it seems to me now that Richter, more than any other artist at Dia except, perhaps, for Robert Irwin, has really engaged with the space and created something unique and site-specific. On Monday, the day after my trip to Dia, I went along to their Chelsea location to hear the excellent Anglo-American artist and teacher Michael Craig-Martin give a talk on the subject of Donald Judd. Judd’s greatest work is permanently installed in Marfa, Texas, and Craig-Martin made a compelling case that it really engages with the landscape in much the same way as Greek temples did thousands of years ago. Judd’s work is not land art, either in the Richard Long or in the Robert Smithson sense of the word: he’s not making art out of nature. (Quite the contrary: he’s making art out of cast concrete.) Rather, Judd is siting his work very specifically in relation to the Chinati mountains outside Marfa, and setting up a tension and a dialogue in that otherwise featureless landscape.
At Dia:Beacon, which was put together long after Judd’s death, the curators basically had to fit pre-existing works into a brand new space. They did a reasonably good job, but necessarily the work doesn’t articulate and reveal the space in the way that it would had Judd been able to make something specifically for it. The Sandbacks do a better job: they force you to feel yourself walking in and around them and the room in general, and draw the eye up to the intersection between the wall and the ceiling, or down to the small cracks in the poured concrete floor, making you notice architectural features which you’d otherwise ignore. That’s really what this kind of art is all about – creating a heightened awareness of your own surroundings – and I finally realised, on Sunday, how deeply Gerhard Richter really understands the Dia mission.
Most Richters, after all, are relatively conventional paintings – objects to be admired in and of themselves, rather than as a site-specific installation. At Dia, however, Richter places himself much more in the tradition of artists like Robert Irwin and, to a lesser extent, Robert Ryman, by presenting a piece which deals much more with the room itself than with any incident on the surface of the work. The single most important part of the Richter installation, indeed, is the clerestory windows at the top of the gallery space. In contrast, most of the rest of the work at Beacon could quite easily be moved to another museum elsewhere, without losing much if any of its effect. The Sol LeWitt piece is marvellous, of course, and remains my favourite work at Dia, but it certainly doesn’t need to be there as opposed to anywhere else.
At the end of his speech, Craig-Martin talked for a little bit during the Q&A period about the way in which his own work addresses the same sort of questions. If he paints a wall green, he said, all he’s doing is creating a green wall. But if he then puts an image on it, you see the wall better. Craig-Martin’s recent work, he said, is an exercise in trying to replicate the experience of a Judd – directly experiencing the art object in space and time – while at the same time introducing something Judd religiously shunned – the pictorial element. Craig-Martin’s work oscillates between object and picture, in much the same way, I suppose, as Ed Ruscha’s oscillates between painting and word.
Both Craig-Martin and Ruscha, however, can easily be exhibited pretty much anywhere. Give Craig-Martin a gallery space, any gallery space, and he’ll start painting on the walls; his art, once exhibited at Gagosian, can then be sold to a collector and recreated in the buyer’s own home. The work is site-specific, but not uniquely so. Irwin, Judd (at Marfa), and Richter, on the other hand, have created work which really needs to be exactly where it is, otherwise it simply will not work. Marfa’s hard to get to, but Dia isn’t: next time you’re up there, spend a bit of time with the Richters. You might be surprised how good they really are.