The Dia:Beacon Gallery, New York
Richard Serra once said, “I consider space to be a material.” In the case of Dia:Beacon, the primarily Minimalist art collection né box factory, his words ring true. The expansive space located in the upstate New York township of Beacon does not overwhelm the artworks but instead enhances the viewer’s experience of being both with the works and within them. The broad hallways, high ceilings and labyrinthine layout allow visitors to quietly navigate their own route through the impressive collection, underlining the Minimalist phenomenological desire to not just see the works, but experience them.
The Minimalist movement, which rose to prominence in 1960's and 70's America favours reductive visual forms in a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, often making the execution of the work secondary to the idea. For example, many Minimalists artists use utilitarian objects rather than tradition art-making materials in their works, eliminating the hand of the artist. Repetition of form in works is also a common theme, as well as works that make the viewer spatially aware both physically and philosophically. All of these are touched upon one way or another by the stellar roster of artists within Dia:Beacon’s walls.
One of the central pieces upon entering the Riggo Galleries is the site-specific work by Robert Irwin who literally used the space as a material to produce Excursus: Homage to the Square. Mirroring the layout of the architecture with a series of interconnected rooms, Irwin deliberately makes his work navigationally ambiguous, with multiple entries/exits, without a designated beginning or end. The eerie translucent walls allow the LED lights incorporated in the structure to shine through and emphasize its vastness, as well as allowing one to see the spectral shadows of others occupying the space several rooms away.
The light works of Dan Flavin are scattered throughout Dia, including a fluorescent green barricade located in the basement. Instead of creating a harmonic relationship between artwork and space as in Irwin’s work, Flavin disrupts it and the viewer’s path. The abrupt halt to the viewer’s path, the green bulbs as the main source of light and the bare industrial space give it a nefarious quality as if the viewer is about to happen upon something better left unseen. What is seen however is not just the fence-like structure, but also the light that emanates from it and into the surrounding space, again making the environment in which the work is placed as much a part of the work as the lights that illuminate it. This use of environment is a key component of Flavin’s ethos.
The behemoth pieces by Richard Serra are a truly awesome experience. Made of manipulated steel, they stand by themselves and are intimidating in the way they inhabit the space. Viewers can even enter the works themselves and follow the narrow circulating pathways within. With the afternoon sun shining into the warehouse space, walking into a Richard Serra work is experiential. The modulated steel dictates where you step and alternates between closing in on you and closing off the source of light, to expanding into an open space. The nervous sense of encroachment, followed by the relief of an opening demonstrates just how space can be used as a material.
On the opposite side of the galleries, Michael Heizer’s quartet of deep obnubilated abysses North, East, South, West counters the monumental works by Serra. Where Serra creates a space, Heizer creates a void. The works are cordoned off rather than interactive, but instill a sense of the aesthetic sublime in their seemingly infinite depth. Here, it is not space, but its absence, or negative space that is the material. There is comparison to be drawn between these works and the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan in which architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker created two enormous waterfalls in place of the Two Towers, producing an allegory of physical and emotional loss. In Heizer’s work, the loss of space, its scale and the element of the unknown fill the viewer with a sense of endangerment and awe.
Towards the centre of the galleries provides a soothing break from the stark utilitarian qualities of some of her contemporaries. Her measured Neapolitan palette and the soft sfumato of the linear bands indicate the presence of the artist’s hand, typically and deliberately absent from many Minimalist works. The contemplative and habitual application, paired with the abstract subject matter quietly evokes a sense of simply being. Similar to the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, one can sit down and daydream.
Dia:Beacon is a great way to take a pause from New York City life. Even if you or your company is not familiar with the art on display, it is hard not to be drawn in to the experiential nature and scale of the works in the collection. You can start or end your day on the main street of Beacon, which is dotted with lovely vintage and independent clothing stores, as well as several restaurants and a place to stop for ice cream. It's a perfect summer excursion.
Written by Isabella Howard, contributor to Arteviste.
Photographs by Pagan Carruthers