Destination Dia: Beacon

Text by Franklin Melendez

As the hard New York skyline is dissolved into a soft geometry by the train’s steady movement, one can’t help but develop an increasing awareness of passing through space and time. Imperceptibly at first, the simple act of moving redraws the landscape according to subtle shifts in architecture, light quality and point of view. Suddenly, we’re in the midst of a much more fragile visual field – a fluttering which evades easy capture. It is perhaps all too fitting that these perceptual modulations should occupy the northward journey to the Dia Museum’s Riggio Galleries in Beacon, New York. After all, the Dia: Beacon was designed specifically to house an extensive collection of minimalist and postminimal art – movements that explore the intimate relations between bodies and objects.

Converted from a Nabisco printing factory, the exhibition space was tailored by artist Robert Irwin and architect Open Office to accommodate works whose impact is contingent on installation and display. Since opening in May 2003, the Dia: Beacon has committed to meeting the spatial demands of its key artists (Judd, Flavin, Richter, Warhol), offering its expansive 240,000 square feet to their unfolding.

The museum thus promotes a new understanding of minimalism, dispelling the cryptic aura that often surrounds this seemingly oblique sculpture. For minimalism’s crux is less a reductive geometry, than the simple experience of a form occupying a specific site. Often lost in more cluttered settings, this subtle exchange is underscored by the Beacon’s airy galleries.

It is difficult to imagine a better space to appreciate Walter De Maria’s “The Equal Area Series” (1976-1977) which greets the viewer upon entrance. Set in two open, lengthy atriums, the piece consists of a series of stainless steel circles and squares in varying dimensions. Easily misread as hermetic, here, under the luminous skylights, one can grasp De Maria’s work as a subtle play with perspective and scale. Light quality is equally integral to the work of Robert Ryman, whose notorious white paintings seem interchangeable in artificial illumination. But natural light allows each piece to flower onto subtle variations, as surface texture, paint application and point of view combine in heterogeneous effects.

Far from a neutral backdrop, the Beacon’s architecture resonates deeply with this work, eliciting unexpected resonances and dialogues. For instance, the often-elided industrial tones of minimalism emerge as key in this setting, punctuated by the visible traces of the original building. So we encounter Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses” (1996-1997) in a former train hatch, complete with corrugated steel gates. In this context, Serra’s dramatic structures – which a visitor can literally enter – take on a sense of movement that endows these imposing slabs of curved steel with a poetic delicacy. This extends to the museum’s basement and its numerous Bruce Nauman video installations. The cavernous area is dominated by industrial structures – pillar supports, pipe armatures and large screens – that are rendered alien, if almost divine, by the constant drone of projectors. It is a strange effect that invokes the initial impact of work that erupted onto the ’60s and ’70s art scenes as completely foreign and new.
Of course, it is impossible to recreate the first encounters with the enigmatic geometry of early minimalism, but these curatorial gestures manage to restore a sense of awe. Michael Heizer stresses the importance of this effect when describing his earthen, sculptural voids, restaged in the museum’s west wing: “Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience. I think if people feel commitment they feel something has been transcended.” And this feeling somehow overtakes you, while strolling through the cavernous halls, in the basement gloom, amidst the impassive pillars; there is an undeniable sense of wonder that indeed verges on the religious – so much so that the hour-long trip to Beacon seems, if only for an instant, less of a journey than a long-delayed pilgrimage.