Dia:Beacon Beckons

Minimalism is maximized in this contemporary art museum.

By: Pat Summers

Richard Serra’s, ‘Torqued Ellipse II’ (above) and Michael Heizer’s ‘North, East, South, West’ (below), on view at Dia:Beacon in Beacon, N.Y.

   Located on the eastern side of the Hudson River about an hour north of Manhattan, the city of Beacon, N.Y., is already famously linked with Dia:Beacon, its enormous new art museum. Since opening in May 2003, the museum has given new meaning to the city’s name, which already glows with historical luster.
   Fires burning atop Mount Beacon during the Revolutionary War alerted Gen. George Washington to British movements up the Hudson River. Both town and mountain took their names from this early warning system.
   Today, to read the arts press and even to talk with service-station attendants or food-servers in the Beacon area is to conclude that this museum is the happening place for states around. And, in displaying the Dia Art Foundation’s celebrated collection of contemporary art (1960 to present), it is exactly that.
   Familiar with Dia:Chelsea and the Dia Art Foundation’s sponsorship of huge art projects around the country, we could not resist Dia:Beacon’s siren call. The trip promised a look at true cutting-edge art as well as proximity to any number of other sites in the area, from Storm King Art Center to West Point. And the timing for our drive north — the area is also accessible by train from Manhattan — brought a built-in bonus: There is enough fall foliage to delight any leaf-peeper.


   Exciting as the inside proves to be, the Dia:Beacon experience really begins outside, with the overview of the structure itself, built by Nabisco in 1929 and donated to Dia by International Paper, its last owner. Refurbished (at a cost exceeding $50 million) into 240,000 square feet of exhibition space illuminated by natural light, the museum accommodates artwork that would simply not fit in more conventional places.
   Its gallery space tops other museums of modern art: Paris’s Centre Pompidou, under 162,000 square feet; MoMA’s projected new space, 125,000 (compared with 85,000 formerly); Guggenheim Bilbao, 118,000; Tate Modern, 84,000.
   Artist Robert Irwin created Dia:Beacon’s master plan, including landscaping. With ceilings as high as 26 feet on its main floor and a capacious basement besides, the museum has a brick façade and new entryway that look like converted-industrial style. But a surprising detail hints at what’s to come: the rusting steel plates — no traditional curbs here — outlining the museum parking lot might herald to cognoscenti the oeuvre of Richard Serra.
   Visitors opting to drive to Dia:Beacon will pass pedestrians — many dressed in proper Manhattan black — approaching the museum from the nearby Beacon train station. In good weather at least, it’s an easy uphill walk, allowing a sweeping aerial view that includes glimpses of the river after rounding the last bend.
   Even a partial roll call of the 24 artists lavishly represented supports the museum’s generalization about housing some of the most significant artists of the last half century: Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, John Chamberlain, Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Robert Smithson, Andy Warhol… the list goes on.
   Comfortable shoes should head any dress code for Dia:Beacon visitors. Anything else would be masochistic, since each vast gallery is devoted to one artist’s work in depth. North to south, the interior measures nearly 500 feet; east to west, it exceeds 300 feet. While most of the floors are softly polished pale-gray concrete, some are wood; it depends on the works being exhibited.
   Light comes essentially from multitudes of clerestory windows which, coupled with white to cream walls, illuminate the art on display. The changes wrought by varying weather can only add to the interest — and provide more reason for return trips.
   Imagine the richly detailed interiors of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dia:Beacon is the opposite. Wholly unadorned, it does not distract from the art it houses. Blending with prevailing floor tones, pale-gray upholstered benches and occasional couches can be found in some galleries. Instead of traditional wall signs, most galleries offer a wall box containing laminated cards about the artist and the art. And that’s it.
   This near-austere setting is minimalist, spiritually akin to much of the art work at Dia:Beacon, which includes conceptual and post-minimalist art. Since so much here has to do with space — positive and negative and the two in combination — it’s fitting for the setting itself to complement the art’s spatiality. Plays on words become unavoidable: minimalism in a maximal building; maximum-sized minimalist works in colossal settings; and, finally, maximal effect of minimal works.
   Captivating as the treasure chest itself may be, it’s what’s inside Dia:Beacon that counts. The work of Bruce Nauman occupies what was the box-printing factory’s cavernous basement, complete with an army of massive pillars; otherwise, the space could accommodate a prom or two. Above the main floor, Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture — alternately threatening and funny as well as "organic" in every sense of the word — shares the building’s only second-floor space with one of her giant metal spiders.
   The main floor space is subdivided into a good two dozen galleries, none small, with each as large as it needs to be for the works being shown. And so, John Chamberlain’s multi-colored scrap metal works take up about two-thirds of the building’s length on the river side. They are generously spread out on wood floors, with light pouring through windows that overlook a garden area, railroad tracks and, eventually, the Hudson.
   Chamberlain’s standing and hanging metal pieces live up to their billing as quintessential Abstract Expressionist sculpture, while the wildly colorful "Privet" (1997), a freestanding "hedge" of metal knots, tangles and corkscrews, dominates the gallery.
   Where Chamberlain leaves off, Richard Serra picks up with four different torqued sculptures. His massively curving sheets of steel fit snugly in the factory’s one-time railway depot — a space Serra reportedly chose to heighten the immediacy of viewers’ encounter with his work.
   To walk around them and into dark passages that circle inward, with high rust walls alternately concave and convex, can be a disorienting trip, especially if a train rumbles by outside at the same time. Curving cracks of light are visible occasionally between floor and steel, and a brick wall echoes the sculptures’ overall hues.
   In the building corner opposite Serra’s largest space, Michael Heizer’s work might be thought of as the physical reverse of Serra’s: four pits, up to 20 feet deep, sunk in the gallery floor. In square, circular, rectangular and cone shapes — each lined with weathered steel — "North, East, South, West" (1967/2003) is all about negative space.
   Altogether, Heizer’s monumental work is more than 125 feet in length, and at one end of it, visitors can look down into the square within a square. Overhead mirrors installed at the far end would foster a similar depth-appreciation; now, the viewer can see only the hole shapes, flush with floor.
   Gerhard Richter’s "Six Gray Mirrors" (2003) in a white cube-style gallery the artist specified, fuse his gray paintings with his glass and mirror works. The six huge gray-enameled glass panels are hung from the walls at differing angles, allowing them to reflect and nearly glow.
   A separate wing houses a bookstore and a modest café as well as restrooms and administrative offices. Where rococo might have been expected, minimalist is the word for the café, in both menu and space. Not far from where a small grill struggled under three or four mini-pizzas, one clerk sold books and postcards, rang up memberships, staffed the cloakroom and answered questions. And that was a Friday, not even a weekend day.
   Dia:Beacon can be done (for the first time, that is) in a day, since after all, you can walk only so far, look only so long. We tried the overview approach, spending more time with artists of special interest. Another time, we’ll focus on Hanne Darboven, Bernd and Hilla Becher, or On Kawara.
   While in the area, we visited the Roosevelt home and library at Hyde Park, and dined at Poughkeepsie’s River Station Restaurant on Water Street. It offered a second-floor window with a splendid twilight view of the river and the Mid-Hudson Bridge.
Dia:Beacon, 3 Beekman St., Beacon, N.Y., is open Fri.-Mon. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. through April 1. Admission costs $10, $7 seniors and students. For information, call (845) 440-0100. On the Web: www.diabeacon.org