Accidental Admiration—The Dia Beacon

October 29th, 2009 § 1 comment

Dia Beacon

(For better or worse Robert Irwin–think Getty Garden–landscaped the museum)

I always mistakenly assumed that the Dia Foundation was founded in order to house the work of the Minimalist artists of the 1960s, and perhaps subsequently related movements. Somehow I pictured a figure such as Donald Judd arranging it. While this is not actually true, viewing the collection of the Dia Beacon, located an hour or so upstate in the run-down town of Beacon itself, rendered the mistake an understandable one. The Dia collection seemed to foreshadow the recent trend I have noticed amongst wealthy collectors showing in public spaces (Eli Broad for example), of collecting numerous works by the same artist. Never have I seen so many Judd’s, Flavin’s, Nauman’s, or Smithson’s shown together. The space itself reminds me of PS1, an “alternative” building turned into a clean, well-lit venue with huge rooms and long hallways, as opposed to the traditional museum or gallery cube. While PS1 used to be an elementary school and now haunts contemporary artwork with its institutional architecture, the Dia used to be a Nabisco printing plant built in the 1920s that now cozily embraces the geometric artwork it houses—the industrial nature of the building, all brick and cement, suits the industrial material choices of the artists inside. Dia is also a convincingly coordinated collection. While the artists are not necessarily like each other, they share the same intellectual concerns. Wandering through it feels like looking at the problems of an era dissected visually by various minds, and though the concerns were similar the individual answers appear to have been different.

Zoe Leonard Dia Beacon

(Zoe Leonard, You See I am Here After All, 2008)

Only six or seven years then after accidentally stumbling into a graduate level art history class on Minimalism—a bafflingly conceptual course taught by a Judd biographer obsessed with that tight-knit group of artists—and I finally understand and appreciate what makes these artists great. They were artists, writers, and critics who changed the way art was made, thought of, and talked about. Viewing the majority of their works together gave relevance for the first time to their overly discussed conceptual and material concerns. I was struck by the idea that they all seemed to be painters who didn’t use paint. Unsurprisingly, it took actually seeing the artwork firsthand to give the movement greater meaning. Moving from artist to artist, room to room, I felt like I was looking through a time portal at the foundational rules that define art as I have always known it—the Minimalists started the discourse that my generation of makers accepts as being truly significant. I kept imaging how the magically transporting canvasses of the old masters compared with Judd’s plywood boxes or Flavin’s geometric fluorescents: while the former inspire a sense of awe, the latter feels artistically familiar.

Judd Dia Beacon

(Donald Judd, Untitled, 1976)

Highlights in the collection are hard to single out because there wasn’t much there that was not worth giving a decent amount of time to, but the collection did have some surprises. Zoe Leonard’s several thousand vintage Niagara Falls postcards and her repetitious installation of them were more subtly engrossing than expected. Sol Lewitt’s instructional drawings were more intriguing and even amusing, with their blend of systematic simplicity and overwhelming visual complexity, than I remembered them being. Judd’s plywood boxes, cubes that appeared obviously similar yet were each unique, forced me to remember his wordy essays about geometric forms. Serra’s towering spiral steel structures felt cramped in the space but still seduced viewers (sometimes a little too literally), and a room full of repetitious Warhol silkscreen’s felt like, well, a room full of repetitious Warhol’s. Flavin’s hallway of white false walls and bright fluorescents looked surprisingly holy, while Nauman’s blinking neon words flashed in the dim and dank basement like the last messages left on earth.

Bruce Nauman Dia Beacon

(Bruce Nauman, Having Fun/Good Life, Symptoms, 1985)

It is ironic that though I remember bitterly hating the long and tedious readings assigned in my Minimalist class about and by these artists, it is exactly their manipulation of art theory and criticism seen in hindsight that inspires my own writing and thinking now. The mental meanderings of Smithson that he recorded in words and not art reminds me that being an artist encourages the manipulation of existing written formats. His random essays and indecipherable blurbs inspire my notions of criticism and reflection. Like realizing that you are turning into your parents, it is equally disconcerting to realize how influenced contemporary art making has been by this particular generation of artists, and how many of the current problems in art owe their origins to the Minimalist way of making.

Robert Smithson Dia Beacon

(Robert Smithson, Map of Broken Glass, Atlantis, 1969)

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