Soho on the Hudson

Eye Dia: An untitles Dan Flavin sculpture (1970) stands before Robert Irwin's modified windows at Dia:Beacon.Photo: Michael Govan

Church, palace, house, museum: That’s where we usually situate art. In the sixties, however, many artists grew impatient with these traditional settings and began to dream of less-confining environments. Some lived in the cast-iron district of Soho, in lofts originally constructed for industrial use. These no-nonsense spaces were open, sweeping, and sometimes epic in scale, with large, declarative windows. Artists of the time developed an approach, at once brusquely proletarian and intellectual, that flourished in this bracing atmosphere; the lofts echoed their use of grids, series, and industrial materials. No less important, the working-class spirit symbolized their disdain for both conventional museum practice, with its pedigreed genealogies and “this begat that” attitude, and the romantic cult of the genius.

Dia:Beacon, which opened last week in a former Nabisco printing plant built in 1929, represents the radiant culmination of this loft sensibility. Located on the eastern bank of the Hudson in the river town of Beacon, about an hour and a half by train or car from New York, the 300,000-square-foot facility presents the work of 24 artists favored by Dia. The artist Robert Irwin, himself a significant figure of the Dia generation, oversaw the renovation in consultation with the architecture firm OpenOffice and the Dia staff—notably the director, Michael Govan, and the curator, Lynne Cooke. A tripartite building and train shed are joined together into what is now called the Riggio galleries (named after the family of the founder of Barnes and Noble, who contributed much of the funding). Whatever one’s views of the art, Dia:Beacon is a marvelous place of luxuriant light, open space, and serene galleries. As Irwin knows so well, rooms often look best when occupied mainly by daylight.

Instead of creating a new piece of architecture, Irwin—who often works with “given” spaces—adapted the plant to the requirements of the art on display. Dia:Beacon therefore reflects the principles for exhibiting art developed by major figures in the sixties—particularly Donald Judd—and subsequently propounded by Dia’s founders, Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil. In her essay on the facility, Lynne Cooke begins with Donald Judd’s complaint about the Art 101 shtick that typically dominates museums: “It’s freshman English for ever and never no more no literature.” In the Dia space, there’s no museum chronology or implicit hierarchy. Instead, Dia has tried to provide what Judd once called “a permanent installation of a good proportion of the work of the best artists.” Each artist has a dedicated space in which his or her work can be viewed in depth and, presumably, in perpetuity. The artists themselves were invited when possible to help create their galleries.

Irwin’s modifications subtly enhance the viewpoint of the period. He has designed gardens in keeping with minimal art—and also with the simple, rectilinear logic of early-twentieth-century industrial architecture. Outside, there’s a kind of grassy grid; hedgelike trees form straight lines. In the building itself, Irwin has inserted four clear glass panels into the structure’s many large, multi-paned frosted windows. This creates a precise blurring of outside and inside, one that would be appreciated by the many Dia artists who have worked with perceptual conundrums and by those—such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer—who have preferred to work with the landscape itself.

Irwin’s entrance to the facility is shadowy and modest, which magnifies the epic light-burst of space that greets the viewer. Walter de Maria’s The Equal Area Series (1976–77)—a work of paired stainless-steel circles and squares that plays with the viewer’s perception of perspective—lies flat on the ground of the great opening plain (and plane). In a large neighboring space is Andy Warhol’s Shadows (1978–79), a massive single work of 72 canvases that evokes the perceptual flicker of light and dark. Paintings work best in the front of the facility, where there is a steady north light. Robert Ryman’s white-on-white images glow in this illuminating area, as do Agnes Martin’s sublimely gentle grid paintings. Sculpture that shows well in strong daylight occupies the perimeters, notably Dan Flavin’s “monument” for V. Tatlin series (1964–81), which also works with white-on-white.

Deeper into the building, where the light can be more raking, the organizers exhibit other sculpture or, sometimes, art that requires a lower illumination. Near the heart of Dia:Beacon, appropriately, are several works by Donald Judd. Close by is a commissioned piece by Gerhard Richter, who has created a series of monumental gray glasses that call to mind both painting and sculpture; they can equally symbolize “the window” and “the mirror” of art. The Richter work reflects upon reflecting—embodying the questioning self-consciousness typical of the art of the sixties and seventies.

Although the main floor of Dia:Beacon contains austere work that appears quite reserved, there is also an attic, a basement, and the former railroad shed to one side. On these edges and outskirts, the organizers have placed more unruly temperaments. Louise Bourgeois becomes the madwoman in Dia’s attic. Left mostly raw, her space brilliantly serves dark dreams, including a lurid piece called Destruction of the Father (1974). The wild child Bruce Nauman inhabits the basement, and in the railroad shed is the Vulcan of contemporary art, Richard Serra. Three of his massive Torqued Ellipses (1996–97) are on view, along with a torqued spiral called 2000 (2000).

Perhaps Dia:Beacon will refresh our thinking about minimal art. It embodies some interesting paradoxes. In Soho, the loft sensibility, despite its origins, quickly became chic. Like so many previous movements, minimal art, too, became elegant; it, too, became a power style. Dia:Beacon, inevitably, is surpassingly elegant. It’s also literally positioned at a confluence of two great romantic themes in American culture, that of the railroad and that of the untrammeled landscape. The Hudson River painters liked the Beacon area, and trains are constantly hurtling by. A coincidence, of course, but a telling one. In minimal art, too, there is somewhere a rarely acknowledged American romance, which remains to be explored.

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Permanent installation in Beacon, New York.

Soho on the Hudson