Opened in May 2003, the space is dedicated to displaying contemporary artwork from the 1960s-present day, much of which would not be able to fit into a conventional museum due to its size or nature. Artists have entire galleries devoted to their work, giving the collections a sense of cohesion that is often lacking when one sees a single painting or piece by an artist that perhaps was not meant to stand alone.
I am the first one to admit that I am not the biggest contemporary art buff. As a sophomore in college, I took a contemporary art survey course as a requirement for my minor. Although I did not always enjoy the experience of all the pieces from our modern world, I enjoyed learning about them, the artist’s intentions, and the discussion most of the work provoked. I found this still to be true upon my visit to Dia:Beacon. Luckily, I was accompanied by my wonderfully interesting and intelligent family members, all of whom were happy to engage in such discourse (and fielding questions of mine, like, “So…what’s the point of that?”)
There is no way that I could successfully take you through the experience I had at Dia:Beacon in a single blog post. Instead, I will write about what I found most interesting. You’ll have to go visit for yourself and see what you think of everything else.
You may be familiar with Richard Serra’s minimalist sculptures as part of the process art movement. As a young man working his way through school, Serra worked in steel mills, and his art directly shows this influence. One of the first rooms in the Dia exhibits a huge Serra piece, whose title I didn’t write down. I immediately thought of the prow of a ship, and was pleased to discover that he even uses the same materials as ship builders when sculpting his work. On a lower level of the museum is a series of Serra pieces: enormous metal creations the color of rust, one a spiral labyrinth, one an almost closed circle with another almost closed circle within. They had to be 15 feet tall. We walked inside them, playing with the sound of a stomping foot in the middle of one and comparing to see if it sounded different in the next. Walking through the spiral, sometimes I felt a claustrophobia from the sloping edges, others an openness. This play with the senses—in this case, an absence or mutation of personal space—seemed to me to be a quintessential factor in Serra’s work. Not only did he engage my eyes, he engaged my ears and even my physical awareness. It was one of the few times I’ve felt like I’ve experienced art, and I rather liked it.
My uncle said Sandback was one of his favorites at the museum. At first glance, I barely realized it was an art piece: a piece of string creating a large rectangle from floor to ceiling. First instincts flared with cynicism, but as soon as I started looking at the rest of the sculptures, all made of nylon yarn or a similar medium, I started enjoying their simplicity and whimsy. They reminded me, too, of a social experiment. In seeing what is essentially a box created from the planes of the yarn, floating in mid-air or randomly in the center of a room, I felt as if I shouldn’t walk over the yarn or swipe my hand through the air above it, as if it were some sort of laser-triggered alarm system from the movies. By creating space that is sort of filled, and sort of not, I felt that Sandback was playing with my physical experience, as well as my adherence to invisible spatial rules. It was odd, but pretty neat.
This guy gave me a lot of trouble. I guess that makes sense, since he’s a Conceptual artist, which arguably requires a bit more thinking than average. Sol LeWitt basically writes out directions about how to create a piece, and then assistants create it (the pieces we saw were wall drawings, although he is the author of many 3-d pieces, as well). Because every person is different, each of his works is manifested uniquely, too. Most of what we saw of his at Dia was geometrical in some way, but not all. The biggest issue I had in understanding this was how it’s still considered a Sol LeWitt piece if he is not the one physically making it. It’s his, I guess, in that it is his concept. The product might be different from piece to piece, from execution to execution of instructions, but that makes it interesting and certainly one-of-a-kind.
Last, but not least…
This gallery may have been my favorite. I can’t pinpoint why, but somehow the precision, the concern with time, and the multinational/multitemporal parts of it spoke to me. On Kawara’s Today Series is a project he started in the 1960’s wherein he would paint a canvas with the date on which he was painting, in the language and format of the country where he was. If he did not finish the canvas by midnight that night, he would destroy it. Sometimes he makes 2. Often he makes 0. The canvases had to be one of 8 predetermined sizes, all with a horizontal orientation. Kawara mixes his paint daily, so it is fresh. Sometimes the backgrounds are black. Sometimes they are a dark navy. The font is almost always the same, originally a version of Gill sans but eventually making its way to Futura. Each date has an accompanying handmade cardboard box that houses a clipping from the painting’s town and date, but these are not always displayed (in fact, they were not when we were there).
I think part of what I liked about this series is that, even though the day Kawara painted may not have been meaningful to him, that date could be meaningful to a viewer. We wake up each day never knowing what will happen, and perhaps on some of the days he painted, that date became an important part of world history. But either way, it became an important part of someone’s history. It is something about that potential connectedness that I like. Plus, I’m a sucker for calendars.
Before I leave you to contemplate the value of string sculptures and artistic time capsules, I want to say one very cool thing about the museum’s space: it used to be a Nabisco box printing building. That might sound strange, but after a renovation guided by artist Robert Irwin, the facility is bursting with open space, natural light (only natural light for all the artwork! Except in the basement) and an overall sense of tranquility. No obtrusive explanations all over the walls. Just the artist’s name and a folder with laminated explanations of the artwork. It felt easier to appreciate the art when I didn’t feel stressed about reading every title and every placard, as I often do in museums.