Friday, June 29, 2007


Walking through the Dia Art Foundation's upstate Beacon location this afternoon, I was struck with a rather broad-sweeping notion: This site, this building, this repurposing of a '20s-era box-printing factory on a train line along the Hudson River, is a reminder of what civilization can be, of what civilization can choose to spend its time, effort and money on. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Not with the whole darn-those-avant-garde-artists-and-their-collective-waste-of-space mentality, but in an impressed, thankful, blessed-feeling kind of way. I compare the experience to making a pilgrimage to a shrine in the woods and then walking the stations of the cross. Which is not to say that the artists represented are to be worshiped or anything. But the physical act of catching a train ride out of the city for the sole purpose of visiting this collection of art, arranged by artist, not period or genre or theme, then walking through the galleries and contemplating each artist's vision of the world, feels like a secular humanist's version of the religious trek mentioned above.

And just as doing the stations of the cross can be an exhausting and rewarding process, so to was my visit to the Dia:Beacon today. Part of it is that my concentration in art galleries starts to wane after about 90-100 minutes of focusing. I can only take in so much before it gets to be too much, and I start glossing over things. And this is true even though I love visual culture and seek it out whenever and wherever I can. I find it's especially the case when dealing with contemporary art that can be really opaque at times. That said, I really enjoyed my visit and gained a new or added appreciation for the work of On Kawara (with whom I share a fascination with the concept of time), John Chamberlain, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer. I was especially affected by Richard Serra and Max Neuhaus' pieces, both of whom also have works in New York City to be enjoyed.

I loved the Serra exhibit at MoMA and upon my return this afternoon I revisited Neuhaus' "Times Square" installation. It was one of those things I've noticed before without realizing what it was -- the low ringing-rumbling sound emanating from the ground in the middle of the square between 45th and 46th. It's so easy to dismiss it as some unknown vibration of the city if you don't realize it was placed there consciously as an intervention into the already cacophonous surroundings of the "world's crossroads." One of the reasons it's so appealing is that it's literally under your nose (and ears) in one of the most overly exposed intersections in the world.

The Dia in general champions art that breaks out of the box of the traditional museum: De Maria's Lightning Field and Smithson's Spiral Jetty are two of the best examples of pieces that truly do require dedicated pilgrimages. (They're not really on easily accessible train lines.) But even the Dia:Beacon, while one could argue it is a museum, doesn't feel that way. It's definitely worth the trip, even if I spent just about as much time in the space as I did getting to and from it.

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