In the 1960s and 1970s a generation of artists rose to prominence for work which extended art beyond the traditional boundaries of the conventional museum framework. This period was a time of specific ambition and great experimentation; a coalescence of Pop, Performance, Conceptual Art, Earth Art and Minimalism. What resulted was a new way of considering the intricate networks in which art exists—fundamental relationships between the work, the viewer and the ideal context. Artists, such as the pioneers of Earth Art (Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, James Turrell and Robert Smithson) sought to present site-specific, large scale installations in the great American southwest—an abstruse, isolated landscape of desert plains, vast skies and open space, with an inherent spirituality. These projects questioned art’s materiality, its relation to space and light, and dramatically shifted the way in which art could be presented and interpreted.
How then could artists envision and pursue projects that ventured beyond the ‘white cube’? How could museums respond to their changing needs?
In 1972, the Minimalist Donald Judd moved from New York to the small town of Marfa, Texas. Judd was in search of rarefied isolation; a specific environment where he could create, install and view art in a permanent context. The Dia Foundation initially assisted him in the acquisition of Fort D.A. Russell, a former army post on 340 acres of land, which was to be converted into an indoor and outdoor museum, dedicated to the site-specific display of Judd’s work, and that of certain contemporaries such as Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. Judd’s approach was to acquire and renovate the town’s utilitarian buildings, maintaining their architectural qualities, demonstrating sensitivity to the original structures while maximising the light and space.
The sheer scale, ambition and prescriptive approach set out by Judd influenced the later construction of Dia: Beacon. Through restoring integrity to the display of art outside the traditional museum confines, the experience of looking became liberating. Just as Judd’s (and other’s) work required a pilgrimage, the sacrifice and effort was a key part of the philosophy. Yet the question still arises, how then does an institution become able to maintain, preserve, commission and collect artists’ works like these?
Established in 1974 by German art dealer, Heiner Friedrich and his wife Philippa de Menil (daughter of John and Dominique de Menil who established the Menil Collection in Houston and commissioned the Rothko Chapel), Dia Art Foundation was created to financially assist artists in facilitating visionary projects where scale and location played a significant part. ‘Dia’ is a Greek word meaning ‘through’ or ‘between’ and, in this instance, the Foundation envisioned its role as one of patron, an enabler or conduit realising impressive projects. Dia’s mission is to commission, support, and present site-specific long-term installations and single-artist exhibitions. After a lengthy period of time, the Dia Foundation amassed and supported over one thousand works for its collection, including James Turrell’s Roden Crater (1979–ongoing), Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Michael Heizer’s uncompleted City (begun 1972), and Walter de Maria’s Lightening Field (1977). With gifts from its permanent collection, Dia assisted the establishment of the Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (1994), and the Cy Twombly Gallery, Menil Collection, Houston (1995).
In 1987, Dia commenced an exhibition programme in New York in a renovated warehouse on West 22nd Street. The exhibitions at Dia: Chelsea comprised an ongoing series of year-long individual artist projects that were created specifically for the space or were a considered display of existing work. Two continuing exhibitions by Walter de Maria, The Broken Kilometre (1979) at 393 West Broadway and The New York Earth Room (1977) at 141 Wooster Street are still maintained by Dia. In 1987, Dia installed Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks)—trees paired with basalt columns along West 22nd Street, Chelsea. Likewise, Dia continues to preserve other public installations in New York, including the Dan Flavin Institute, an installation of fluorescent light pieces in a house in Bridgehampton.
The Foundation’s permanent collection comprises a focused group of mostly male artists (Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Hanne Darboven and Hilla Becher notwithstanding) whose work can loosely be grouped into the following movements or genres—Minimalism, Land Art, Pop, Conceptual, Performance and Site-specific Art. Accumulated predominantly during the 1970s and 1980s by the founders and art historian Helen Winkler, the original collection includes work by Joseph Beuys, John Chamberlain, Walter De Maria, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, Fred Sandback and Andy Warhol. To categorise the artists’ work collectively would be superficial, however an overriding minimalist aesthetic, rigour and ambition exists. Dia’s philosophy prescribes that an artist should conceive of the architecture, environment and the context when creating a work for display, thereby affecting the reception of the work for the viewer.
Dia: Beacon, which opened in 2003, continued the Foundation’s pioneering philosophy of the conversion and renewal of industrial buildings for the installation of contemporary art, now widely practiced as a functional and aesthetic choice by museums and galleries internationally. Located on the Hudson River, an eighty minute train ride north of Manhattan, in a former Nabsico (National Biscuit Company) box-printing factory that was built in 1929, the museum is situated on over thirty acres of riverfront parkland and comprises approximately 240,000 square feet of exhibition space.
For Dia, it was important that the museum and its renovation was shaped by artists, not an architect. Designed by the American artist Robert Irwin, in collaboration with the architect, OpenOffice, the challenge was to transform, yet maintain, the integrity of the exterior and interior of the building and surrounds, whilst creating a fully operational museum to display its permanent collection and specifically commissioned pieces, alongside educational facilities, a café, bookshop and offices. Irwin’s design process, which spanned approximately four years, was an inquiry into light, space, time, symmetry and direction. Inspired by Judd’s approach, the project’s primary intention was to maximize the outstanding qualities of the existing architecture without imposing them upon the art, or vice-versa.
Irwin designed the entrance-way as a tight vestibule chamber through which the galleries beyond would appear larger and even more generous. He proposed a seasonally-changing garden in the forecourt and carpark to soften the façade. To the right of the building, along the west side facing the river, Irwin also created a more formal garden. The original masonry structure of the factory is reflected in the exposed brick walls, maple floor boarding, concrete floors and a series of existing north-facing sawtooth skylights allowing for the creation of a daylight-only and environmentally sustainable contemporary museum. The ceiling skylights and side glass windows consist of clear glass and factory wire-glass acting as hybrid windows, allowing soft, natural light to flood in and also permitting visitors to view glimpses of the world outside. Art is illuminated and viewed under shifting light according to the time of day and also the season. For example, in winter, the museum reduces its opening hours. In the case of bad weather, such as heavy rain or snow, where natural sunlight is at a minimum, the museum will close, reinforcing its philosophical approach to the experience of art in a specific context and at its optimum condition.
The expansive, fluid spaces are uniquely suited to the needs of large-scale installations, paintings, and sculptures. In keeping with Dia’s history of single-artist, site-specific presentations, each gallery space was designed intentionally for the art contained within. For example, On Kawara, following traditional Japanese construction techniques, lowered, and placed slightly off-centre, the entrance doorways at either end of the rectangular space. All the floorboards were raised so that underneath a layer of ceramicised red-oak branches could be placed to actively assist in the ionisation and purification of the air within. On display is a selection of thirty-six Date Paintings from his exquisitely laborious Today Series (1966–present).
Dia’s spaces are immersive encounters with individual artists’ works; one is able to navigate and progress through the quiet galleries that both integrate and separate each isolated installation. The experience is one of an overriding sense of timelessness, of permanence, an expansive feeling of space and scale; the art is consonant with the building, developed and placed in fluid and predefined totality. Richard Serra’s four monumental steel Torqued Ellipses occupy the space in which the factory’s train depot used to reside. These immense sculptures, weighing hundreds of tonnes, appear wedged into the tight confines of a gymnasium-scaled passageway, heightening their vertiginous proportions. Gravity pushes and pulls against the viewer, a strong feeling of compression emanates from the surface of each cold mass. One’s experience often results in nausea-inducing effects as one contemplates the turning, warping and curvaceous hulls.
As a counterpoint to the weighty mass of Serra’s sculptures, Fred Sandback’s installation of delicate yarn sculptures, which he began in 1966, transforms the space into an exploration of volume, line and plane. Sandback’s intention was to create a sculpture without an ‘inside’ or ‘mass’ but comprised of an implicit ‘edge’ to evoke a certain volume or presence within. Sandback wrote in 1973, ‘In no way is my work illusionistic. Illusionistic art refers you away from its factual existence toward something else. My work is full of illusions, but they don’t refer to anything’. One glimpses deceptive planar shapes that appear almost glass-like. Strong geometries suggest vertical, horizontal and diagonal forms that effectively dissect the architecture of Dia’s spaces.
One of the key installations at Dia: Beacon is Dan Flavin’s series ‘monument’ for V. Tatlin (1960-81), a sequence of commercial fluorescent light tubes. According to Flavin, his work is a ‘sequence of implicit decisions to combine traditions of painting and sculpture in architecture with acts of electric light defining space’. Obsessed with the ‘corners’ of a room, Flavin’s works have been installed along a zig-zagged shaped wall structure, reinforcing their repetition, yet variation. His simple and predetermined vocabulary of formal devices, paired with the rejection of subjectivity, heightens the works’ serial effects and phenomenological experience. Ironically, the very notion of the monument is debased, and its temporal nature is reinforced by the bulbs’ limited life expectancy—2,100 hours of light.
Cool, minimalist painting can be best viewed in the work of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. Martin’s delicate, sensitive grids and bands of colour in pale yellows, blues, pinks and whites, emanate light. Her painterly touch is soft, yet raw. Ryman’s inquiry into painting, both as a verb and noun, is reflected in his ongoing series of ‘white monochromes’ on different shapes, scales and grounds.
The collection’s material diversity resonates as one encounters the photography of industrial sites by Bernd and Hilla Becher; a series of Judd’s aluminium sculptures; Sol LeWitt’s complex graphite wall drawings; Michael Heizer’s reconstructed North, East, South, West (1967/2002)—geometric shapes constructed from cor-ten steel, embedded in the concrete floor and reaching approximately twenty feet in depth; Hanne Darboven’s obsessive and systematic documentation of historical ephemera; Andy Warhol’s installation of seventy-two Shadow silkscreen paintings (1978-79); Bruce Nauman’s videos, installations and architectural interventions; latex, bronze and plaster suspended sculptures by Louise Bourgeois; Blinky Palermo’s fifteen-part painting installation To the People of New York City (1976); John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures; Joseph Beuys’s installation Aus Berlin: Neues vom Kojoten (From Berlin: News from the Coyote) (1979); and Gerhard Richter’s installation of Six Gray Mirrors (2003), an environment of cantilevered monochrome paintings with reflective surfaces. Aside from the display of its permanent collection and series of year-long temporary exhibitions, which recently included a retrospective of the performance art of Yvonne Rainer, Franz Erhard Walther’s Work as Action, and Circa 1971: Early Video and Film from the EAI Archive, Dia actively promotes artist talks, dance performances and a curatorial lecture series designed to complement the collection and exhibitions.
Despite its extensive history and visionary approach to the collection and presentation of art, Dia: Beacon is a relatively new museum. Known for its rigorous programme, active engagement and serious appreciation for art, one only hopes its philosophy, openness and energy will continue to influence and inspire some of the most ground breaking projects of the twenty-first century.
Richard Serra, Torqued Ellipse II, 1996; Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997. Dia Art Foundation. Gift of Louise and Leonard Riggio, 2000. © Richard Barnes.
Gerhard Richter, Six Gray Mirrors No. 884/1-6, 2003. Dia Art Foundation. Photograph © Richard Barnes.
Franz Erhard Walther, Installation view of Franz Erhard Walther: Work as Action, October 2, 2010 - February 13, 2012. Dia: Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Photograph David Allison. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.
Sol LeWitt, Drawing Series–Composite, Part I-IV, #1-24, B, 1969. Installation view. © Sol LeWitt.
Sarah Hetherington is a writer based in Sydney.