It’s only fitting that the most eagerly awaited museum in the world of contemporary art is more than an hour removed from New York City’s frenetic art scene. Many of the artists whose works went on permanent display this past May at Dia:Beacon, as the new museum is called, put space between themselves and an art world they saw as compromised and overly commercial. “These artists were inspired more by the American landscape and the American spirit than by the SoHo art scene,” says collector Leonard Riggio, chairman of the Dia Art Foundation, which created the museum. “The idea of being an hour-plus away from New York City is more important than being close to it.”
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Dia:Beacon has 240,000 square feet of exhibition space, which is more than that of New York City’s Guggenheim, Whitney and Museum of Modern Art combined. It exhibits a concentration of monumental works (many seldom, if ever, seen in public) by land artists, minimalist artists, conceptual artists and installation artists. At Dia:Beacon, says artist Robert Irwin, who helped transform the 1929 Nabisco box- printing factory in Beacon, New York, into a radiant showcase for art, “the viewer is responsible for setting in motion his own meaning.”
Most of the outsize works on view in Dia:Beacon’s immense skylit galleries fill a room or more. John Chamberlain’s sculpture Privet, for instance, is a 62-foot-long, 13-foot-high hedge fashioned out of scraps of chrome and painted steel. And Walter De Maria’s Equal Area Series (12 pairs of flattened, stainless-steel circles and squares that lie on the floor like giant washers for some enormous machine) extends through two galleries totaling 22,000 square feet.Most of these works cannot be seen in their entirety from any one place; you must walk in, around, and in some cases, within them, as in a landscape. “Difficult” art becomes accessible, the thinking goes, when a viewer’s response is visceral. And concentrated.
“What makes this museum very special is its focus on a relatively small number of artists who are shown in great depth in circumstances as close to perfect as any space I have seen,” says James N. Wood, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s totally committed to giving an art that is not necessarily ingratiating an environment where it has the best chance to speak in its own right.”
Many of the 20 or so artists represented at Beacon—a hugely influential group that includes Louise Bourgeois, Dan Flavin, Walter DeMaria, Michael Heizer, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra and Andy Warhol—began their careers intent on challenging some basic assumptions about art. Why did a sculpture have to sit on a pedestal and occupy space? Why did a painting have to be something you stood in front of and looked at? Why did it have to stop at the edges? Did art have to be an object at all?