Without a viewer’s response, they felt, their art was incomplete. “Things work in relationships. Everything is interactive,” says Dia artist Robert Irwin, who began in the 1950s as an abstract painter and who, along with Dia Art Foundation director Michael Govan, was responsible for creating a master plan for the renovation of the factory and the design of outdoor spaces. He says he approached Dia:Beacon as an artist rather than an architect. Instead of using a drawing board or models, he conceived his plan, which is itself listed as one of the artworks in the Dia collection, by walking around, back and forth, inside and outside the complex. He thought of the museum as a “sequence of events, of images,” and he was mindful of the order in which visitors would enter and progress through its spaces.
At Dia:Beacon’s entrance, Irwin planted hawthorn trees, which bloom white in spring and are heavy with red and orange berries in winter. They will grow to 25 feet, roughly the height of the four flat-roofed connected buildings—including a train shed—that once housed the plant.
One of the few things Irwin added to the existing structure is a small, low, brick-lined entrance. Pass through it, and “boom!” says Irwin, the ceilings soar and light floods through north-facing, sawtooth skylights and boomerangs off maple floors. You can see down the length of the twin galleries ahead, 300 feet, to industrialsize sliding doors. Through those open doors other galleries stretch another 200 feet toward sun-blasted, south-facing windows. “That moment of entering is really the power of the building,” says Irwin.
The vast space swallowed up the 4,500 visitors who thronged to it opening day. In its first six weeks, 33,000 people visited the museum. “People ask me what makes this place different,” says Dia director Michael Govan, 40. “There are very few places with concentrations of works, even by these artists, that are so all-encompassing and environmental. The buildings, in a way, are big enough to allow all of the artists to have their own world and the visitor to have that fantastic experience of going from world to world.”
Michael Heizer’s 142-foot-long sculpture, North, East, South, West, for instance, steals the show for many visitors and most dramatically illustrates the idea of the interaction between the viewer and the art. The work, which Heizer calls a “negative sculpture,” consists of four massive, geometric forms sunk 20 feet into the floor of the gallery. Standing at the edge of these excavations, you may experience a hint of vertigo, even as your fear of falling competes with an impulse to throw yourself in.