Beacon of Light

Groundbreaking art shines at the extraordinary new Dia: Beacon museum on New York's Hudson River

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“obviously, the model for what we are doing is in Marfa,” says Riggio, referring to the museum that Judd founded in an abandoned fort in West Texas cattle country in 1979. Judd hated conventional museums, and he likened permanent galleries, where works of several different artists are grouped in a single room, to “freshman English forever.” Judd came up with another way: displaying individual artists in buildings adapted to complement their art.


Judd’s idea of converting industrial buildings into galleries can be seen today in the raw spaces of the Los Angeles Temporary Contemporary and at MASS MoCAin North Adams, Massachusetts. But Judd’s cantankerous, visionary spirit finds its fullest expression at Dia:Beacon. “The artists represented at Dia, especially Judd, are really the founders of this place’s aesthetic,” says Govan. “I see this museum as a series of single-artist pavilions under one diaphanous roof of light.”


In 1977, Judd met German art dealer Heiner Friedrich, a man with a nearly religious zeal to change the world through art. In 1974, Friedrich and his future wife, Philippa de Menil, the youngest child of Dominique and John de Menil of the Schlumberger oil fortune, created the Dia Art Foundation. (Dia, the Greek word for “through,” is meant to express the foundation’s role as a conduit for extraordinary projects.) Over the next decade, Friedrich and Philippa gave millions of dollars to finance works by artists they admired. Typical of those the couple funded was Walter De Maria’s 1977 Lightning Field—400 stainless-steel poles set in a one-mile-by-one kilometer grid in the New Mexico desert.


In 1979 Dia began purchasing the abandoned Texas fort and its surrounding 340 acres at the edge of Marfa for Judd, who, according to Riggio, “turned an army barracks into what I think is easily the best single-artist museum in the world.” Then, in the early 1980s, Friedrich’s dominion began tumbling down. There was an oil glut. Oil stocks crashed, and Dia ran out of money. Friedrich resigned from the board and a new board instituted a reorganization. Dia’s new mission did not include funding gargantuan artistic projects.


Judd’s contract gave him the Marfa property, the art it contained and a legal settlement of $450,000. He reconstituted his Texas enterprise as the Chinati Foundation, named for the surrounding mountains, and commissioned such artists as Claes Oldenburg and Ilya Kabakov to create new works. Some other Dia art was sold, allowing a new director, Charles Wright, to open the DiaCenter for the Arts in 1987 in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, where the foundation continues to mount single-artist exhibitions.



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