Maximum space for minimalist art

The new Dia:Beacon, the largest contemporary art museum anywhere, gives rarely seen works a home.

The first thing that strikes you is the space. With 240,000 square feet of galleries, the new Dia:Beacon museum, which opened May 18 in Beacon, N.Y., is the largest museum of contemporary art anywhere. But it's not just about outer space. Dia aims to cultivate inner space.

"This is art you don't just see with your eyes but you take in with your spirit," says Leonard Riggio, chief benefactor and chair of the Dia Art Foundation.

Minimalist art in a maxi-size space? The last thing the New York area needs is another museum - right?

Wrong. The new museum, the size of a Wal-Mart megastore, is filled not only with glorious light, but with works that invite contemplation. Ironically, minimalist art is massive sculpture. What's minimal about it is that it's pure form - with simple lines, serially repeating elements, with no recognizable imagery or narrative.

Before Beacon, the Dia Art Foundation could show only a fraction of its collection in year-long exhibitions at its Chelsea gallery in Manhattan. Most of the collection had been in storage and not accessible to the public. At its new venue, Dia shows some of the 700 rarely seen works in its permanent collection. Artists are given their own galleries to show their work "in depth and intensity," as curator Lynne Cooke says.

The $50-million Beacon facility allows immersion, so the viewer - to paraphrase a '60s slogan - can "turn on, tune in, and drop out" of the ordinary world, focusing on a single artist's body of work.

In the new facility 60 miles north of New York, the works by 23 artists are austere, mostly abstract, and devoid of narrative. This temple of purity presents art by major figures such as Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Sol LeWitt, who came to prominence in the 1960s and '70s.

With Pop artists who were working in the same period, this generation was the first in which American-born artists exerted international influence. They changed the definition of art, radically altering ideas of composition, scale, materials, and subject.

Their work in styles called Earth Art, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism "defied description," Mr. Riggio says. "It knew no boundaries and invited the viewer to become an important component of the work itself."

A nearly overwhelming example is Heizer's "North, East, South, West" (1967-2002) - steel-lined holes that appear to be as deep as missile silos. Looking down the funnel of an inverted cone, sunk into the concrete floor like Alice's rabbit hole, is a visceral, scary experience. You feel dizzy, your heart beats fast. It's like falling in love - with the added fillip that you could literally fall.

The Dia Art Foundation, founded in 1974, focuses on a narrow range of artists and funds ambitious, site-specific works that take decades to realize. (The word "dia" - Greek for "through" - implies a means through which artists create works.) In Dia's Roden Crater project, James Turrell has been sculpting an Arizona volcano into a celestial observatory since the 1970s.

German art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil, a wealthy oil heiress, originally selected, based on their personal taste, 12 artists to receive Dia's largesse. Their idea was that ambience affects art, but ideal ambience for the large-scale works was impossible.

Sculptor Donald Judd, who died in 1994, is the inspiration behind the Beacon installation. He was adamant - uncompromising, even - in insisting that art be treated with reverence and given pristine space and light, to appreciate its independence and integrity.

Judd's open-ended, milled-aluminum rectangles, hanging on the wall like horizontal rainspouts, exemplify the surprises that reward careful looking. From the outside, they're sleek, smooth, and cold. When you peer through them, a rainbow of colors dances inside.

At Dia:Beacon, there is no hierarchy, no arrangement according to art movements, chronology, or geography. This arbitrary spirit, as Dia director Michael Govan says, "puts the onus on the viewer to discover works individually."

The prevailing philosophy is that context matters. Raw, nondistracting space, rather than "fancy-schmancy" architecture, best displays the often massive works.

The renovated Nabisco printing plant, with ceilings up to 26 feet high, provides an ideal setting for this art. With hardwood maple floors and 34,000 square feet of saw-tooth skylights, the former factory is flooded with natural light. Standing on the east bank of the Hudson River, it is surrounded by California artist Robert Irwin's gently geometric landscaping.

Highlights in the collection also include Serra's "Torqued Ellipses" (1996-97), walk-in sculptures as big as a cabin, consisting of 12-foot-high steel walls that loom and lean. You feel the pinch as you wander through a constricting maze inside this heavy-metal land.

Robert Smithson (who died in 1973 after creating his massive Spiral Jetty earthwork in the Great Salt Lake) was a pioneer in displaying such materials as rocks and sand in art galleries. His 1969 "Map of Glass (Atlantis)" is a fragile heap of bluish glass shards that seems to be emerging from, or sinking into, the floor.

In a dim upstairs attic is Louise Bourgeois' haunting "Spider" (1997), a 21-foot-tall sculpture of welded steel. A fixture in Bourgeois' ongoing psychobiography, the spider evokes a predatory but protective presence, straddling a cage, re-weaving a rotting web of tapestry.

At Dia:Beacon, only a few galleries will show changing exhibits. The major installations won't change, but experiences will fluctuate according to season and weather, especially notable with Dan Flavin's work composed of light.

Like America in the go-go Kennedy years (You want the moon? You got it!), anything seemed possible when Dia artists began. In today's period of economic contraction and anxiety, this new-generation Hudson River School is as welcome as a downpour in a dust bowl. Like a gust of wind rippling across a meadow, its distant melody lingers in the empty air.

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