One of the institutions that have put the Hudson Valley on the international art-world map, Dia:Beacon is a museum of 1960s and 1970s vanguard art located in a former Nabisco box factory on the Beacon waterfront. Stepping through the doors of the low-slung building into the high-ceilinged foyer – narrow and brick-lined, like the entrance to an ancient tomb – one stands on the threshold of 240,000 feet of exhibition space, among the largest modern-art museums in the world. Its skylit expanse of maple flooring constitutes one of the nation’s sublime interior spaces. Roughly falling into the categories of Minimalism, Land Art, Conceptual and Pop (Dia:Beacon also shows temporary site-specific pieces by contemporary artists), the art is at one with the space. Visiting Dia:Beacon is an immersive experience, a play on perception. Your aesthetic assumptions will be challenged and refreshed, even as your feet tire.
Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich founded the Dia Foundation in 1974 as an answer to a new problem: how to collect, commission and support site-specific work that tended to downplay or eschew the art object and in some cases used the landscape itself as the frame. Originally located in an 8,000-square-foot gallery in lower Manhattan, the museum needed more space after the foundation acquired Richard Serra’s enormous twists of rolled steel. (Torqued Ellipses, housed in a dim, cavernous space on the lower floor, are the perennial showstoppers at Dia:Beacon; you can explore the pieces, following their nautiluslike corridors into an inner chamber.) The factory’s horizontal orientation and industrial functionalism made it the ideal venue for exhibiting art that tends to be predicated upon vernacular materials, monumental scale and the geometry of the grid.
Rather than hire an architect to convert the 1929 factory into an art museum, the Dia Foundation chose an artist, Robert Irwin, to design the space, including the exterior gardens and parking area. Born in 1928 in Long Beach, California, Irwin began his career as a painter but soon moved to sculpture, spray-painting convex aluminum discs mounted to the wall. He was a progenitor of the Light and Space movement in California (another member was James Turrell), and in the 1970s abandoned the object entirely, instead making installations that played with space and the viewer’s perception.
In 1998, he constructed floor-to-ceiling scrims arranged in a three-dimensional grid of 18 cubic chambers at the Dia museum in Chelsea – an installation that took up the entire floor. It wasn’t clear which was the front, sides or back of this mazelike structure – or even, to some who entered, that it was a work of art. The piece, titled Prologue: x18, prompted former Dia director Michael Govan to invite Irwin to design the new museum at Beacon. Irwin, now in his late 80s (he also designed the gardens at the Getty Museum), has just completed an installation redux of sorts with Excursus: Homage to the Square, exhibited within the space that he designed at Dia:Beacon – a kind of artwork within an artwork. Nothing could be more in harmony with its setting. Indeed, the installation doesn’t just inhabit the museum space, but absorbs it, in an interesting reversal of the usual relationship between artwork and frame.
At first glance Excursus: Homage to the Square3 (the title is a reference to the colored squares of Josef Albers), which reconfigures the original 1998 installation for the larger Dia:Beacon space, resembles a reflective white-plastic wall with doorways, suggesting an office corridor and corporate cubicles. But on closer inspection, it’s nothing of the sort. The 14-foot-high walls consist of semi-transparent fabric – the scrims – stapled over a support of wood pieces comprising a three-dimensional gridded structure of 14 identical-sized square rooms. Each room contains eight doorways, arranged along the corners, and four vertical fluorescent tubes, attached to the center of each wall. Below and above the lit portion of the tubes, Irwin has wrapped layers of different colored theatrical gels, comprising a pattern of stripes. The colors are mostly somber – dark purples, lavenders, greens, browns and beiges – although in some instances, one or two narrow bands of color are illuminated: a bright red or yellow glowing strip that suggests signals. Except for the far end of the exhibition space, the skylights above the installation have been wrapped in grey gels, creating a subdued, shadowy light.
As I wandered through the rooms, fluorescent tubes from the neighboring chambers glowed like ghosts through the scrim. Other visitors would briefly appear and disappear, near and far, through the diminishing doorways within doorways. The fabric walls suggested the privacy and permeability of a tent, in contrast to the rigid, mazelike geometry. While the space was logically defined, the structure itself was illusive, figures and lights and distant windows and the horizon of the floor and overhead beams casting shifting patterns on the white scrim, like wavering reflections on water. Approachable from all sides, the structure is non-hierarchical, and its play of light demonstrates its temporal aspect; assistant curator Kelly Kivland noted that the colors and shadows shift as the day progresses and vary according to the weather and season.
What at first seemed like a fairly simple, straightforward construction revealed subtleties of detail as one lingered. The glowing fluorescent tubes from room to room each radiated a slightly different tinted light – greenish, faded rose, like old pewter, or coppery, not at all like the monotonous white glare of commercial tubes; the subtle hues had a patina, as if each tube were made of antique glass. The bands of color, at first glance rather dull, on closer inspection revealed a rich variation.
The scrim itself was spray-painted with a chest-high band of slightly darker (or lighter; the tone shifted with each wall) shade, more subtle than the overlay created by the distant line of the floor. And while the view through one set of doorways constituted a series of darker-gray diminishing rectangular frames, in the opposite direction the frames of the doorways lightened as they moved into the distance, ending in a handkerchief of white. This sparest of physical structures reverberated its depths like an echo chamber.
Excursus: Homage to the Square3, which will be on view for two years, is a distillation of the sensibility that transformed the Dia:Beacon building and grounds into a unified whole. It speaks to Irwin’s accomplishment as artist/designer that this harmonious whole is never static or oppressive. Each part is a variation on a theme: Expanses of maple flooring lit by skylights and huge windows in the industrial brick walls shift midway down the structure into the cement floors of dimly lit caverns, sections of which are lit by rows of bare suspended lightbulbs. It’s a yin/yang conceit: the pairing of day and night, summer and winter, light and dark.
The landscaping continues the motif of the grid, an architectonic scheme transformed by greenery. To the right as one approaches the museum, the four quadrants of hornbeam shrubs, edged in steel, are divided by a narrow wooden walkway: an inverse of the museum’s division of rooms (the shrubs) by walls (the walkways).
A large enclosed garden along the side of the museum, adjacent to the railroad tracks, is an exercise in perfect symmetry, with its two rectangles of two rows of planted fruit trees, each punctuated by a weeping hemlock; risers of red barberry form a blaze of color at one end, while wisteria dreamily climbs a wall at the other end. Even the parking lot is integrated into the plan, with rows of angled crabapples forming a counterpart to the asphalt. In the totality of its vision, Dia:Beacon is a kind of Versailles of Minimalism, and Excursus: Homage to the Square is the tremulous jewel at its heart – a luminous palimpsest that each viewer brings into being.
Excursus: Homage to the Square3, Thursday-Monday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; $12/$10/$8, Dia:Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon; (845) 440-0100, https://diaart.org.