The Possibility of a Frame: A Walk Through Dia:Beacon by Etan Nechin

by Etan Nechin

From the outside, Dia:Beacon isn’t impressive. The brown brick industrial facade looks drab, unremarkable, almost unappealing. Surely not as architecturally arresting as the Whitney or The New Museum, not grandiose as the Met or The Frick. Dia looks like a generic industrial building, a relic from America’s manufacturing age—an unspace.

Entrance to Dia:Beacon
Entrance to Dia:Beacon

It seems almost inconceivable that this building, in a wayside town in the Hudson Valley, is home to some of the most monumental works by the most celebrated minimalist and postminimalist artists of the latter part of the 20th century. But it starts to make sense when art critic Rotem Rozental, who works in the museum’s education department, explains to me that Dia wasn’t built, but rather was converted. Before it housed works by Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Robert Irwin, Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin, Gerhard Richter, Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, the space was used as a printing facility for Nabisco. This immediately provokes questions not only about art, but also about politics, architecture, economics, geography. And this is what the anything-anywhere quality of the museum, its structure and surroundings, offers the viewer: a space to carve his or her own entrance, or, like its name Dia (Greek for through), a frame. Because, what is a frame if not another type of entrance.

And this is what the anything-anywhere quality of the museum, its structure and surroundings, offers the viewer: a space to carve his or her own entrance.

The first work that appears as we enter the museum is Walter De Maria’s 1981  360˚ I Ching/ 64 Sculptures. The sprawling piece covers two galleries. It is made of white lacquered rods laid on a red velvet carpet and arranged in patterns according to the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination text. Rotem explains that the work deals with chance and possibility, as De Maria was fascinated by math, geometry, and their connection to the metaphysical. We walk from one side of the piece to the other, catching a glimpse of the second gallery, an exact mirror image of the gallery we’re in.

360˚ I Ching / 64 Sculptures by Walter De Maria
360˚ I Ching / 64 Sculptures, 1981

The stillness and sameness of the work does a double trick: not only does it deal with the possibilities of shape and arrangement in the room itself, but also gives the sense that it takes the viewer into consideration. Perhaps this is the greatness of the I Ching, and why De Maria and others were fascinated by it. Form in itself has a finite amount of combinations, materials, possibilities. But when a subject is present, the possibilities become as endless as the question one can ask. De Maria’s piece is to be discovered each time anew, from a different angle, on a different day. In this way, it mimics the I Ching—even if one were to ask the ancient text the same question multiple times, they would surely receive if not a different answer altogether, a new way of understating it.

Excursus by Robert Irwin
Excursus: Homage to the Square³, 1998/2015

From there, Rotem and I enter Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square3, first shown at Dia’s old space in Chelsea in 1998. Excursus consists of 16 interconnected rooms, whose walls are made of light, scrim fabric. Each room has vertical fluorescent lights covered in various colored gels, dividing the light into thirds. It is at once a tribute to and engaged in conversation with Josef Albers’ monumental series Homage to the Square, in which the relations of different colors of geometric shape alter the viewer’s perception. Although on the surface, there were no major changes to the work since it was moved from Chelsea, it takes on new meaning—or relation—in this new space. Rotem points out the skylights above the piece, covered in a matte filter, obscuring the natural light. This was not done by chance—Irwin was heavily involved in the master planning of the museum, and the surrounding landscaping.

Irwin’s vision is seen (and unseen) throughout the museum, where the light is controlled by patterning these matte filters on old factory windows. So even though the skylights are not a part of the piece, they are intrinsic to it. The light, and lack of it, accentuates the see-through quality of the scrim fabric and the color manifestations of the fluorescent lights (also obscured by different filters). Irwin was well aware that light is the basis of color, and that by manipulating it, new possibilities of experiencing color can emerge.

Light is consciously manipulated with matte glass.

We walk between the rooms dedicated to Joseph Buys’ sketches, Robert Smithson’s postminimalist thrusts, Blinky Palermo’s fabric painting, Gerhard Richter’s Six Gray Mirrors, and more. The museum is designed as a system of rooms that lead into other rooms: some are spacious, some are cramped, some, like those that house Excursus or Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, are rooms within rooms.

Space is itself visible as a part of the work.

We stop and look at the two rooms dedicated to Robert Morris. The first is a series of sculptures from the early 60’s representing his early work, and the minimalist movement as a whole, dedicated to geometry, championing a starkness and bareness of form.  These geometric shapes occupy the room, devoid of metaphor, forcing the viewer to place the emphasis of his or her gaze on arrangement in the physical space rather than on any suggestion of representation.  Space is itself visible as a part of the work.

Untitled (Dirt), 1968/2016

The second room houses Morris’ newest piece at Dia, one from the late 60’s simply called Dirt. This represents Morris’ shift into postminimalism: an anti-formalist stance­, ­a loose installation of unbound material. And at first glance, the description is in the title: it’s dirt, a heap of post-industrial dross. But dirt, after all, is never just dirt. Here, it’s grease, peat moss, brick, steel, copper, aluminum, brass, zinc, and felt.  The work is interesting not only in its historical context and material contexts, but also in the way the two spaces that house the work correspond. Dirt is a byproduct of space (we dig a hole, and next to it a mound appears).  It is an unwanted leftover of what we mean. It is heterogeneous where the geometric shapes in the other room are homogenous­­. Dirt it is an amalgamation of excess. This excess belongs to the works in the other room. It belongs to that space (it literally can’t be moved) and to the context in which it was conceived. As a viewer, I wonder what is the excess of vision, and even more so, as one someone attempting to write about Morris’ work—what is an excess of words?

The last piece we focus on is Dan Flavin’s Untitled (To You, Heiner, With Admiration and Affection) from 1973 from his Barrier Series. The piece is in the bottom floor of the museum, a space which used to be the factory’s parking lot. To see it, we descend side stairs into darkness, where a green glow radiates through the entrance to the bottom floor. As we turn the corner, a huge blast of cut light momentarily blinds me.

by Dan Flavin
Untitled (To You Heiner, With Admiration and Affection), 1973

As the blinding lights become bearable, I get my bearings and examine the cavernous space. There are remnants of the factory: faded parking lot line striping and cement columns that are marked with letters and numbers. The piece is made with individual fluorescent boxes that put side by side, create a grid that demarcates an imaginary boundary that separates space from itself.

But this seemingly arbitrary border works. Its presence does manipulate the space. This work is Flavin at his clearest: the work is not about architecture, but rather is a work in architecture. It evokes a strong sense of space that is real, palpable, delineated and disrupted at the same time.

There are many more important works at Dia, and more than 60% of the collection at Dia is permanent. The shortest time a piece is exhibited is six months, and the longest can be years (Excursus has shown since 2015 and is running until May 2017). The reason for this permanence, as Rotem pointed out, is the desire for the viewer to develop a relationship with the works. But what is that type of relationship?  Minimalism, unlike figurative or modern art, isn’t immediate. It takes effort to sort out the form from the theory, the history from context. For me, the works, and Dia itself offer a relationship that’s unfixed. Like a frame, Dia marks the endless possibility of a beginning. It changes with my mere presence, with every shift in my angle of vision. So perhaps Dia doesn’t only offer just one entrance—but offers all the possibilities of an entrance.

Etan Nechin is an Israeli born writer. His fiction and essays were published at ZYZZYVA, Potluck Magazine, MonkeyBicycle, Gravel, Entropy, MutualArt  and more. His co-written text for a performance, UTTER: The Violent Necessary for the Embodied Presence of Hope was shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale. His essay is forthcoming at Apogee.

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