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Lofty art dreams in a slumping town

Contemporary work gets a very big home along the Hudson River.

May 17, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

BEACON, N.Y. — It's a temple of art for devotees of Minimalism, Conceptual sculpture and earthworks. It's a day in the country for those who prefer their art in a pastoral setting but not too far from the Manhattan action. It's the latest example of an economically depressed town trying to revive itself, in this case by turning a printing plant into a contemporary art center.

The meaning of Dia:Beacon -- a highly touted nonprofit showcase for contemporary art that opens Sunday -- lies in the minds of its beholders. But everyone agrees on one thing: It's big.

Big in terms of dimensions. Located on a 31-acre site on the eastern bank of the Hudson River 60 miles north of Manhattan, the building has 240,000 square feet of exhibition space. And it's filled with huge, multi-part installations by 22 artists, from Andy Warhol to Richard Serra, who established themselves in the 1960s and '70s.

Dia:Beacon is also big in terms of image and ambition. Created to display the art collection of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation, the new museum presents art that "defies description," "knows no boundaries" and signifies "a new beginning," in the words of Leonard Riggio, founder and chairman of Barnes & Noble who now chairs Dia's board of trustees and is the foundation's major donor. The value of the art is self-evident, he says: "This is art because I know it to be, feel it to be. The truth is in the work, not in the description."

If the art speaks for itself, its new home says a lot about the aspirations of the town and the foundation. A $50-million project, including $2.7 million from state and local government, Dia:Beacon is expected to attract 100,000 visitors a year and to be an economic boon to the community. The building, last occupied by International Paper Co., had been empty and on the market for more than a decade. With the help of Gov. George E. Pataki, Dia officials persuaded the firm to donate the building to the foundation.

The Beacon facility is also supposed to inject new life into the Dia Art Foundation, which was established in 1974 by German art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil, a Schlumberger oil heiress and the daughter of Houston art patrons John and Dominique de Menil. Named for a Greek word meaning "through," Dia was conceived as a conduit for extraordinary artistic achievement. In its early days, it supported projects of unprecedented size and scope, such as Walter de Maria's "Lightning Field," an installation of 400 steel poles on a mile-long stretch of remote land in New Mexico, and James Turrell's "Roden Crater," a perceptual environment carved out of a defunct volcano in northern Arizona.

But Schlumberger's stock plummeted in the early 1980s. Eventually, the foundation had to sell off some of its art collection and real estate. Leadership of the foundation changed several times during the belt-tightening and Riggio took over in 1998. Meanwhile, Dia created a new public face for itself with the Dia Center for the Arts, in Manhattan's Chelsea district, which opened in 1987. With the coming of Dia:Beacon -- which will present long-term displays -- the Manhattan showcase will continue to present temporary exhibitions but change its name to Dia:Chelsea.

The Beacon philosophy concentrates on one artist at a time. There is "no hierarchy of spaces," notes Michael Govan, director of the Dia foundation. "Each artist's work was given a space tailored for it and special to it."

Dan Flavin's fluorescent light works are displayed on a long zigzag wall that runs through the center of one long gallery. Nearby, 72 paintings from Warhol's "Shadows" series wrap around a large rectangular room. Toward the back of the building, Michael Heizer's "Negative Megalith #5," a huge granite boulder encased in an open steel box, is embedded in a wall. His "North, East, South, West" stretches across a vast sweep of floor space. At first the work appears to be a line of flat circles and squares, but they turn out to be terrifying steel-lined voids that plunge 20 feet below the concrete surface.

Strolling through the museum, visitors also encounter Hanne Darboven's "Cultural History 1880-1983," composed of 1,590 framed sheets and 19 sculptural objects; John Chamberlain's massive sculptures of crushed auto bodies; Fred Sandback's spare constructions, which use taut lengths of colored yarn to divide rooms into surprising shapes; and Richard Serra's 13-foot-tall steel "Torqued Ellipses."

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