There is a Sculptor’s Heaven and I Have Been There

Posted on Monday June 25, 2012

What a fantastic day! The sun shone, the birds tweeted (somewhere), much of America’s GBLTQ&Whatever population was out on the NYC streets in the prettiest of rainbow gear (it was Gay Pride Day, and they were on the march) without actually blocking entry to Grand Central Station – and a few of us from SVA were heading upstate to the small town of Beacon on the banks of the Hudson. Even the hour-and-a-half train journey up there was pleasant, as the track hugs the river all the way.

Just opposite the station at Beacon there’s a small dock with a few boats moored nearby, including a magnificent vintage yacht. When we arrived, the dock was bustling with a small local produce market. Golly, it was like something out of Leave it to Beaver or one of those wholesome family shows of the 60s.

The Hudson River at Beacon

But we hadn’t come for the market, or the beautiful green spaces there – though it was so nice to be away from the heat and crush of NYC for a few hours. Beacon is home to Dia:Beacon, an enormous gallery that houses displays of work by the biggest names in American sculpture from the 60s.  When I say enormous, I mean gi-normous. The building is a former packaging plant of the Nabisco Company – makers of those Ritz crackers that we had on Special Occasions back home.

Like the building at Mass MoCA, also a relic from a previous industrial age, the Dia:Beacon gallery almosts needs no artwork in it: it is an artwork in itself. It has a high sawtooth roof with clerestory windows on the vertical pitches, held up by a framework of poured concrete triangular trusses, rectangular beams and pillars. The walls and supports are painted white, and the floors are either narrow timber strip or polished concrete. The spaces are so long and wide and open and well-lit that there’s a feeling of awe. It’s my kind of cathedral.

The artwork is a bonus. The 60s were a great time for American sculpture. Sculptors were breaking free of traditional materials, forms and structures. Dan Flavin was taking his fluorescent tube works into new territory. Sol Lewitt was writing his detailed instructions for works to be created in pencil and paint on gallery walls. Richard Serra was starting to play with massive rusted steel sheet. Joseph Beuys was taking his sheets of felt and stacks of debris and making strange things that looked like sheets of felt and stacks of debris with them. John Chamberlain was taking panels and bumpers off car wrecks and crushing them into interesting shapes. Louise Bourgeois was crafting her suggestive, genital-influenced forms in stone and bronze. And they’re all here at Dia:Beacon.

The second bonus of such a large space is that there’s enough room to house a collection of each artist’s work (not just one or two items) and to give them elbow room. You can walk around every piece and not be pushed up close against it – except for Richard Serra’s massive recent works, where the feeling of being pushed up against them is part of the experience. These are giant circular constructions – maybe ten metres across, five metres tall – made of rusted, rolled steel plate about 4 cm thick. The feeling of sheer mass is overwhelming. And Dia:Beacon has the best Serra I’ve ever seen: a leaning ship-like form, with a sharp-ended canoe footprint.

Serra at Beacon

But the Serras et al weren’t what I came for. My real targets were the works by Michael Heizer. Heizer was one of the first ‘earth artists’ (a group that included Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria) who made sculpture by shaping the earth rather than by placing shaped objects on the earth. Heizer took this revolution even further. He actually removed the earth, creating shaped negative spaces. Yes, yes, I know miners and ditchdiggers had been doing this for centuries before, but that’s not the point, chum. His were sculptural indentations. Since the early 70s he’s been working on a massive construction in the Nevada desert called City. This work, whose construction is being supported by the Dia Foundation, is so big it can be seen from space. That’s my kind of sculpture, Mick Dundee.

Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West

Heizer’s work at Dia:Beacon isn’t quite so grand, but it’s impressive enough. It features four spaces set into the gallery floor – an inverted cone, a square, a triangular-section rectangle, a truncated cone. Each is now lined with weathering steel. They are, literally, not there. Spacey, huh?

Today there was also a temporary exhibition of sculpture and photography by Jean-Luc Moulene, an artist I wasn’t previously aware of. Most of the sculptures were small – from just a few centimeters to maybe a metre tall. Most of them dealt with the body, including the dead body. All were intriguing, with interesting combinations of materials, surfaces and colors. They all felt thought through, not just plonked together. They made a good case for contemporary sculpture. I wish I had som pix to show, but Dia:Beacon has a strict ‘no photography’ policy. (The pix above just happened to be captured when my iPhone fell out of my pocket and landed on the floor, setting off the shutter. I can’t explain how this happened several times.)

If you’re ever in NYC, do yourself a favor – go up to Dia:Beacon. It really recharged my batteries, in several ways.