Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse II, photo by Evan Namerow
This past Sunday, I got a satisfying dose of art, nature, and tranquility just a short train ride north of Manhattan. I escaped from New York City and headed to Beacon, New York, home of the Dia: Beacon, a contemporary art museum that houses works by some of the most significant artists of the last half century. Although the museum itself was the main attraction of the day (especially Richard Serra’s breathtaking sculptures), getting there was equally enjoyable. My companion and I boarded a Metro North train on Sunday morning, and after rattling past 125th Street and leaving the city, we were treated to scenic views of the Hudson for the rest of our eighty-minute journey. Fortunately, it was a gorgeous day: plenty of sailboats were on the water, and the mountains were just starting to show signs of autumn, with reds and oranges and yellows standing out among the stretches of green.
The view on the pathway to the Dia
Upon arriving in Beacon, we took the five-minute walk along the road and arrived at the Dia, which is housed in a 1929 Nabisco box-printing factory. Before even taking in the exhibits, I stood in awe of the massive size of the gallery space – a whopping 240,000 square feet. Although the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA aren’t exactly cramped, the Dia: Beacon has some unique assets that set it apart. The whole museum is lit naturally, and the sun turned out to be an integral ingredient for viewing many of the works. Furthermore, each gallery is devoted to a single artist, and the Dia catered to the artists’ needs in order to accommodate the unconventional dimensions and characteristics of their work.
The entrance to the Dia: Beacon
On the main level, Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (1969) shows a pile of shattered, transparent glass on the floor. But as its title suggests, there is a metaphorical significance to the work that forces the viewer to question the journey of each piece of glass to its current state. John Chamberlain used crushed automobile parts to make sculptures of varying sizes and dimensions in the 60s and 70s. Some were short and clunky, while another one included long, twisted strips of colorful metal that hung from the ceiling. In You see I am here after all (2008), Zoe Leonard depicted Niagara Falls through nearly 4000 vintage postcards of the destination. Michael Heizer’s Negative Megalith #5 (1998) shows a huge stone placed in a vertical wall, where the wall should be, while Fred Sandback wanted to create sculptures that did not have an inside. So, he made vertical thread constructions that depicted transparent geometries and linear trajectories, without having a definable volume.
One of the Dia’s galleries, photo by Tony Cenicola
The museum’s lower level houses four torqued sculptures by Richard Serra, an artist whose massive works first struck me when I saw them at the MoMA in 2007. They are on long-term display at the Dia, and as soon as I entered the room, I was soaked in Serra’s sculptural splendor. Situated next to each other, the four works fit snuggly into the enormous space, creating a sense of immediacy for the viewer. Although they are made of sheet metal, the sculptures’ earth tones, twists, and spirals – not to mention their striking size – make them seem grounded, natural, and organic. The earthy quality of Serra’s work is heightened by the natural light flooding through the windows, casting incredible shadows on the sculptures’ sides and occasionally creeping into their interiors. Walking through the labyrinthine structures was full of surprises. With their curving walls, it was impossible to know what was in front of me, and where exactly I would end up. Standing or sitting at the center of the sculptures was both intimidating and comforting: the walls felt protective and caring, but upon looking up, it was hard not to feel frightened by such towering, majestic beauty. Moreover, I was continually amazed by what Serra had accomplished: the upper and lower edges of each sculpture create a perfect ellipse.
Looking up from the ground, Serra’s curving sculpture meets the ceiling
As it turns out, Serra was strongly affected by contemporary dance as a young artist, prompting him to think about “ways of relating movement to material and space”. Furthermore, he said, “I found very important the idea of the body passing through space, and the body’s movement not being predicated totally on image or sight or optical awareness, but on physical awareness in relation to space, place, time, and movement.” Staring up at the sculptures gave me the sensation that the sculptures or I were constantly moving. And without any hard edges, the sculptures and their movement felt endless. Observing and entering Serra’s sculptures transported me miles away from the traditional art-viewing experience, yet I still felt firmly grounded and aware of my surroundings.
Although there were plenty of other visitors there on Sunday, my companion and I often felt like we had the Dia to ourselves. We spent a solid two hours in the museum and then spent some time exploring the outdoor spaces, which include a garden – where there is currently a sound installation – and plenty of grass to sprawl out and enjoy the quiet. On a sunny day, a trip to the Dia: Beacon is a perfect escape from the noise and chaos of Manhattan.
All photos by Evan Namerow unless otherwise noted