Almost four decades have passed since an exhibition called Primary Structures (1966) was organized at the Jewish Museum in New York. For many of the people who saw it, Primary Structures was their first encounter with what was soon to be called Minimalism-an art so radically denuded of embellishment, complexity or any obvious visual appeal that it instantly posed a daunting linguistic challenge for artists, critics and curators who were attempting to “sell” this new movement to the public.
One enthusiastic critic-Barbara Rose-dubbed the movement “ABC Art.” The late Donald Judd, one of its most articulate and doctrinaire exponents, entitled his own manifesto “Specific Objects” and vehemently rejected the “Minimalist” label. So, too, did a number of other artists in the movement. Yet Minimalism is the name that stuck, and the art itself has now, a couple of generations after its debut in Primary Structures , been given a museum that is almost-but not quite-exclusively devoted to Minimalism’s oversized, undernourished accomplishments.
This is the vast, expensively ascetic folly that calls itself Dia:Beacon, which occupies some 240,000 square feet of exhibition space in a former box-printing facility on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y.-a museum likely to be known to future generations as a place that everyone with an interest in art has visited once, but without finding any reason to repeat the experience.
It’s a nice coincidence, of course-if, indeed, it is a coincidence-that the sleekly renovated structure that now houses this shrine to geometric form and boxy objects was originally designed for the large-scale printing of commercial boxes. Yet given the building’s provenance, as it may be called, it’s disappointing to find that none of Andy Warhol’s celebrated Brillo Boxes qualified for inclusion at Dia:Beacon. What museological account of the box aesthetic can be considered complete without one? After all, unlike any other box in recorded history, Warhol’s has been credited with making an epochal change in the annals of artistic creation: the point at which the history of art was somehow metamorphosed into the history of philosophy. (I refer, of course, to Arthur Danto’s well-known claim that Warhol’s Brillo Box of 1964 brought the history of Western art to a close.)
For reasons known only to the savants in charge of Dia:Beacon, Warhol has instead been given an entire gallery devoted to his multiple-version Shadows paintings, which, as a throwback to-or perhaps, a parody of?-the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, look somewhat alien in this Minimalist environment. But the Shadows pictures nonetheless meet what might be called the Dia:Beacon standard of merit in two important respects: They are unrelievedly boring and they are maddeningly repetitious. Repetition-or Serialism, as it is usually called in the art world-is indeed what Dia:Beacon offers in abundance in lieu of artistic complexity, aesthetic invention or depth of feeling.
As for boredom, well, this was one of those attributes of Minimalism that its champions proudly acclaimed from the outset. “Boring the public,” wrote Barbara Rose in her “ABC” defense of Minimalism, “is one way of testing its commitment. The new artists seem to be extremely chary: approval, they, know, is easy to come by in this sellers’ market for culture, but commitment is nearly impossible to elicit. So they make their art as difficult, remote, aloof and indigestible as possible. One way to achieve this is to make art boring.” By this measure-both the boredom quotient itself and the scale of financial commitment to boredom as an artistic principle-Dia:Beacon’s achievement is destined to remain unrivaled for the foreseeable future.
Most of the art in the Dia:Beacon collection requires huge amounts of space. Yet notwithstanding the gargantuan quantities of art that Dia:Beacon easily accommodates, so vast are its exhibition spaces that the place itself strikes the visitor as sterile and forlorn. Visitors wander about its endless interior with vacant stares and silent lips-not so much looking at the art as looking for it, even when they are in its immediate physical presence. Sooner or later, they are found huddling together for succor around the abundant wall texts, which, although easily read, tend to be even more confounding than the objects and spaces they are meant to illuminate.
In such a chaste and unwelcoming environment, where the scale of the architecture reduces so much of the art to a mere coefficient of the space it occupies, it’s by no means an easy thing for the individual artist to establish a distinctive aesthetic presence. Among the talents that most emphatically succeed in this endeavor, all but one are well-known sculptors. Richard Serra’s aesthetic of intimidation, here represented in a series of Torqued Ellipses and related works (1990’s-2001), is made-to-order for an institutional environment like Dia:Beacon, which seems to cry out for a challenge to its own orderly vacancy. The 15 untitled wooden boxes (1976) by Donald Judd, another member of what might be called Minimalism’s royal family, are a salutary reminder of how well the artist’s isolationist, America-first, anti-European philosophy of art has succeeded in stripping the sculpture of even a minimum trace of aesthetic delight. On the other hand, John Chamberlain’s brazen polychrome abstract sculptures-another throwback to the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic-strike a wonderful discordant note of visual pleasure.
In my view, however, the art that most triumphantly succeeds in overcoming the negative atmosphere at Dia:Beacon is to be found in the abstract paintings of Agnes Martin, whose genius for delicacy, subtlety and sheer visual poetry makes so much of what one sees in this monster museum look not only wildly overextended, but long past its expiration date. When you enter a gallery of Ms. Martin’s paintings, you enter a zone of contemplation and something akin to prayer. Yet for those who want an all-out assault on the nervous system, you can find that too in Bruce Nauman’s installation in Dia:Beacon’s basement.
My advice for visitors to Dia:Beacon is not to go on a rainy day, or even a cloudy day, especially if you’re susceptible to depression. This is a museum that needs all the sunshine nature is capable of providing-and at least a portion of the mindless optimism that went into its creation. For ideal conditions at this Minimalist facility, you might have to wait until spring.