Not long after we first moved to the mid-Hudson Valley some years ago, we went on an expedition to the town of Beacon. We stopped at a lunch place that doubled as a gallery; the painting near our table, an artfully straightforward painting on wood salvaged from the local biscuit factory, appealed to us, so we inquired. The price was modest, and, after some hesitation about a splurge on what was not, after all, “high art,” we took it home. Ever since, this painting, of a cheerful vase of sunflowers sitting on a patchwork quilt, has greeted us on awakening. We’ve found it to be a happy way to start the day.
Since 2003, that biscuit factory, the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) Carton Making and Printing Plant, has housed Dia:Beacon, one of the mid-Hudson Valley’s treasurable cultural institutions. The building sits high above the Hudson River and, to my untutored eyes, is perfectly suited to the art it displays. For me, it provides one of those transformative visual experiences in which everything, whether specifically designated as art or not, is itself a work of art. At the time, I took all this in as visual magic without a thought, but of course the effect is not accidental:
Robert Irwin’s work at Dia:Beacon may elude the casual visitor. It consists of a master plan for the museum and its outdoor spaces, as well as design work on numerous aspects of the project, most notably the extensive landscape environment, where Irwin was involved in every aspect of the plantings, paving and fencing, and windows and doors.
Most important, Irwin helped Dia consider the design of the Beacon project in experiential and environmental terms as a totality—from the visitor’s entrance, by car or by foot, down a driveway marked at its top by a gate and a new copper beech tree, through an orchard that serves as a parking lot, into a plaza that signals one’s arrival at the museum . . . [citation]
Visiting Dia:Beacon, I’ve traveled through the valley of bafflement toward curiosity, appreciation, and ultimately enjoyment of artists I’d either not known or not understood. OK, Blinky Palermo I still don’t get. But Sol LeWitt taught me that conceptual art might actually be art in the right hands, and John Chamberlain’s sheet-metal privet is a marvel I hope will be displayed again. I’ve come to love Donald Judd’s precisely constructed objects, Gerhardt Richter’s mirrored conversations with physical space, Richard Serra’s vertigo-inducing behemoths, and, above all, three rooms dedicated to the eloquent stillness of Agnes Martin’s luminous artistic vision.
Bravo, I thought, to the Dia visionaries who recognized the possibilities and purchased the property for the price of a million dollar environmental cleanup before transformation could occur—a transformation that has radiated out, helping to lift Beacon’s fortunes, including its vibrant, fiercely independent, main street. And there’s this, in honor of the person who is perhaps Beacon’s most famous resident: in October, 2009, Dia:Beacon inaugurated a policy of free admission for Beacon residents on Saturdays and Sundays, “made possible by Lyn and John Fischbach in honor of Pete Seeger.” [citation] May his spirit abide.
Postscript: Of course, not everyone agrees. Here’s an example of the pro side:
Despite the 180 degree-evolution in its use, the old Nabisco box factory again represents the marriage of form and function and is driving Beacon’s economic engine, much as the factory did during its industrial heyday. [citation]
And here’s an example of the con, in “From industry to culture: leftovers, time and material transformation in four contemporary museums”:
Material change and decay are a means to reveal the past and imagine the future at MASS MoCA and the Design Zentrum. This design approach aligns with a strong appreciation of their industrial and social history evident in the major historic designations that were sought and awarded for both sites. The sanitised surfaces of Dia:Beacon and Tate Modern demonstrate less concern for what has gone before and more for a globalised and pristine present. In the case of leftover and reconfigured industrial architecture, openness to material trans-formation, palimpsest and even dirtiness is an effective means of allowing the past to remain visible and provocative, while positioning cultural institutions in the present as part of ongoing and open processes of imagination, interpretation and accretion in time, with no end in sight. [citation]
Agnes Martin said of her work
I want to draw a certain response. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature—an experience of simple joy . . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean. [citation]
To my mind, the perfect musical counterpart for Agnes Martin’s work is John Luther Adams’s transfixing Become Ocean, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Adams said of the piece:
What I want for you as a listener is to be right in the middle of the orchestra. Become Ocean lends itself very well to putting you in the middle of this ocean of sound, with these three sections of the orchestra ebbing and flowing, rising and falling, crashing over and swirling around each other. It rumbles the floor and tickles your backbone, and at the same time, you feel the depth of the waves and the spray of the sea. That’s what I’m reaching for. [citation]
Credits: The sources for the quotations may be found at the links provided in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.