At the National Biscuit Company Carton Making and Printing Plant (a/k/a Dia:Beacon)

Inside Dia:Beacon

Inside Dia:Beacon

Sunflowers on Biscuit Factory salvaged wood (Susan Sylvester DiGilio)

Sunflowers on Biscuit Factory salvaged wood (Susan Sylvester DiGilio)

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]

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

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]

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Listening List

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]

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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.











25 thoughts on “At the National Biscuit Company Carton Making and Printing Plant (a/k/a Dia:Beacon)

  1. shoreacres

    I’ll be back tonight to read the post, but I thought this would amuse you. When I read the title, I assumed it was yet another Ashbery poem. It certainly would fit into his latest collection, don’t you think?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: It would, it would! And interesting to note, at least when I pull up this post, that WordPress inserts as one related post, “Skating Above the Ice,” which gives prominent place to Ashbery’s The Skaters.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    This looks like my kind of place. Serra and Judd are two of my favorite artists. I haven’t seen a lot of Agnes Martin’s work, and photos clearly don’t reveal what’s going on. Gotta say, this sure looks like the best thing the Nabisco company has going on. Yeah, and Oreos. In moderation.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: It’s a wonderful place, and I don’t get there often enough. I’m pleased they’ve started to allow photographs (non-flash, for personal use only). Even though there are plenty of professional photographs, including on the website, it’s always fun to have your own “take.” On Martin, there is a wonderful documentary about her, Agnes Martin: With My Back To The World, that I’d love to see again. In it, or perhaps in discussing making the film, I don’t recall, the documentarian noted the extreme difficulty of photographing Martin’s work. One of the things I find striking, and surely a contributing factor to the difficulty of photographing, her work is her application of paint, so thinly applied as to seem almost transparent. I’ve not seen painting with oil (actually, in the case of these paintings, acrylic, so perhaps the properties are closer?) that shares such a kinship with watercolor as does hers. (I haven’t seen any, but Martin also worked in watercolor, as you may know, and Ashbery apparently described her watercolors as “almost distressingly powerful.”) I’d love to read John Ashbery on Martin, but can’t seem to find anything directly. Here’s one observation, paraphrased in a news article on her death: “Agnes Martin’s work was, though, seen by critics more as minimal than minimalistic; the poet and critic John Ashbery drew attention to the fact that her geometrical shapes were more expressionistic than mechanical, and the result of a meditative, and often intimate, distillation of her reaction to light and form rather than a purely reductive exercise.”

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Mark: Thinking further about photographing and displaying Martin’s work, I was just reminded, in checking the the Dia:Beacon site, that its “galleries are lit almost entirely by natural light, and museum hours vary seasonally” as a result.

        1. Mark Kerstetter

          Lit by natural light–that’s wonderful. The Noguchi Museum is lit by natural light. It makes all the difference. I’d love to walk amongst that Serra work in particular.

      2. Mark Kerstetter

        I’ve broken this rule once or twice, but I try not to form an opinion on a painter or sculptor’s work that I’ve only seen in repros. With today’s photographic technology, it’s possible to take great photos, but some work resists even the best technology. And even so, you have to bring a lot of knowledge and imagination to realizing what you’re seeing in a photograph. There are so many factors. Agnes Martin’s work is incredibly subtle. Almost all I can tell from photos is the desire to see them for real.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark: I was back at Dia yesterday, and amused once again by how impossible it is to photograph her work. I’m reading the new biography now and really enjoying it.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan … I so often don’t like ‘big change’ that’s artistic … yet now I embrace so much … and I really don’t mind change in my own life. This looks to be an amazing place … I’d love to see it sometime … cheers Hilary

  4. Friko

    There are quite a number of old factories, halls and formerly industrial buildings which have been turned into modern art exhibitions in Germany. I think it’s a wonderful use of space. In the UK we have Battersea Power station, of course.

    I love that piece of music ‘Become Ocean’. Never heard it, or of it, before, but it grips me even at first hearing.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: So nice to “see” you here! Vis-a-vis such spaces in Germany, the article I linked to that discusses Dia:Beacon gives very high marks to the repurposing of a boiler house near Essen to become Design Zentrum. I loved visiting the Tate Modern and hope to do so again, and I look forward to a chance to visit Germany again one day and see some of what you’re noting there, too. Last not least, I’m just delighted, as you can imagine, that you had time for a listen and enjoyed Become Ocean. It is a lovely, evocative piece, and I love the idea of sharing enjoyment of it with you.

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    The Dia in Dia:Beacon puzzled me. I wondered whether it might be the Spanish word for day, día, but at

    I found that it’s the Greek dia- that means ‘through.’ The idea was that the foundation would help artists to bring their conceptions through to reality.

    Along the Texas–New York axis I also noticed that the Dia Art Foundation counts among its founders Philippa de Menil, a daughter of the de Menils whose art collection is housed in a museum in Houston:

    1. Steve Schwartzman

      On a page at the website you linked I found this:

      “Scott McGill, Professor of Classics, Rice University, and Christopher M. Johns-Krull, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Rice University, discuss Pythagoras and NASA, and the nine centuries that separate them.”

      The next paragraph notes that Pythagoras lived in the 6th century B.C., so how anybody came up with nine centuries between Pythagoras and NASA, I’m at a loss to explain.

  6. David N

    My kind of place too – the first thing I thought when I looked at the photos was how much light flooded in. The most beautiful modern gallery I know of is the Beyeler Foundation just outside Basel – but that was built by Renzo Piano, while this makes use of what was already there. I can see ambivalence about use of place, but let’s celebrate what was done to give the building new life.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Yes, light, above all. The Beyeler Foundation looks gorgeous. Piano designed an integration of the J. P. Morgan Library buildings in New York, and my immediate response was to celebrate the light flooding in. His work on the Morgan has been criticized, and I understand to some extent why, but I think he faced challenges in this renovation that were difficult to overcome. Dia, I would say, completely realizes its intentions, so while I am interested in countervailing views, in the end I think you–and Friko–are spot on in celebrating “what was done to give the building new life.”

      1. shoreacres

        My poor mind is zinging around, so I’ll start here, with just a note that, for a decade, my “corporate headquarters” was the Phelps/Morgan mansion at 231 Madison Avenue.The Lutheran Church in America set up shop there for a time, and I must say, it was always enjoyable to visit. I’d love to see the library today, although that Renzo-Piano entrance building seems a bit — something. I spent many, many hours in that library, and of course always found a new delight.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          shoreacres: Well, you DO get around! The Renzo-Piano addition doesn’t quite work, by most accounts, but I do think it shows what he can do. I know nothing about architecture, but it strikes me as particularly tricky to reconfigure this set of buildings, already a bit of a hodge-podge. But the contents are key, and as you note, there’s always a new discovery to make.

  7. newleafsite

    Quite a long time back, in another post discussion of Agnes Martin, I suggested Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 as a musical counterpart, and you added that something by Arvo Part, perhaps Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, would also fit. Having listened again to Ocean, I returned, as well, to the Cantus. It’s interesting how diverse these pieces all are, and yet what they have in common. They all begin by appearing atmospheric, to me. And immediately, and all unaware, one is deepening into the music, as into Martin’s paintings. Martin’s art remains an enigma for me, but I like this connecting with music. Perhaps, simply, the same wordless message is entering through a different form. — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Your memory is amazing! I do recall this, with your prompt, and think your observation about the three pieces, diverse, but with a commonality of atmospheric beginnings, is wonderful, as is that about deepening into the music unaware. Your words describe the sense I also have of “deepening” into Martin’s paintings, which has crept up on me unaware over time. I think for me, with Martin, seeing the documentary, which was, I think, my introduction to her and her work, had a big impact, as it showed her at work and also something of her sensibility. The work remains enigmatic for me, also, by the way, though I was struck on going back to the Dia’s Martin rooms after writing this post that they seemed to radiate a palpable sense of calm.

  8. shoreacres

    Although this space came about through renovation, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was newly constructed, I couldn’t help but think these words perfectly applicable to Crystal Bridges:

    “Robert Irwin’s work at Dia:Beacon… 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.”

    Part of the beauty of Crystal Bridges is precisely the way the building and grounds serve to frame the art — never overpowering, but always present. I’d love to visit Dia and Crystal Bridges again, and do a comparison. I wonder if anyone already has commented on the similarities between them?

    When I lived and worked in Houston, the grounds of the (Menil) Rothko Chapel were a favored spot for lunch. Close to the Museum District, the Medical Center, and Rice University, they provided a happy respite in the middle of busy days. I’m not so fond of the Rothko pieces in the Chapel itself, but the Menil collection falls into the category of not-to-be-missed.

    And how about this? Renzo Piano was involved with both Menil and Morgan.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: “never overpowering, but always present,” yes, that’s the tricky balance that needs to be struck, isn’t it? Now, on connections, turns out that the Dia Foundation was “established in 1974 as the Lone Star Foundation by Philippa de Menil,” who, as Steve noted, is a founder of Dia:Beacon.

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