BEACON, NY — A visit last weekend to Dia:Beacon, the vast repository of Minimalist art on the east bank of the Hudson River, brought home once more the complexities and contradictions of a movement whose goal was to be as plain as the nose on your face.
It also underscored the ways in which reductivism — whose puritanical bent has been frequently scorned (not without reason) by postmodernists who pledged themselves to reopening art to emotion, experience, nature, history, literature, and so on — can offer a clarifying, even revivifying corrective to the high-toned, industrial-scale fabrications topping the contemporary market.
But first it is necessary to sort through the baggage. The work currently on long-term display at Dia represents nearly two dozen artists who happen to be exclusively American or German, exclusively white, and, save for Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Lawler, and Hilla Becher, exclusively male. The focus is, to say the least, narrow.
Such an imbalance is as antithetical to aesthetics as it is to history. There are stretches of the museum in which a feeling of sameness and emptiness sets in, with a stylistic specificity, centered on the clean and geometric, that makes more allusive terms of expression, such as the sculptural installations of Louise Bourgeois or Joseph Beuys’s drawings by based on the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, feel like outliers.
It’s a no-brainer to suggest that the handmade sensibility of Eva Hesse, Jacqueline Winsor, Jackie Ferrara, Anne Truitt, and Jo Baer, to name a few, would add an essential layer of historical context to the generation of artists collected by the museum, but it would also document, via the postminimalism of Hesse, Winsor, and Ferrara, the infusion of real-world concerns that shook up formalist orthodoxies as the end of the 1970s approached. Again, these objections are nothing new, and last year they came to a head with the protests over the museum’s retrospective of Carl Andre, who was tried and acquitted in the death of his wife, Ana Mendieta.
Turning to the art that is there rather than that which is not, it is very easy to give yourself over to the light-drenched, Apollonian perfection of the place. Dan Flavin’s rack of red, white, and blue florescent tubes mounted against an enormous bank of windows is one sublime vision; Agnes Martin’s series of acrylic-and-graphite paintings, Innocent Love (1999), and the adjacent gallery of Blinky Palermo’s Times of the Day (1974–76), consisting of 24 tripartite abstractions, are others.
But I kept circling back to an unlikely twosome: Sol Lewitt, whose works ultimately exist in the realm of thought, and Richard Serra, the wizard of absolute tonnage. The museum lavishes enormous amounts of space on both of them. Lewitt’s drawings cover high-walled gallery after high-walled gallery, while Serra claims an entire floor for four of his torqued ellipses; a fifth, boat-shaped steel sculpture fills a gallery upstairs, while two black oilstick drawings run the length of a room, and 45 lead maquettes for the torqued ellipses populate a long, low table.
I never thought I would describe anything Serra touched as poignant, but there is something disarmingly affecting about these rounded, battleship gray sheets of lead, each curled by hand with a customized oval rolling device into an off-kilter, almost biomorphic pre-echo of the artist’s immense and impermeable steel ellipses. These are not scale models of planned sculptures, but experimental tryouts of an idea (for a commission from Dia) that Serra’s engineers doubted could work. In the current installation they are lined up in pairs across the length of the low, wooden table, looking as malleable and vulnerable as paper.
The contrast with the steel structures couldn’t be starker — the colossal increase in scale and change of materials transform the character of the concept, lending it a forbidding grandeur intrinsic to its engineering perfection. The work of other hands, in Serra’s case, is dedicated to the consummation of a meticulously laid-out project. The resulting sculptures are dark and hulking arenas of power, where the sensory awareness of pure form is compounded by an exhilarating submission to pure spectacle. The lead maquettes, lurking below eye level, feel self-protective by comparison, their thin metal membrane barely differentiating the inside from the outside. Our gaze, sweeping over the curling sheets of lead, possesses them in their entirety. The steel sculptures, by design, possess us.
The work of other hands is mandatory to the visualization of Lewitt’s art as well, but it is irrelevant to its essence, given that each piece consists of a set of instructions detailing the creation of the piece, which in theory as well as practice can be made, unmade, and remade ad infinitum. Lewitt, who died in 2007 at the age of 78, demonstrated over the course of his career that his combinatory procedures, despite their limited parameters, are capable of yielding configurations that are as richly imaginative as they are seemingly endless.
He also occupies the opposite pole from Serra, whose engineering plans are obviously subordinate to the realized work. To be in the presence of Lewitt’s art, his wall drawings in particular (I tend to find his sculptures predictable and inert), is to bask in the realm of thought; the manifestation of the piece in real space comes across not as a completed task but as an astonishing extrapolation of a platonic framework — the marks made by the collective of artists employed in the creation of the work retain the trace elements of the individual personalities, and their minute variations vibrate across the surface of the wall.
His grid drawings, despite the relentless logic of their recombined patterns, are a source of sheer elation, a radiant, ever-changing pattern of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines. That the actualized work is unguided by the artist’s eye, leaving the look of the piece to the incidentals of a preconceived system, makes its accidental beauty comparable to that of nature, but as nature’s inverse in its fundamental abstraction.
If the art of Lewitt and Serra, with its emphasis on group-based production — the engineers and forge technicians for Serra and the swarms of ruler-and-pencil wielding artists for Lewitt — could be considered a precursor to the workshops and factories run by today’s museum-sanctioned artist-CEOs, the line of succession has gone seriously off track.
For Lewitt, and for Serra, too, despite the titanic aggressiveness that his steel sculpture often projects, the beauty of the object is the beauty of an idea. The material is handled brilliantly, but it is brought to fruition as the physical realization of that idea. Unlike the omnipresent finish fetish of today’s industrially fabricated art, the perfection of Lewitt’s graphite grids or Serra’s steel ellipses isn’t for its own sake; rather, it is based on a core belief in the power of reason, and it can take your breath away.
The work of Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Lawler, Hilla Becher, Dan Flavin, Blinky Palermo, Joseph Beuys, Sol Lewitt, and Richard Serra is currently on long-term view at Dia:Beacon (3 Beekman Street, Beacon, New York).