Taking a Break for Big Spaces

Maya Lin's wave field at Storm King.
Maya Lin's wave field at Storm King. // Creative Commons

Last weekend, I hung out with the Yale University Art Gallery guides in an abandoned factory and wandered through tall fields of grass in upstate New York. Art would never be the first word to come to mind when considering these two seemingly opposite spaces. Yet, both the factory and the 500-acre meadow display permanent collections that seem to have been made for them, and in some cases actually were. Dia:Beacon, located in Beacon, NY and the Storm King Art Center, in New Windsor, N.Y. are perfect escapes from the often overwhelming Yale bubble.

My favorite element of Dia:Beacon may have been the building itself. Originally a Nabisco box-printing facility, and later a factory for International Paper, it was donated to the Dia Foundation in 1999 to use as gallery space for the foundation’s monumental collection of minimalist art from 1960 to the present. This industrial space was never meant to be a gallery, yet its tall brick walls, large open rooms, and huge windows offering natural lighting, make it a perfect space for one. Ironically, and perhaps intentionally, much of the sculpture, painting and installation work in Dia:Beacon comments on industrialization and mass production. Many of the pieces are from the 1960s, a time when the factory itself was up and running. Head curator, Yasmil Raymond, and her team tackled the mammoth space and created a cohesive, but lenient narrative, that does not force visitors into one particular experience or understanding. There is no one point of entry into the collection. And, though I took a tour and gained some background knowledge, there is no writing on the walls to explain what you perceive — no mediator between viewer and art.

Visiting Dia:Beacon is a good way to see work by the biggest names of the postmodern and contemporary art scene. Each vast room is dedicated to a particular artist. Some of my favorites included Dan Flavin’s “‘monuments’ for V Tatlin,” a minimalist series that features megalithic fluorescent light fixtures that recede backwards almost infinitely into space. Andy Warhol’s “Shadows” takes over a high white-walled room with its 72 striking screen prints of the same shadow in various colors.  Richard Serra’s gargantuan sheet metal installations are in balance in the equally massive, naturally lit room they occupy.  Sol LeWitt, a Yale University Art Gallery favorite, is also given pride of place at Dia:Beacon, where you can find an entire maze of his famous mathematical wall drawings. But, though the factory space looms over you, it isn’t hard to approach the works on display. The Gallery Guides and I climbed between the legs of Louis Bourgeois’ giant spider, and even got past the glass to stare into the abysses of Michael Heizer’s four 20-foot-deep sheet metal craters.

Thirty minutes away, we continued our exploration in the far more open landscape of the Storm King Art Center. There, I really fell in love. When they acquired the site in 1960, Storm King’s founders, Ralph E. Ogden and H. Peter Stern, intended to use the land as a museum of the Hudson River School. However, in 1966, they acquired 13 geometric sculptures by American abstract expressionist, David Smith, and decided instead to use this rural setting as a stage for massive industrial sculptures. In this pursuit, they succeeded entirely. Storm King’s success articulates the surprising compatibility between natural and industrial. Roy Lichtenstein’s massive pop art boat, for instance, sits on an island in the middle of a pond with a comic-book female set on its prow, providing an ironic take on a 16th century figurehead. Like Dia:Beacon, Storm King also boasts other big names from abstract expressionism to contemporary art, including Yale’s own Maya Lin, who constructed a 240,000 square foot wave field on location. The wave field is about as site-specific as art can get, a series of 15-foot-high earthen mounds that roll outward before your eyes. Just as Dia:Beacon’s curators removed wall-descriptions to narrow the distance between art and viewer, Maya Lin completely breaks down boundaries between her wave field and its visitors. We ran up, down and across each wave, doing what would be considered the height of illegality at most conventional museums — touching the art. Lin’s wave field augments the natural landscape, but also blends into it. It is a quiet, yet powerful ode to the natural world. It’s recession into the horizon recalls “Women’s Table,” her simple, but direct testament to the female presence at Yale which sits outside the Sterling Memorial Library.

Dia:Beacon and Storm King are opposite spaces, yet they achieve almost the same effect. They are made for the art they display and for visitors with the keen and critical eye that I know Yale students have.

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