Maximum Space for Minimalist Art ; the New Dia:Beacon, the Largest Contemporary Art Museum Anywhere, Gives Rarely Seen Works a Home

Article excerpt

The first thing that strikes you is the space. With 240,000 square feet of galleries, the new Dia:Beacon museum, which opened May 18 in Beacon, N.Y., is the largest museum of contemporary art anywhere. But it's not just about outer space. Dia aims to cultivate inner space.

"This is art you don't just see with your eyes but you take in with your spirit," says Leonard Riggio, chief benefactor and chair of the Dia Art Foundation.

Minimalist art in a maxi-size space? The last thing the New York area needs is another museum - right?

Wrong. The new museum, the size of a Wal-Mart megastore, is filled not only with glorious light, but with works that invite contemplation. Ironically, minimalist art is massive sculpture. What's minimal about it is that it's pure form - with simple lines, serially repeating elements, with no recognizable imagery or narrative.

Before Beacon, the Dia Art Foundation could show only a fraction of its collection in year-long exhibitions at its Chelsea gallery in Manhattan. Most of the collection had been in storage and not accessible to the public. At its new venue, Dia shows some of the 700 rarely seen works in its permanent collection. Artists are given their own galleries to show their work "in depth and intensity," as curator Lynne Cooke says.

The $50-million Beacon facility allows immersion, so the viewer - to paraphrase a '60s slogan - can "turn on, tune in, and drop out" of the ordinary world, focusing on a single artist's body of work.

In the new facility 60 miles north of New York, the works by 23 artists are austere, mostly abstract, and devoid of narrative. This temple of purity presents art by major figures such as Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Sol LeWitt, who came to prominence in the 1960s and '70s.

With Pop artists who were working in the same period, this generation was the first in which American-born artists exerted international influence. They changed the definition of art, radically altering ideas of composition, scale, materials, and subject.

Their work in styles called Earth Art, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism "defied description," Mr. Riggio says. "It knew no boundaries and invited the viewer to become an important component of the work itself."

A nearly overwhelming example is Heizer's "North, East, South, West" (1967-2002) - steel-lined holes that appear to be as deep as missile silos. Looking down the funnel of an inverted cone, sunk into the concrete floor like Alice's rabbit hole, is a visceral, scary experience. You feel dizzy, your heart beats fast. It's like falling in love - with the added fillip that you could literally fall.

The Dia Art Foundation, founded in 1974, focuses on a narrow range of artists and funds ambitious, site-specific works that take decades to realize. (The word "dia" - Greek for "through" - implies a means through which artists create works.) In Dia's Roden Crater project, James Turrell has been sculpting an Arizona volcano into a celestial observatory since the 1970s.

German art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil, a wealthy oil heiress, originally selected, based on their personal taste, 12 artists to receive Dia's largesse. …