I almost began this post by saying “Modern art leaves me cold,” but recent months have led me to reevaluate this position. Over Christmas in Texas, I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston and Donald Judd’s Fifteen Untitled Works in Concrete in Marfa. The former I expected to enjoy, as I’ve long loved Rothko. But Judd’s works have stayed with me in a way that continues to surprise me. I imagine it’s their emptiness. How much of the work is concrete, and how much is air—the atmosphere, the horizon you see when you look into and through them? The artist both gives a literal frame for your answer and then gets out of the way. How very like the best theology.
So perhaps I was excited, without even quite knowing why, to visit Dia:Beacon this past Saturday, a museum located in a former Nabisco box-printing factory (surely somewhere Warhol, whose works are currently on display, is enjoying that fact) beside the still-mostly-frozen Hudson River. The hours shift seasonally to respond to the availability of natural light. The river and the empty trees beside it set the tone for the museum itself: it’s spacious, even at its busiest, and color is not the dominant element in most of the works on display (even in the case of the Warhols and, to a lesser extent, the lightworks of Dan Flavin), and the viewer is left to generate much of the experience in a way that I experienced not as intimidating or abstruse as I often do, but as generous and evocative. The day was cold, but bright, affording a wonderful opportunity to stay inside and look at some art. I’ll come back to Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses later in a poetry post (eta: done!), and focus on a few that I really liked.
I tweeted at Neko Case (and she replied, because, as I’ve written in this space, she’s just so damn cool) about how much I enjoyed Louise Bourgeois’s Fée couturière, since her stage sets for the most recent tour seemed to recall Bourgeois (you can just about see them in this photo from her Oakland show in December). Bourgeois continued to make art well into her nineties, giving hope to all of us late bloomers out there. As if to emphasize her longevity and defiance, she requested that her work be placed in Dia:Beacon’s “attic” (you can see Fée couturière hanging above the stairwell).
Robert Smithson is best known for his Spiral Jetty in Utah, but Dia:Beacon has some of his earlier works that were precursors to that massive earthwork. My favorite was Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis), which evoked, for me, first a bird in flight and then a crucifixion. The shards of glass lose some of their fragility in the configuration Smithson chose, presenting rather as ominous when amassed. And what is more ominous than the last of the dinosaurs, than the body even of God Incarnate broken and paralyzed?
And then there was Donald Judd, again, with Untitled (1991). More boxes, but this time in their original plywood, small and hung on a wall, with red and blue backgrounds and crossed with plywood inside. Perhaps even Judd had given up on emptiness in the last years of his life, knew more intimately a search for color and shape— perhaps had even found it.
Michael Heizer’s negative sculptures North, East, South, West probably generated the most conversation for Dakota and me. Our excellent tour guide informed us that we could return with a special appointment to be led inside the glass gates surrounding the 20-foot-deep openings in the floor and walk right up to them, which we’re excited to do sometime. They look like holes, but they’re made of weathered steel, and their precision-engineered shapes, with their clearly manmade lines, suggest, for me, the violence of humanity toward the earth, the tendency to quite literally dig our own graves.
As we returned to look on North, East, South, West a second time after the guided tour, we noticed a handful of deer loping along a short ridge around the perimeter of the museum. “Who made the deer?” I asked.
“God,” Dakota said.