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DIA Beacon – State of the Art
June 1, 2024

An Abandoned Factory Gives Art a Place To Breathe

By Michelle Madden 

Photos by Bill Jacobson

 “The world is spinning so fast, but there is room here to contemplate,” says Donna De Salvo, senior adjunct curator of the Dia Art Foundation, as we sit at Dia Beacon surrounded by Andy Warhol’s Shadows. As you move through this captivating exhibition space containing works by the masters of the 1960s to the present, you can’t help but slow down. As you gaze outward, you also connect inward.

The Dia Art Foundation was founded in New York City in 1974 to help artists achieve visionary projects that might not otherwise be realized because of scale. “Dia” means “conduit” in German, and references the institution’s role in enabling such ambitions. The foundation also strives to embrace the community, reflected in free admission to Dia Beacon for Hudson Valley residents on the last Sunday of each month.

Dia Beacon is housed in a 300,000-square-foot former Nabisco label and carton production plant. (A train once ran through the factory, to a bakery in Manhattan where Oreos were made.) The artist Robert Irwin’s design for Dia Beacon blurs the line between space and art. Brick, steel, concrete, and glass are so harmoniously woven that a profound serenity takes hold. Clear and frosted window panes play in a geometric grid, with light pervasive enough that the entire building is lit naturally. It’s a space where not just the art can breathe, but so too can the visitor.

Many of the greats are on permanent display: Gerhard Richter’s Six Gray Mirrors are 12-foot reflective panels that incorporate the viewer in the art. Richard Serra’s Union of the Torus and the Sphere is staged to feel like a ship’s bow pressing through a narrow passage. Meg Webster’s strikingly precise organic sculptures of dirt and branches are perplexingly hypnotic and include an 8-foot-tall halfpipe of beeswax. Senga Nengudi’s Water Composition is a childish delight, transporting you to an Alice in Wonderland-like state where 10-foot-long green and yellow ice pops lie on the ground as though dropped at a playground. Nature plays with artifice in the impeccably landscaped west garden with an installation by Louise Lawler. Twenty-six artists created bird calls using only their voices. They emanate from a loudspeaker, mixing with actual birdsongs outside, in a seeming call-and-response rhythm—the real replying to the fabricated.

There is a profound sense of freedom as you wander. There are no placards influencing how you might experience the art. Nothing’s imposed. “Some of our best visitors are children,” reveals De Salvo. “They arrive with an open mind.”

Do not miss the current exhibit by Steve McQueen (a filmmaker with a 2014 Oscar for Best Picture), which is a profound sensory soak. It is subterranean, and occupies half of a football field-sized gallery. The visitor is bathed from above by 60 lightboxes that change imperceptibly across the color spectrum. The deep bass, often in the background of music, is brought to the foreground where you don’t hear it so much as feel it, as it vibrates through you like whale cries. “Making art is [expletive] hard,” McQueen tells us. Being moved by art—is not. —