Dia Beacon Reopens With a Sonic Boom



BEACON, N.Y. — Before it was converted into one of the country’s largest museums of modern and contemporary art, the building that houses the Dia Art Foundation here was a box factory, built in 1929. The front galleries upstairs were once printing sheds, and still signal their lapsed function through their saw-toothed windows and unstained wood floors. But it’s downstairs, in the old loading bays, that you really sense this minimal monastery’s industrial life.

An array of concrete columns, each topped with a mushroom-shaped capital, holds up the printing plant. Clerestory windows cast shadows on a huge concrete floor. Down here, where Dia has previously presented work by Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Tacita Dean and François Morellet, the museum fully foregrounds the awkward alliance of modern art and modern industry.

This theatrical aspect, as if sculpture and viewer were two bodies on a stage, was precisely what the art historian Michael Fried, in an influential 1967 essay, despised about minimalism — and it got worse with the arrival of the camera phone, which turned minimal art into a familiar Instagram backdrop. Yet I found that Covid has revalued and reformatted my experience of minimal sculpture, which gives off new tensions amid the heightened body awareness we’ve all picked up from social distancing. Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses,” whose tight passages of contorted steel have loomed these past two decades in the factory’s old train shed, require the same careful negotiations we execute in pharmacy aisles. Donald Judd’s wooden boxes occupy space with as much exactitude as a quarantine venue: they keep their distance from each other, and silently dictate where you should stand.

No such objects are to be found downstairs in Mr. Craig’s exhibition, though its orchestration is just as careful and its impact on your body is just as profound. The D.J. and his sound engineers equipped the basement with equalizers and black fabric baffles to modulate reverb, so that his rippling percussion and expansive rhythms leave your heart beating and your ears ringing. His crescendoing blocks of sound have affinities with Sol LeWitt’s exhaustive systems of lines, with the identical rods of Walter De Maria’s “Broken Kilometer,” or with Flavin’s barrier of green fluorescent lights in the next room.

These museums, and Dia too, have turned the streamlined spaces of industry into the most rarefied and expensive of climes, and that gives a melancholy tint to the evolution of art, music, money and urbanism that “Party/After-Party” so cannily traces. In exporting techno music from one converted factory to another, Mr. Craig is increasing its historical worth but also depopulating it, objectifying it, giving it the same cool power as Judd’s specific objects. There is no party in “Party/After-Party,” especially now, in the reduced-occupancy museum. I could imagine it, as my breath under my mask got hot, as an exhibition of club culture in an ethnographic museum, an embalmed display of some vanished civilization.

At the end of the 20th century, both high art and popular revelry could infill our cities’ deindustrialized expanses. At this low moment in the 21st, only art is left. And maybe, in the era of Covid, this is what art is supposed to be: a time capsule of when our lives still had human fullness, an amulet of past joys we will not experience for a while longer. I may never feel the joy of dancing again, I felt, as Mr. Craig’s drop washed over me and my feet stayed planted to the floor. I have reached the edge of tears in nightclubs before, but this was the first time I’ve done so sober.

Maybe, before Dia brings down Mr. Craig’s installation in the summer of 2021, it will be safe enough for a few hundred bodies to pack the museum’s basement and dance. I hate to bet against it. But shortly after leaving Beacon I saw an item from Germany: Berghain, the immense Berlin nightclub (another power-plant conversion) where Mr. Craig regularly D.J.s, will not host parties for the foreseeable future and will instead turn its dance floor over to … contemporary art. For pity’s sake, we should just say it: Art is the luxury asset that moves in when the party’s over.



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