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Unbroken Kilometers

Photos by John Hawke.
Photos by John Hawke.

Recently, I had the opportunity to drive up to Dia:Beacon with an interesting pair of travelers: the man Art in America called "the most powerful and controversial environmental artist NY has ever known" the infamous master builder of New York’s infrastructure, the late Robert Moses, and that ever elusive land artist, the late Robert Smithson. I picked up RM first at the squat Triborough Headquarters building. He walked brusquely to the car, his trench coat snapping in the wind, and lowered his frame into the back seat. We turned back onto the ramp curling into the August Triborough traffic machine, its ochre colored buttresses passing like a column of aging legionnaires.

"Why are we turning here?" he barked, as I swung to the left ramp to go south onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, instead of north to Beacon.

"To get Smithson…the land artist."

"Land artist, huh? What is this place we’re going to anyway?"

"It’s called Dia. Dia means through," I said, trying to appeal to the highway maker in him. "They show these artists from the sixties and seventies, like, John Chamberlain, the car guy, and—"

"Oh, yeah, I remember him, he was in my world’s fair in ‘64. New York Pavilion. Anyway, who put up the dough for this Dia thing?"

"This book store mogul, Riggio."

"And?" He drifted impatiently.

"I think they worked something out with the state. They got the building for free, if they would clean it up. I think the state put up two or three million more as kind of a development package. The area is kind of depressed. But it’s a private foundation."

"Right," he said, reaching forward to grab my map, and tracing slowly our route with his finger. "The green headlands of the Hudson River Valley, and an hour drive north of the city, and capped it as a renewal project?" He chuckled to himself, and relaxed back into the seat, his right arm resting along the window. "Yep, they got a dip of the beak. That’s how you do things." He turned back to the window, now relaxed, and took in the BQE vistas of Manhattan from the Kosciusko.

Photos by John Hawke.
Photos by John Hawke.

Every comment I’ve read on the new Dia flagship in upstate Beacon, New York, starts with the inevitable matrioshka comparison of how many Whitneys, new MoMAs, Tate Moderns, and Bilbao Guggenheims could fit inside and still have enough room for the Green Bay packers to scrimmage the New York Philharmonic. Yes, the space at Dia is giant, but in an unusual way. The height of the ceiling, while tall is not exceptionally so; instead, it is the oceanic feeling of lateral expansion, the computer simulation sense of space spooling continually out from beneath your feet that causes the giddy tinglings of agoraphiliac rapture.

Glass popped and crackled beneath the tires as we coasted to a halt in front of Smthson’s Red Hook studio. A shadow emerged from under a loading dock entrance. Smithson strided towards the car, and I noticed a furtive smile of recognition cross his face as he spotted RM sprawled in the back. He crossed around behind the car and got in, slouching into the seat directly behind me. I expected some form of greeting, but he turned to stare out the window, his dark glasses masking his eyes. We pulled back onto the BQE, and started north again.

"So you’re some kind of outside artist, huh?" Moses began, pointing his chin at Smithson.

"That’s right." Smithson replied.

RM fidgeted for moment before Smithson added. "And you’re the highway guy right?"

"Well," Moses exhaled, " I guess you could say that, though we built a hell of lot more than just highways, we did the bridges, the parks, cleared the slums, soup to nuts, we did it."

We sped through the channeled highway section in Cobble Hill, as trucks to our left jounced and thundered perilously close.

Smithson pointed to the pitting of the brick facing along the highway at exhaust pipe level. "Looks like it needs some work."

"Well young man," he yawned, "any fool can draw lines on map, but it takes someone with real guts and vision to make it concrete. Repairs or not, this highway will last."

"What about that twenty foot chunk that fell off the Van Wyck the other day, you can’t get hung up on permanency—"

"Listen you," Moses growled. "It will all last. They couldn’t change my bridges or move my expressways any more than you could move around the arteries inside your own body."

The Dia philosophy, advocated first by cofounder Heiner Friedrich, and more recently by patron Leonard Riggio, is to show works at a scale not seen in most museums. Scale not only in terms of size, but also in terms of time; indeed, Dia seems to renovate a romantic view of the immortality of art. At Beacon the art is entombed in the apotheosis of the white box—a great cathedral to the immortal contemporary. Fortunately, they plan one major new exhibition each spring, a feast day for the parish.

"Art can’t make a city beautiful." RM continued over the drone of the engine, "the most it can do is to it keep the public spaces from becoming meaningless."

"Now you’re sounding like Serra." I added, with a backward glance.

"Who?" RM replied, perturbed I had interrupted his flow.

"Richard Serra, a sculptor. He made this curved steel wall in front of the entrance to the federal building downtown. He wanted to charge the space by limiting the vistas… They took it down in the end."

"Well, they tried to give us a little trouble up in Tremont for supposedly ‘dividing the community’ when we did our Cross Bronx arterial. Same with the Gowanus, but that’s the thing you see, the real art is to know how to make it stick," he chuckled.

"Oh and Serra also did a piece around the exit curves of the New York side of the Holland Tunnel. The St. Johns Rotary."

"Listen, I didn’t make that tunnel, "he interrupted. "To my mind, a tunnel is just a tiled vehicular bathroom that stinks of monoxide. I like bridges."

Housed in what used to be a Nabisco box factory, Dia:Beacon is now a box for boxes. In using the frame of an existing building they have zeroed out the presence of the architect, so that the works of may art expand. The space is not "raw" despite its lack of ornamentation, for in order for it to be transformed from clanking factory to palace of the ineffable, they had to spiff the place beyond even its pristine condition—a renovation not a restoration, a retrofitted aura factory.

Robert Irwin did the plan for the Beacon building, in collaboration with OpenOffice, a New York firm. Nice touches are evident throughout, like the set of double glass doors in the center of each side of the building’s giant square that provide a locating visual axis. The lack of an artificial lighting system signals the purity of intent (no after hours corporate functions here). Instead the museum shifts its hours with the seasons, depending on the natural light that pours in from above through the rows of sawtooth windows. The entire collection then is contingent on astronomy—a land art project itself.

We passed through the long gulch of the little-known Trans-Manhattan Expressway. Local streets zipped back and forth over our heads, apartment buildings straddled our subterranean path, the road grew rougher and darker, the traffic denser, with cars swooping into the pack from the left and the right. Were we experiencing the reverse of Tony Smith’s liberating car ride?

"You see how much time we just saved," Moses leaned forward, jabbing his finger at my map, which I noticed he had once again snatched. "Imagine if we had been able to build all three cross Manhattan belts?"

"Wouldn’t that have been hard going?" I asked.

"Nah, the rock is much harder up here than downtown. Downtown you just got to get rid of the people. Of course little people don’t see the big picture the way I do. They just carp and whine—"

"Right," Smithson jumped in, suddenly animated. "There is always this urge to humanize everything."

" Well, I say you got to play things as they lie," Moses drawled on. "If there is traffic build up getting out of the city, you got to push another road through."

"So you set up this whole center/periphery kind of situation." Smithson added.

"—and if there is a big ash dump, like what we had over at Flushing Meadows, you deal with that. First you stabilize the site, then see what’s possible."

"Exactly. That was my thinking behind my mine reclamation projects," Smithson nodded.

I wondered if Smithson was trying to wind Moses up, or if he was sincere. Smithson pumped Moses with questions about his cut and fill techniques, and I noticed a distinct geniality creeping into Moses’s voice.

As we approached the high point of the George Washington span over to the Jersey side, the Manhattan skyline could be seen through the distant haze. I focused on the driving, and was relieved to see the signs for the Palisades Parkway ahead.

Moses went on about Olmstead, and running Central Park, his anecdotes and expertise flowing easily. Smithson had turned to face him in the back seat, and I felt increasingly disconnected from their conversation, catching only scraps of sentences: approach ramp, playground, riprap, and rock cores.

The mission at Dia has been framed by the oil market crises of the late1970s. As their funding source from the Schlumberger oil fortune shrank, Dia had to retrench, eliminating their artist subsidies, and curtailing their collecting. The original aesthetic vision was thus sealed and preserved by the anticline shelf movement of oil prices.

As I turned into the Palisades cloverleaf, Moses shot out a heavy hand onto my forearm.

"Easy now, not too fast, a parkway is about aesthetics. Think of it like a linear park for cars viewers. A piece of land art," he added with a smirk.

The wide separated roadway, the generous smoothness of it curves, the forested median of forsythia and pine, indeed it began to soften my jangling nerves.

Irwin’s Dia garden is a big disappointment. While meant with its pink fruit trees as a little pick me up from Mother Nature in case you were flagging from all the "difficult art," the result is not restful or interesting, but cloying and dowdy. It is a surprising disavowal of the central Land Art insight that outdoor space, without the mediation of architecture, may provide artists with new possibilities for presenting the negotiation between the individual and the public and the unbounded frame of nature itself.

"Wait, pull over here," Moses touched my sleeve.

I groaned, but complied, pulling over into the Rockefeller Overlook (elev. 400 ft.). Moses led Smithson out of the car, tugging eagerly at his arm, "we bought out a trap rock quarry here at Fort Lee." I followed behind.

"Really? I collected a non-site here," Smithson mused.

"Come on down here a bit." Moses was surprisingly agile and he ushered Smithson down a short path among the purple polygonal columns of the cliff face. "I worked it out with John D. and he bought twelve miles of land for the parkway up here." They disappeared from view down the winding path.

I turned back to the car, my keys in my hand. Measuring my steps carefully, I reached the car, and slipped silently inside. Feeling strangely elated, I started it up, and, carefully avoiding to look in the rearview mirror, wheeled around to face the on ramp, and stepped hard on the gas.

All plans go awry. I arrived in the town of Beacon perspiring over the abandonment of my fellow travelers. Ramping down into the Dia parking lot, I was swarmed by guards waving me in to a parking space as if my car were a 757 instead of an empty Honda. Walking towards the squat entrance I admired the "Grasscrete" blocks allowing grass to grow through the concrete. Paying my ticket I marveled at Irwin’s entrance—two symmetrical highways of maple flooring ran before me, one on each side of a thin divider. Binocular vision merged into an unreal hall. "Hot dog stand located in West Garden," a sign read. I entered.


John Hawke

JOHN HAWKE is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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