Dia Chelsea, Keeper of the Avant-Garde Flame
The saga of the Dia Art Foundation, New York’s venerable nonprofit, begins a new chapter with its return to West Chelsea. Of course, when it broke up for the Hudson Valley, it never really went away. With the flawless renovation of 20,000 square feet of public space in three buildings and a revitalized bookstore, all reconfigured and unified by the Architecture Research Office (ARO), a welcome return is appropriate.
Dia moved to the block from SoHo in 1987, refurbished a large industrial building from the early 1900s that became its flagship, and hosted a series of breathtaking exhibitions. It sparked the influx of commercial galleries that made West Chelsea what it is today, for better or for worse, while also squeezing its own presence: Dia charged entry, the galleries didn’t. Entrance to the spacious bookstore on the ground floor, which was spectacularly tiled by artist Jorge Pardo in 2000 and decorated in orange, yellow and turquoise, was not billed. The bookstore became a literary magnet, a place where you would meet people and occasionally buy.
In 2003, the foundation rocked the art world by moving most of its operations to Beacon, NY, and a much larger flagship: a 300,000-square-foot factory that was renovated into Dia Beacon. The foundation has taken root in Chelsea: two one-story buildings that continued to host exhibitions, and a six-story building next to it that provided Dia with office space and rental income. But in reality Dia had disappeared from the neighborhood, or at least gone underground. Chelsea felt diminished.
The single story buildings are now the newly remodeled East Gallery and West Gallery of the new Dia Chelsea. They were connected to the ground floor of the neighboring building, which offers a new entrance, a lobby, a large auditorium and a bookstore. These rooms are connected by a subtly patterned brick facade.
The result feels and is mostly new, inside and out, and has a real street presence. The proportions and details of the exterior – the brickwork, for example – make many of the other buildings on the street look vaguely unkempt or worse. With the completion of this renovation came the announcement that entry would be free.
The reopening is baptized by two pieces commissioned by installation artist Lucy Raven. She is best known for her work in sound, animation, and particularly documentary film, which explores issues of labor, technology, mineral wealth, and the exploitation of the American West, as well as the nature of the film itself.
Dia has come a long way from its start in SoHo in 1974. Back then it was a boys’ club that had some anointed minimal, concept, and earthwork artists like Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and John Chamberlain. Although non-profit, the young Dia was essentially the first mega-gallery. His subtext: Money is not an object and very few artists really deserve attention.
But Slide’s spending was curbed by a near-death brush with financial ruin in the 1990s. And over time, his roster became more diverse. The most important female member was the German conceptualist Hanne Darboven from an early age. Over the decades, artists such as Agnes Martin, Bridget Riley, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Jonas, Louise Lawler, Mary Corse and Dorothea Rockburne joined them – and now Lucy Raven.
Nevertheless, Dia remains the guardian of the flame of the minimally conceptual earthworks. Here, as in the emerging silence of Dia Beacon, it is still possible to believe in modernist art as a fairly linear succession of abstract art movements reduced to essences. Dia is our academy. Its persistence is reminiscent of Paul Valéry’s adage: “Everything changes except the avant-garde.”
Raven’s assignments make a perfect opening pair. They are remarkably different; One is excellent, the other is quite weak, and the combination makes you ponder both the potential and the limits of Dia’s Mandarin perspective.
The weaker work, which is installed in the smaller East Gallery, comes from the artist’s “Caster” series. It consists of two pairs of spotlights whose customized fittings allow them to rotate and point in most directions while remaining attached to the wall. This is controlled by a computer program written by the artist. The four points roam the floor, walls, and ceiling at different speeds and change in shape, size, and crispness as they move. They highlight this interior – with its newly restored steel girders and raw brick walls – piece by piece. But apart from its digital precision, the exercise adds little to Minimalism’s vaunted obsession with space and the long tradition of almost empty galleries as art. It gets too close to an old theatrical trick of spotlights wandering around an empty stage, which makes me want invisible actors to speak the dialogue. Beckett maybe?
When entering the larger West Gallery for “Ready Mix”, Raven’s second commission, it initially seems possible that this film installation also demands more than it gives, but no. “Ready Mix” is a real achievement, maybe a masterpiece. It follows the life cycle of concrete, from extracting gravel to large casting molds typical of barricades after 9/11. The film builds on the aspects of minimal, conceptual and earth art that are fundamental to the slide vision. It adds layers of economic, environmental, and cultural significance and offers plenty to look at and ponder.
“Ready Mix” is projected onto a curved screen that extends almost from floor to ceiling and is held in place by a beautiful structure made of aluminum supports. The artist had drive-in films in mind, although the aluminum bleachers from which the film can be viewed are more reminiscent of outdoor summer films.
All of the silver aluminum complements the elegant tones of this black and white film and creates a color-free world in which, metaphorically speaking, a story of two instruments unfolds. The first is that of a huge open-air complex of machines and locations that ultimately deliver the concrete. It includes gravel pits, earthmoving machines, block-length dump trucks, even longer conveyor belts, giant chutes, and concrete mixers. All of this is arranged in the flat, sun-drenched void of Idaho and appears to work on its own with no person in sight until the end.
The second is the camera itself, which records this implicitly brutal process through a confusing combination of close-ups that sometimes lead us into the machines or peer into dazzling aerial photographs taken with a drone. We see masses of stones and pebbles being mechanically sorted fill the screen. Different types of gravel are sometimes silent and almost abstract; other times they rush past blurred. Then the action jumps from a bird’s eye view as the camera rotates in sync with the earth moving machines or conveyor belts. In either case, the scale can be changeable and difficult to measure.
This is a beautiful, exciting and sobering film. It’s also a compelling drama, the drama of which is complemented by a soundtrack that combines recorded ambient sound with tracks of both rendered and digital music that Raven achieved in collaboration with composer and drummer Deantoni Parks. Overall, it offers an indelible glimpse of the relentless giantism of 21st century industry and its tendencies to ruin, overbuild, waste and pollute. In the end, we see concrete poured into huge building blocks that are hoisted in rows as if they want to wall the world outside.
The excellence of “Ready Mix” exemplifies the uniqueness and importance of Dia and his sometimes close trust in artistic progress, just as the almost new building reflects his high design standard. In both respects it is incredible to see his cleansing vision again on West 22nd Street. In the city that never sleeps, the Dia Art Foundation seems to be completely awake after a break.
He is Chelsea until January 2022, 537 West 22nd Street, 845-231-0811; diaart.org. Timed tickets required.