April 6, 2011

The View From Where You Start

If one encounters the contemporary art on display at Dia:Beacon with one frame of mind -- say, a frame that holds that much of what populates the contemporary art world is MFA-ratified forms of creative masturbation -- then when one enters this pristine, white-walled space and sees a quantity of what seems to be puerile content, that assumption may seem valid. But if one encounters the artwork at Beacon with another frame of mind -- a frame that holds that all one is about to see, upon entering the galleries, are individual visual forms of feeling, creative expressions of how an individual artist manages emotional reality -- then it is a pretty fascinating trip.

Painter Agnes Martin's work, on display in a mini-gallery at Beacon, is quiet and soothing. She seems to view emotional life as a constant stream of data from which one can take small snapshots, or in which one can create small pauses, and she captures this in pale lines on canvas. For Richard Serra, the sculptor of massive steel forms, emotions seem to be heavy obstructions in the path of thought. Some of them are totally impenetrable, and some of them need to be entered into -- but even then your perceptions trick you (you may think you are going up or down when you are actually level) on the path to comprehension. With his massive wall drawings, Sol LeWitt presents the emotional life as that which under girds all, as if feelings are all we are constructing and conveying, all the time. Sculptor Louise Bourgeois' hanging organic forms (and the giant spider that takes up most of one room) seem to say that over time feelings may dement you, and possibly devour you, unless you see them for what odd things they are. And Gerhard Richter's installation of reflective glass panels surrounding couches in a huge, well lit room conveys the very essence of it all: your feelings are self-created, and it is to yourself you should look for explication. And in fact, in his room of calm reflection, that is unavoidable.

One can maintain this frame of mind towards much of the work at Beacon. Bruce Nauman's neon/object installations and videos (in the basement) seem to convey that since feelings "live" in the dark they are not really comprehensible, and when exposed to the light, they are overwhelming and offputting. Dan Flavin's light installations: feelings make sense only in retrospect, when you look back at the entirety of the room they inhabit. Fred Sandback's string frame installations: emotions are an entirely imaginative act. On Kawara's series of paintings of time increments: feelings are moments in a series, and are not connected to anything other than time. And Michael Hiezer's imposing and creepy 'negative' sculptures cut into the gallery floor: don't get too close to feelings as they may swallow you whole.

There are a myriad of ways to interpret the abstract constructions and paintings at Dia:Beacon, of course, and that is the joy and the terror of abstraction. Your own free will is in play in each and every encounter; you are never simply acknowledging familiar landscapes. But weirdly enough, on this trip, I wound up doing just that. After exploring the art, we sat on the bench outside the building for a time, watching the Metro-North trains going by below us, looking at the boats on the Hudson, and it was all beautifully, richly familiar.

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