Dia Chelsea, keeper of the avant-garde flame

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Dia Chelsea, keeper of the avant-garde flame
Dia Chelsea, New York. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella.

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The saga of the Dia Art Foundation, New York’s venerable nonprofit, begins a new chapter with its return to West Chelsea. Of course it never really left when it decamped for the Hudson Valley. But a welcome back feels appropriate, given the impeccable renovation of 20,000 square feet of public space across three buildings, and including a revived bookstore — all reconfigured and unified by Architecture Research Office (ARO).

Dia arrived on the block from SoHo in 1987, rehabilitating a big industrial building from the early 1900s that became its flagship, and staging a string of stunning exhibitions. It triggered the influx of commercial galleries that, for better and worse, made West Chelsea what it is today while also depressing its own attendance: Dia charged admission, the galleries did not. But it didn’t charge admission to its spacious ground-floor bookstore, which was spectacularly tiled and furnished in shades of orange, yellow and turquoise by the artist Jorge Pardo in 2000. The bookstore became a literary magnet, a place for running into people and occasionally buying.

In 2003 the foundation rocked the art world by relocating most operations to Beacon, New York, and a much bigger flagship: a 300,000-square-foot factory that it renovated into Dia Beacon. The foundation maintained a foothold in Chelsea: two one-story buildings where exhibitions continued to be staged and, next to it, a six-story building that provided Dia with office space and rental income. But Dia had in reality disappeared from the neighborhood or at least gone underground. Chelsea felt diminished.

The one-story buildings are now the freshly redesigned East Gallery and West Gallery of the new Dia Chelsea. They have been joined to the ground floor of the building next door, which adds a new entrance, lobby, large lecture room and the bookstore. These spaces are united by a subtly patterned brick facade.

The result feels and mostly is new, inside and out, and has a real street presence. The proportions and detail of the exterior — the brickwork for example — make many of the other buildings on the street seem vaguely unkempt or worse. With the completion of this renovation came the announcement that admission would be free.

The reopening is being christened by two pieces commissioned from the installation artist Lucy Raven, known for her work with sound, animation and especially documentary film that explores issues of labor, technology, the mineral wealth and exploitation of the American West, along with the nature of film itself.

Dia has come a long way from its start in SoHo in 1974. In those days it was a boys’ club that showered money and real estate upon a few anointed Minimal, Conceptual and earthwork artists like Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and John Chamberlain. Although nonprofit, young Dia was essentially the first mega gallery. It subtext: money is no object and only a very few artists really merit attention.

But Dia’s spending was curtailed by a near-death brush with financial ruin in the 1990s. And with time, its roster became more diverse. Its main female member early on was the German Conceptualist Hanne Darboven. Over the decades, she was joined by artists like Agnes Martin, Bridget Riley, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Jonas, Louise Lawler, Mary Corse and Dorothea Rockburne — and now, Lucy Raven.

Yet Dia remains very much the keeper of the Minimal-Conceptual-earthwork flame. Here, as in the looming hush of Dia Beacon, it is still possible to believe in modernist art as a fairly linear progression of abstract, stripped-down-to-essences art movements. Dia is our academy. Its constancy recalls Paul Valéry’s adage that “Everything changes but the avant-garde.”

Raven’s commissions form a perfect inaugural pair. They are remarkably different; one is excellent, the other is fairly weak and the combination makes you think about both the potential and the limitations of Dia’s mandarin point of view.

Installed in the smaller East Gallery, the weaker work is from the artist’s “Caster” series. It consists of two pairs of spotlights whose customized armatures allow them to swivel and point in most directions while remaining attached to the wall, directed by a computer program written by the artist. The four spots roam the floor, walls and ceilings at various speeds, changing in shape, size and crispness as they move. They highlight this interior — with its newly restored steel beams and raw brick walls — bit by bit. But except for its digital precision, the exercise adds little to Minimalism’s vaunted obsession with space and the lengthy tradition of nearly empty galleries as art. It veers too close to an old theater trick of wandering spotlights on an empty stage, making me wish for unseen actors speaking dialogue. Beckett perhaps?

Entering the larger West Gallery for “Ready Mix,” Raven’s second commission, it initially seems possible that this film installation will also ask more than it gives, but no. “Ready Mix” is a real achievement, perhaps a masterpiece. It follows the life cycle of concrete, from the extraction of gravel to large cast forms typical of post-9/11 barricades. The film builds on the aspects of Minimal, Conceptual and Earth art fundamental to the Dia vision, adding layers of economic, ecological and cultural meaning, and providing plenty to look at and think about.

“Ready Mix” is projected on a nearly floor-to-ceiling curved screen held in place by a handsome structure of aluminum beams. The artist had in mind drive-in movies, although the aluminum bleachers from which the film can be viewed are more redolent of summertime outdoor movies.

All the silvery aluminum complements the elegant tones of this black-and-white film, creating a color-free world in which a tale of two instruments, metaphorically speaking, unfolds. The first is that of a giant open-air complex of machines and sites that, ultimately, yield the concrete. It encompasses gravel pits, earthmovers, block-long dump trucks, even longer conveyor belts, immense chutes and concrete mixing trucks. All of these are arrayed in the flat, sunstruck emptiness of Idaho and seem to operate on their own, without a person in sight until the very end.

The second is the camera itself, recording this implicitly brutal process through a disorienting combination of close-ups that sometimes take us inside the machines or look down in dazzling aerial views shot using a drone. We see masses of rocks and pebbles being mechanically sorted fill the screen. Different grades of gravel are sometimes still and nearly abstract; other times they rush past in a blur. Then the action jumps to a bird’s-eye view as the camera wheels in sync with the earth movers or conveyor belts. Either way, scale can become mutable, hard to measure, which is riveting.

This a beautiful, enthralling, sobering film. It is also a compelling one, its inherent drama enhanced by a soundtrack that combines recorded ambient sound with tracks of performed and digital music, achieved by Raven in collaboration with the composer and percussionist Deantoni Parks. Altogether it provides an indelible view of the relentless giantism of 21st-century industry and its tendencies to ruin, overbuild, waste and pollute. At the end, we see concrete cast into huge building blocks that are hoisted into rows as if to wall out the world outside.

The excellence of “Ready Mix” exemplifies the singularity and importance of Dia and its sometimes narrow faith in artistic progress, just as the all-but-new building reflects its high standards of design. On both counts, it is beyond great to see its purifying vision back on West 22nd Street. In the city that never sleeps, the Dia Art Foundation seems, after a hiatus, fully awake.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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