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Hudson River School

As of next month, a treasure trove of contemporary art—works by Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Robert Ryman, Andy Warhol, and many others—will take up residence in a former Nabisco box factory in Beacon, New York. The pristinely restored, nearly 300,000-square-foot building is the latest outpost of the Dia Art Foundation, whose empire extends from its pioneering exhibition headquarters in New York City's Chelsea to such far-flung places as Utah's Great Salt Lake (on which Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is built) and Quemado, New Mexico (where Walter de Maria's Lightning Field stretches across the high desert). Dia's permanent collection includes many works of massive scale, making the cost of housing it in Manhattan prohibitive. Still, what is this elite art institution doing in a city better known for post-industrial grime and economic retrenchment?

In the 19th century, Beacon was largely bypassed by the first wave of Hudson River valley artists (landscape painters Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey), in order to promote their vision of idyllic nature. But the city's gritty patina and relative lack of quaintness—the residue of its hat- and brick-manufacturing past—are perfectly suited to the minimalist masterworks from the 1960's and 70's that form the core of Dia's collection. That's also the source of its appeal to a new generation. On Beacon's Main Street, abandoned storefronts and boarded-up Chinese restaurants are already giving way to galleries where opening nights draw hundreds of people, many recent arrivals from now well-established bohemian enclaves in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And the city's cultural awakening is part of a valley-wide revival. This spring, Minetta Brook, a New York-based nonprofit organization, is sponsoring "Watershed," 10 public art projects in 15 locations from Bear Mountain to Albany. And, in the placid hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry on the campus of Bard College, is poised to become a major architectural destination, educational center, and performing arts venue—combining the charms of Juilliard, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Guggenheim's Bilbao branch. Will Manhattan soon be left behind?

"There's a benefit to being away," says Michael Govan, Dia's charismatic young director. "Walter de Maria knew that when he organized the Lightning Field in one of the most remote places possible. Donald Judd went to Marfa, Texas, where he could build his own environment to his particular specifications. These artists were always interested in somewhat isolated destinations because they were creating their own worlds."

Among the first pieces to have been installed at Dia:Beacon is North, East, South, West (1967-2002), by land artist Michael Heizer, four enormous, steel-sided abysses cut into the floor of a long, white gallery. "We're not going to let people view the Heizer unguided," Amy Weisser, Dia:Beacon's assistant director, tells me as I peer into an inverted cone with a distinctly destabilizing allure. Across a vast hall illuminated by north-facing skylights (a key element in the 1929 factory's Modernist design innovations) lies Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses (1996-97)—three colossal vertical sheets of steel, curved as if by the hand of God, occupying a former railroad dock where biscuit boxes were once loaded for transport to Manhattan. I'd seen the pieces five years earlier, at Dia's Chelsea exhibition space; with them now was a fourth, a Torqued Spiral (2002), installed for the first time at Beacon. Here, in the fading western light reflected off the Hudson River, their red-rusted forms, at once hulking and weightless, seemed endowed with the majesty of the nearby Catskill Mountains.

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