Hudson River School

Hudson River School

Forget pastoral scenes extolling the virtues of the American countryside. Suddenly, it's all about minimalism, earthworks, and Frank Gehry. Leslie Camhi reports

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.

Dia is not alone in sensing Beacon's potential. Since the early 1990's, the nonprofit environmental group Scenic Hudson has been buying up land on the city's forlorn waterfront and historic Mount Beacon, where in the 1920's crowds ascended by railcar to the summit to dance and dine at the Casino. Commissioned by Scenic Hudson, Dia, and Minetta Brook, artist George Trakas has set about restoring public access to Beacon Landing, a long-neglected peninsula owned by Scenic Hudson, whose broader plans for its riverside property include a hotel and conference center, three restaurants, and a "green harbor" (for non-motorized watercraft). Restoration of the trails and tramway leading up Mount Beacon is also under way.

Shortly after Dia's deal was made public, real estate developer and noted arts patron Bil Ehrlich began acquiring buildings all over town for an ambitious venture, the Beacon Cultural Project. "We're aiming to create an economic engine for this community, which has lost its manufacturing base, by replacing it with culture," Ehrlich told me, following the time-honored logic that where Dia goes, the art world soon follows (Dia opened in Chelsea before most of New York's SoHo galleries relocated there). Ehrlich, who speaks with an almost messianic fervor of promoting a "new Hudson River school," has enlisted architect Richard Gluckman to transform a dilapidated 150,000-square-foot factory complex near Fishkill Creek into the Beacon Arts Society—an inn, a Kunsthalle (a space for temporary exhibitions), and a state-of-the-art warehouse to serve major collectors. Among Ehrlich's many other purchases are an old vaudeville theater; the former Beacon High School (which he envisions transforming into an institute of decorative arts and design, DADI); and three adjacent storefronts on Main Street, which opened in October as the project's headquarters and include a small but glistening nonprofit exhibition space.

Not all Beaconites are fans of contemporary art. "I don't much care for Warhol's stuff," Joan Van Voorhis, the city's 76-year-old historian, tells me in her office at the Howland Cultural Center, a Victorian pile—designed by Richard Morris Hunt—where exhibitions and chamber music concerts are held. "But we'll never go back to being an industrial base. And this is better than serving as a bedroom community."

On a recent Saturday evening, a mostly young crowd shuttled between openings at a half-dozen galleries on Main Street. The throng was thickest at Collaborative Concepts, a nonprofit space directed by painter Richard Bruce, where about 250 people—artists, dancers, carpenters, graphic designers, feng shui experts—were toasting an exhibition devoted mostly to abstract paintings. In the back, sculptor Ken Landauer and I sat on one of his pieces—an immense, red, upholstered sofa, over which my legs dangled like Goldilocks'.

Landauer was pushed out of his storefront Williamsburg studio by gentrification. Though he now lives and works in the rural community of Stone Ridge, across the Hudson River from Beacon, he's up-to-date on the latest art-world developments. Beacon, he said, was a bit too high-pressured for him. I wondered if he was referring to all the warm and well-meaning people who kept asking me whether I intended to buy a house there.

While the planners of Dia:Beacon took a piece of America's industrial past and modernized it, Frank Gehry faced a different challenge: how to integrate his ultracontemporary, undulating behemoth into the pastoral landscape of Bard College's rural campus. The Richard B. Fisher Center has two stages: an intimate 900-seat opera house, which will also be used for dance and theater, and a much smaller space, a black box, for more-experimental work. Acoustic requirements demanded a massive structure, a challenge Gehry solved by backing the building into a grove of trees.

"We positioned it so that as you approach, you would see it across a big, wide-open meadow," Gehry said by telephone from his Santa Monica office. "And it's covered in stainless steel, which does nice things with the reflections of the clouds and sky. The main problems, if there were any, were budgetary—putting a real opera house, concert hall, and theater, with all the stuff that needs to go in them, into a student building. This is a very professional venue. It can do everything that you can do on Broadway, or in the Philharmonic, only [it's] smaller."

This spring's opening weekends promise an impressive if eclectic mix of dance, theater, and music, from Mahler and Racine to Merce Cunningham and Elvis Costello. In July and August, the Summerscape at Bard performing arts festival, devoted this year to Leos Janacek, will feature the American stage premiere of the Czech composer's opera Osud (Fate), with sets designed by Gehry. "I'd like to think we can harness the same type of excitement that the Brooklyn Academy of Music has been able to generate," says Jonathan Levi, the center's director. "But we're smaller and less established, so we can turn on a dime. Plus, we add acres of grass and a nice building to look at. I'd like people to consider the whole trip, from the time they leave home, as one big piece of theater."

Beacon is also jumping into high gear this spring. Chelsea dealer Max Protetch plans to preview a public sculpture garden in May next door to the Tallix Art Foundry, one of the town's more venerable art institutions. Tallix, which employs about 100 people to turn out works in bronze and steel for artists such as George Condo, Tom Otterness, and Joel Shapiro (as well as public monuments and memorials), moved to Beacon in 1986, when the city was in the public eye mainly as a backdrop for Depression-era movies. Today, Peter Homestead, Tallix's president, draws comparisons with Pietra Santa, an Italian town with a celebrated marble quarry where life revolves around art and culture. "It's not as if Beacon's going to become Tuscany," Homestead says. "But it will be like, 'Oh, Beacon, that's where Dia is. That's where Tallix is. That's where things are happening.'"

Leslie Camhi writes regularly for the New York Times, Vogue, and the Village Voice.

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts At Bard College. INAUGURAL WEEKENDS APRIL 25-27 AND MAY 1-3. SUMMERSCAPE AT BARD RUNS JULY 25-AUGUST 17. 845/758-7900;
Minetta Brook Maps, journals, models, and drawings related to the organization's projects in the area. OPENS IN MAY. 4-6 S. CHESTNUT ST., BEACON 212/431-7165;
Beacon Project Space 240 MAIN ST., BEACON; 845/831-1277
Collaborative Concepts 348 MAIN ST., BEACON; 845/838-1516
Howland Cultural Center 477 MAIN ST., BEACON; 845/831-4988
Tallix Art Foundry TOURS AVAILABLE. 175 FISHKILL AVE., BEACON; 845/838-1111
Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art Specializing in both contemporary and historical Hudson River valley art. 75 S. MANHEIM BLVD., NEW PALTZ; 845/257-3844

Piggy Bank Watch iconic minimalists tuck into Southern-style barbecue. DINNER FOR TWO $60. 448 MAIN ST., BEACON; 845/838-0028
Brasserie Le Bouchon Chef Pascal Graff's bistro serves classic French comfort food. Look for another Graff restaurant opening in Beacon later this year. DINNER FOR TWO $90. 76 MAIN ST., COLD SPRING; 845/265-7676
Mina Chef Natalie Steward's super-refined Hudson Valley cuisine is just a short drive from Bard's Fisher Center. DINNER FOR TWO $80. 29 W. MARKET ST., RED HOOK; 845/758-5992
J & C Market Sandwich shop (good for picnic fare) and a wine bar (Thursday through Saturday nights) that attracts local artists. LUNCH FOR TWO $20, 444 MAIN ST., BEACON; 845/440-0171

Hudson House River Inn Private verandas with views of the river make up for the generally spartan rooms in this 1832 inn and restaurant. DOUBLES FROM $155. 2 MAIN ST., COLD SPRING; 845/265-9355
Pig Hill Inn Antiques in every room. DOUBLES FROM $150. 73 MAIN ST., COLD SPRING; 845/265-9247
Beekman Arms Inn Gracious, romantic inn and restaurant near Bard College, dating from 1776 and fully modernized. DOUBLES FROM $95. 4 MILL ST., RHINEBECK; 845/876-7077

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