Five major changes have affected the visual arts since about 1950. Paintings and sculptures have become larger, less detailed, and more emotionally distant. There's been a greater emphasis on the use of material for material's sake. And, above all, the relationship between the work itself and its theory has become inseparable. Knowing the theory, or having "The Word", as Tom Wolfe coined it almost 30 years ago, has become an integral factor in understanding and appreciating much of recent visual art. The works on display in the brand-new, and massive Dia: Beacon (which opened last month in Dutchess County) don't date back as far as a half-century, but as works created in (and inspired by) the aesthetic of the 1960s and 70s, they're as huge, spare in detail, and reserved in feeling as any ever produced. Much of post-1950 art is hard to warm up to, and the works in this new institution — from the hands and minds of such blue-chip names as Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, John Chamberlain, and Joseph Beuys — are typically off-putting at first glance. At first glance. All art takes time, and the more minimal, the longer it takes for the viewer to be convinced to participate fully. But this is an art institution your kids might find themselves taking a little bit of a liking to, at least for a while. As with most art that's top-heavy with theory, the works of the 24 artists at Dia: Beacon are impossible to read, but nevertheless entertaining. Kids, in fact, will probably respond better to the collection than their adult companions. They're not going to look for meaning, and that helps; they'll either ignore a piece, or else discover, when they enter Joseph Beuys' Fond installation, that they've been let loose in some sort of artsy-funky version of Home Depot. Some works (especially the larger ones) will prove bigger hits with young visitors than others. John Chamberlain's sculptures, pieced together from auto fragments, are sometimes painted by the artist, sometimes not. They suggest different shapes — a piece of balled-up paper, or, in the case of his large-scale The Privet from 1997, a hedge-like form — that belie their industrial materials. Another artist with a taste for industrial materials, Richard Serra, represented here by five utterly colossal weatherproof steel sculptures, is practically a shipbuilder; his Union of the Torus and the Sphere is a cockeyed Titanic lying on Dia's floor. Walking through Serra's various Torqued Ellipses, which resemble mountainous curled shavings from a carpenter's plane, is an experience not only of scale, but sound; the visitor alternately experiences the desire to both remain hushed, and scream. A kid would do well in there, as well as with Michael Heizer's North, East, South, West, four immense geometric holes cut so deeply into the Dia's floor — possibly as deep as 20 feet each — that it's impossible not to be impressed, if only by the effort. What Heizer's work means — what any of this work means — is anyone's guess. But the work at Dia: Beacon does offer its viewers the chance to play around with the idea of material and scale, two key factors in today's art.
Info: Where: 3 Beekman Street, Beacon, N.Y. When: Thursday-Monday, 11am-6pm, through October 14 (call for winter hours) How much: General admission, $10; students and seniors, $7; kids under 12, FREE Getting there: Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central Terminal to the Beacon train station. Dia: Beacon is located adjacent to the Beacon train station, an approximate 10-minute walk. For more information: (845) 440-0100; www.diaart.org; email@example.com