Michael Kimmelman stirred up a hornet's nest recently when he called the 24 artists whose work is enshrined at Dia:Beacon "The Greatest Generation" in The New York Times Magazine. Within weeks, Hilton Kramer and Peter Plagens took issue. Although Kimmelman was practicing an outmoded art-critical game, it was interesting to watch the hackles rise around town as he went out on a limb and slighted the abstract expressionists. This was the way it used to be done, by Clement Greenberg most prominently; it was the old-time religion.
Dia:Beacon, of course, is built on the idea that the artists it shows do constitute a Greatest Generation. Dia evolved out of Heiner Friedrich's hero worship of a handful of artists that he exhibited in his Munich art gallery in the 1960s: Judd, Richter, Flavin, Chamberlain, Warhol, Beuys, Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria. After establishing the institution in 1974 -- primarily as a series of site-specific art pilgrimages and individual buildings devoted to single artists -- Friedrich was forced out in the mid-1980s. Subsequently, his coterie of chosen ones was expanded by Charles Wright, Dia's next director, then Michael Govan, its current one. Added were Serra, Nauman, Smithson, Hanne Darboven, On Kawara and Robert Ryman, among others. For the opening of Dia:Beacon, Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois have been included, seemingly to cut down on the men's club atmosphere.
Whether you view this gorgeously restored 292,000-square-foot former Nabisco factory on the Hudson as a temple of minimalism and post-minimalism, a shrine to the incredibly familiar, a museum or a mausoleum, the sensuousness of the space is undeniable. Dia:Beacon is among the most majestic places for looking at art anywhere -- an exquisite Zen-minimalist retreat on megadoses of Sufi steroids, an ashram of the abstract. Not even the middling architectural tinkering of Robert Irwin can spoil the specialness of the place. Irwin botched the garden he built for the Getty, and designed the dreary Temple of Dendur-like entry here, but he also oversaw the lovely plantings and window treatments.
But almost by default Dia:Beacon undermines Kimmelman's claim (the critic himself seemed to back off the idea in a less favorable review of the show in the Weekend section). It leaves out important artists of the period, poorly serves others and still reflects some of the peculiarities and blind spots of Friedrich's original vision. A lot of the artists aren't great; some are only fair; most are uneven.
I love John Chamberlain's early crumpled-car sculptures and have always coveted one of his lesser-known carved-foam couches from the '70s, but since the mid-1980s this distinguished sculptor has mostly churned out formulaic dreck. At Beacon, the exhibition of the early and late work side by side reduces the lot to dross, and The Privet (1997), a crinkled, candy-colored fence, is especially feeble. As for Blinky Palermo and Hanne Darboven: Both look fresh at Beacon -- he for his starkness, she for her disorder, both for their color -- but neither is great. The same goes for Walter De Maria, Fred Sandback and Imi Knoebel. Although De Maria made a number of terrific early pieces, his development since 1981 has been practically nil. At Beacon his so-so floor piece, The Equal Area Series (1976-77), which consists of 12 pairs of stainless-steel squares and circles installed in two gargantuan galleries, presents a mildly interesting spatial conundrum. But it instantly dissipates into glitzy decoration. Dia doesn't collect him, but the work of alleged felon Carl Andre would have been far more effective here. It's great that an institution was so willing to support the late Sandback, an alluring but ultimately marginal artist. And Knoebel is similarly talented but as limited.
Still, the 24 artists on exhibit at Dia:Beacon aren't a generation at all, but many. Bourgeois -- who was never one of my favorites but looks ornery in the role of madwoman in minimalism's attic on the upper floor where her sculpture is installed -- was born in 1911; Meret Oppenheim and Jackson Pollock were younger. Generations Bourgeois's junior is Nauman, who looks wonderfully sick and twisted in his Hannibal Lecter turn in the darkened basement. Along with Beuys' claustrophobic room, Serra's early scatter piece, and Darboven's excess, Nauman provides one of the few nicely messy moments at Dia:Beacon. Meanwhile, Martin, who looks just OK because she's represented by only two of her early paintings and a lot of later work, is 83. Heizer, 30 years younger, is represented by four huge floor holes that, much to my surprise, really impress (although you have to obtain permission to cross the glass barrier to actually grasp their depth). And on it goes: Judd, whose wall works get sadly lost here, was born in 1928, as was Warhol, who has only one painting on view, albeit a 72-paneled, 312-foot one (Dia unselfishly gave all their other Warhols to his foundation). Whatever -- if all these artists are the same generation, so are Elvis and Eminem.
Actually, the white males and few females collected by Dia form the last generations of artists to have worked in eras that believed in "greatest generations." By now nearly everyone, even those artists exhibited at Dia, has scrapped labels like this. No one argues about whether Hartley, Dove and O'Keeffe constitute a greater generation than Pollock, De Kooning and Rothko. Or if Serra & Co. trump them all. No one even cares.
About Dia's policy of permanently keeping the art the way it is: Judd was right. "A good installation," he wrote, "is too much work and too expensive, and if done by the artist, too personal to then destroy." Most of the installations are stunning; a couple are revelatory. I was transfixed in ways I've never been before by Richter's distorting gray mirrors; Kawara's galleries are superb, even if his paintings are monotonous in bulk. The installations that don't work will presumably be fine-tuned over time. In addition to the Chamberlains, I'd rethink the Flavins, which are fantastic but difficult to compare and contrast in the zigzag configuration he designed. Also, the Bechers look weak (perhaps due to a lack of internal structure in the exhibited work); Lawrence Weiner gets lost; Sol LeWitt's sculpture is crowded (although his wall drawing sings); and I could be wrong on these, but Ryman is overhung, while Smithson's elegant Map of Glass (Atlantis), at 20 by 16 feet, feels a tad too large.
Some say Dia:Beacon is a power play; others, a tomb. I think it's a labor of love. Regardless, it's not a museum. It's a collection (even if much of the work by the Bechers, Bourgeois, Darboven, Nauman, Smithson and Weiner is borrowed). That's why it's pointless to complain about the absence of artists like Andre, or lone wolves and weirdos like Kusama, Le Va, Bontecou and Saul, or carp about there being other better artists of the period. Dia's had its taste from the beginning. It's fine that it has remained more or less true to it.
Or maybe it isn't. The space at Dia:Beacon is great. So is some of the art. But together they feel very predictable and strangely period -- like seeing a perfect, black-leather Marcel Breuer couch in the lobby of an International Style office building. By now the look Dia helped invent and fetishize comes off as slightly canned.
Enormous credit and thanks should be given to Friedrich, Dia's generous trustees, curator Lynne Cooke and Govan, for -- in Govan's straightforward words -- "not screwing it up." Beacon will get really interesting, however, if Dia devotes several big spaces there to changing exhibitions of contemporary art, the way it does in New York, and when it extends its taste, as we all must, and puts less congruous, more strange art, old and new, into this breathtaking edifice.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this review first appeared.