If the 80-minute-long scenic riverfront train ride from New York City to Dia:Beacon isn’t reward enough, the museum itself offers some of the best views of Minimalist art in the nation, housing works from giants like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Dan Flavin.
Yet for its latest exhibition, Dia:Beacon director Philippe Vergne and curator Yasmil Raymond are hazarding a gamble with a vast show of works by Paris-based artist Jean-Luc Moulène, known in France primarily for his landscape photography and known in the U.S. for pretty much nothing at all. Moulène has had decent international exposure -- at Documenta 10 in 1997, in the 2003 Venice Biennale and at this year’s Sharjah Biennial -- yet he’s shown just once in New York, in a group exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in the mid-1990s.
What’s more, the exhibition, “Opus + One,” Dec. 17, 2011-Dec. 31, 2012, is bigger than usual, sprawling beyond Dia’s main gallery into the institutions’ other rooms, displacing the likes of Andy Warhol, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Judd.
“It’s the first time we’ve done an exhibition on this scale,” Vergne said. “So it really has an effect on the collection, a real dialogue is happening between his work and the other artists.”
It’s been part of Vergne’s mission since he came on board from the Walker Art Center in 2008 to make the permanent collection “more active,” rotating the works in the installation and lending for shows at other institutions. Besides, “It’s our duty to advocate the work of an artist who is not known,” he said. (That extends, arguably, to masters of yesteryear like Carl Andre, whose name, the New Yorker recently wrote, “is no longer prominent in the critical discourse.” Andre is the subject of a retrospective, his first solo museum show since the 1970s, at Dia:Beacon in March 2013.)
Aside from being virtually unknown in the U.S., Moulène has also been pigeonholed, perhaps unfairly, as a photographer -- “this kind of enigmatic, bizarre landscape photography,” Raymond said, referring, perhaps, to the photos of banal objects he installed around Kassel for Documenta -- yet he’s been making 3D sculptural works for much of his career. That practice is what the Dia exhibition brings to prominence.
The 39 small abstract objects -- not “sculptures” -- in the main gallery are drawn from Moulène's ongoing "Opus" series, and include a concrete head, a cigarette pack, a foam maquette of a larger sculpture, a wooden model of a bridge, and a rubber cast of the artist's fingers. This motley is designed, apparently, as an exploration of "classification" -- and demonstrates convincingly that this French artist fits in with the Dia esthetic canon.
Also included in the non-chronological grid are some sleek maquettes and building prototypes that bear the invisible mark of engineers, rather than the hand of the artist. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise when Raymond points out that Moulène spent a decade designing product presentations for the military manufacturer Thomson-Sintra.
Industrial design is most evident in Moulène’s magnum opus, Body (2011), a glossy, 28-foot-long empty vessel that curves into an aerodynamic form like some kind of sci-fi bobsled. Unsurprisingly, it was manufactured and painted in primary colors by automotive engineers at Renault. Yet while its seamless shell and internalized construction (the hardware is all fastened on the inside) recall the hands-off approach of Moulène’s Minimalist forebears, Raymond said Moulène’s intent is quite different.
“We know it’s metal, but it seems soft,” she said. The 12 bands of conjoined aluminum bend into liquid contours, which Raymond reveals were actually cast from women’s corsets. “There are many references to bodies, organs and geometric forms in his work.”
Moulène’s work contrasts well with the Minimalist mecca’s other artists. Recalling LeWitt, a geometric cube of stacked metal rodent traps, Caliber Trap (2008), renders the boxes’ original function meaningless. And, like Judd and Andre, Moulène eschews pedestals and plinths in favor of displaying his objects on the floor, hanging them from the ceiling or setting them a white table, which he considers part of the sculpture itself.
Only in the final section, what might be considered the “+ One” of the show’s title, does Moulène’s photography appear. There, a wing of galleries is lined with two rows of 299 photographs, all a single work called The Lookout Man (2004-2011). The top sequence shows Moulène’s obsessive, seven-year documentation of a single weed as it grows, freezes, dies and sprouts all over again in the cracks of a sidewalk outside his apartment. The bottom row reverses the perspective, showing instead mundane tableaux of shops, buildings and construction work on the street surrounding the plant.
“Jean-Luc is inventing a language through objects and images and there are very few examples of that sort on the American art scene,” Vergne said. And that’s why he’s not worried about taking a risk on the unknown artist. “I think a faithful Dia audience will come, and I hope students and artists will come because it’s new information. I trust that the artistic community is extremely courteous and will look at an artist who hasn’t yet been in front of them.”