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April 11, 2003

Art and Religion in the Dia Generation


Did you see the story in the New York Times Magazine of April 6 on “The Dia Generation”? (You can read it here.) Not only does it contain some good gossip about the peerless egotism of individual artists (we get to hear Donald Judd fulminating about how stupid he had been to ever trust Heiner Friedrich, Dia’s founder, after receiving $5 million in grants and a monthly stipend of $17,500 from the foundation), but it also highlights the religious dimension of Minimalism, a topic I hadn’t considered much before.

If the impression given by the article is correct, Mr. Friedrich (who conceived Dia along with his heiress wife, Philippa de Menil) is a prototypical Romantic:

…born in Germany in 1938, [Friedrich] liked to describe how seeing the destruction during the Nazi years inspired him to want to create things that would last forever. One recent morning, at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, he told me that ''living in the countryside after the war in purest relation to nature, in great peace, made a huge impression on me -- seeing the manifestation of the divine.'' Bespectacled, dressed in a black suit and black shirt, a large, sturdy man with a lined face, Friedrich today looks more forbidding than he is. He is a dreamer, prone to verbal flights of near-spiritual reverie.

In a Goethe-like fashion, Friedrich (whose Christian name really should have been Caspar David) got the inspiration for Dia from trips he made to Italy:

Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua ''became for me the true insight for the unfolding and development of Dia.'' The chapel was the work of a single artist: a singular site, complex, revolutionary, preserved in perpetuity, a pilgrimage destination both cultural and spiritual.

Dia’s first big project was Walter De Maria's ''Lightning Field'': 400 stainless-steel poles, up to 20 feet tall, arranged over nearly a square mile in New Mexico. Interestingly, if you wanted to visit the site, you were required to spend 24 hours in a cabin onsite.

Calling Down the Fires of Heaven: W. De Maria, Lightning Field, 1971-77
[Despite being built at a cost of roughly $5 million in 2003 dollars)]…[w]hat was incalculable…was its artistic value. The work required a journey, a pilgrimage, the sacrifice and effort being part of the philosophy of immersion in the art. There was something manipulative, even prescriptive, about that idea, but also something deeply liberating about the experience.

While I am tempted to scoff about how liberating such an experience would be—it sounds as if it would feel more like Stockholm syndrome than liberation—when I think back to the 1970s I realize how welcome that very rigor must have been to eager art pilgrim-flagellants. America in the Vietnam/Watergate/disco era had suffered a terrible wound to its spiritual self-image, and organized religion lacked the conviction and self-confidence to provide any relief. The public turned to art with religious themes like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” (a phenomenon best understood not as cinema but as the most significant religious movement of the second half of the 20th century.)

Disco Meets the Force in the 1970s

But Mr. Friedrich and Ms. de Menil ran into the fundamental problem of such ventures, which is that art is at best a rather specialized manifestation of religion, not a religion itself. I wasn’t surprised to read that:

By 1979…[the couple] had met Sheikh Muzaffar Ozak, a Sufi master of the Halveti-Jerrahi Order of dervishes, and Dia started pouring money into a Sufi mosque on Mercer Street as well as supporting various Islamic publishing projects.

In its great ambition, Minimalism was trying to construct a new religion out of perception. Unfortunately, this sort of thing works about as well as pulling yourself out of the swamp by your own hair—in short, poorly. The hunger for the "real deal"—i.e., a religion which at least claims metaphysical insight—gradually becomes overwhelming.

Still Looking for Something Bigger Than You: R. Serra, Union of Torus and Sphere, 2001 (photo by R. Barnes, 2003)

The article contains a series of references to the art and artists of the Italian Renaissance, which illustrates Dia’s boldness but unwittingly hints at just what Minimalism was up against. All Michelangelo was trying to do was to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a task in the execution of which he could draw on 1500 years of religious symbolism and the teachings of the Catholic Church; he didn’t also have to write the Gospels, compose the hymns and debate the theology of the Immaculate Conception.

Heck, old Mike had it easy compared to the task that confronted Minimalist artists in the 1970s. To tell you the truth, it makes me think better of them.



P.S. After a night's sleep, it dawned on me that the 1970s, which appeared at the time to be the most profane of decades, may actually have been a sort of religious watershed. Anybody have any thoughts on the Seventies as a Decade of Religion? A good introduction to 1970s religious trends can be found as part of "Religion in Post World War II America" by Joanne Beckman of Duke University, which you can read here.

P.P.S. When I studied art history in the 1980s at art school, nobody mentioned the obviously pervasive religious dimension of 1970s Minimalism, Earth Art, Conceptual Art, etc., etc. I guess that says something about the status of religion in the Academy.

posted by Friedrich at April 11, 2003


Great Minds Think Alike Dept: Felix has a good, thoughtful posting about the same Kimmelman/DIA piece here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2003 8:41 AM

Elvis fan that you are, you might enjoy this John Strausbaugh book about Elvis' post-death celebrity, here. I did. Strausbaugh talks about the Elvis cult quite straightforwardly as a cult -- as a religion-in-the-birthing that might or might not make it as a long-term religion. Short, quick, easy, provocative. Religion-wannabes are bubbling around us all the time, in a Darwinian way. Some will make it longterm, some won't. I guess Minimalism didn't. Elvis might. I wonder about Modernist Art generally...What's your bet? It's had an amazingly long run already.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2003 6:35 PM

Tom Wolfe's 1975 book "Mad Gloves and Madmen" has some famous chapters on the religious underpinnings of a lot of 1970s culture.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 11, 2003 9:29 PM

Thanks to both Mr. Sailer and Michael Blowhard for their input to my question. I'll definitely check those out.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 12, 2003 1:36 AM

If you ask me, the seventies were a time of religious revival. But since it was the seventies, it was a revival of everything awful about religion. "Minimalism" -- yeah, good-bye fun ceremonies, they get in the way of The Real Thing, Man. And then there was Anita Bryant. (Shudder.) And then Carter was elected, and we started hearing about fundamentalism and the Moral Majority. And the Iran thing topped it off. Sure, none of those things actually started in the 70s, but I hate the 70s, so I blame that decade for everything. ;)

Posted by: Andrea Harris on April 15, 2003 2:56 AM

Great post. If you're defining religion as something that encourages contemplation of one's existence ("I am so small! This art is so big! What must this mean about who/what/why I am?"), then yes, Minimalism can do that (re: "Minimalism was trying to construct a new religion out of perception"). In that regard, Minimalism qualifies more as a philosophy than a religion, as concepts more than precepts. Your questions raise the interesting issue of how art in the 70's responded to the muck of politics, wars, etc., and how that was different from the response of popular religion. I don't know the answer, but my hunch is that religion took care of the touchy-feely-I'm-OK-you're-OK part, and art took care of the holding-up-the-cold-hard-mirror-"LOOK AT YOURSELF!" part. Any thoughts?

Posted by: ariana on April 16, 2003 11:36 AM

wasn't it Robert Smithson who worried
about the possible negative aspect of
the grand scale of earthworks & minimal
ism , that it might degenerate (in per-
ception) into a pseudo-religious icono-
graphy ?
look around, most of what has been pro-
duced in the past 35 or so years, with-
in the earthwork-installation genre
certainly has "that look and feel" about
the most glaring example is probably
the volcano/crater project being com-
pleted in arizona by jim turrel.
the question is - what other direction
could this have taken ?

Posted by: greg on April 16, 2003 9:47 PM

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