Hudson River Treasure Hunt: Report from a Recent Visit to a New Art Mecca

528 Dia:Beacon, part of a new network of land art destinations on the Hudson River. CLUI photo

THE ART AND LAND PROJECTS sprouting up this spring centered around the Hudson River town of Beacon make for an interesting treasure hunt through this newly culturally engorged industrial-pastoral landscape.

The obvious place to start is at Dia:Beacon, which opened in May, and may be the largest contemporary art museum in the nation. The huge old factory is now full of big art, some of it the brand of minimalism that moved outdoors in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the form of Land Art. Inside the museum are some often depicted but rarely seen things like Smithson’s dirt piles, Beuys’ wolf piece props, and some new Heizer holes. The landscaping is by the post-minimalist gardener, Robert Irwin.

Just beyond the museum, the road dead-ends at the town sewage treatment plant, a handsome brick building with a stack, and a trail heads off into an intriguing peninsula that extends into the river beyond the shoreline railroad tracks. This is Denning’s Point, an undeveloped 65 acre wooded site where the artist Lothar Baumgarten is creating a number of sculptural installations and sound pieces that will be complete next year.

Baumgarten’s project, funded by Lannan Foundation, is part of the Watershed Art Project, which begins exhibiting this year as a program to create artwork and educational programs that “raise awareness of the imaginative and physical landscapes of the Hudson River Valley.” The project is managed by a Manhattan-based organization called Minetta Brook, which distributes a field guide to the projects from its storefront exhibit space in downtown Beacon.

Follow the field guide’s directions to sound-equipped park benches at a few locations in the region, which provide an audio track of interviews and sounds when you sit down on them; or head out to scenic overlooks with customized mounted viewing binoculars, one on either side of the river; or to a site at Beacon Point, where the landscape artist George Trakas is building a sculpted shorefront peninsula.

529 The unceremonious entrance to the Watershed exhibit site in the mostly empty Dick’s Castle, New York. CLUI photo

During the opening weekend of Watershed, May 24th, visitors had an added, temporary site along the Watershed Project trail, that involved a visit to Dick’s Castle, the looming, monolithic, hundred year old, locally legendary unfinished residence on a hillside at Garrison. On arrival, a sign indicated a side door through which to enter the seemingly unoccupied castle, near an unfinished fountain and a gravel parking area. Inside, was a small unpainted drywall room, with only an elevator door and a sign that said: Please Take the Elevator to the 3rd Floor. On the third floor was a grand room, partially furnished with a banquet table, sofas, and paintings. An attendant, working for Minetta Brook, oriented visitors to the featured Watershed piece, a large map on a table, marking spots along the river where field recordings were made by Annea Lockwood in the 1980’s, following the river from the Ocean to its source. The recordings played on speakers in the room. Archived interviews with longtime Hudson River characters could be accessed via a digital playback machine and headphones.

Additional and more far flung Watershed sites include an exhibit of new and locally shot photographs by James Welling, in New Paltz, and an agricultural sculpture on the grounds of Bard College.

Back in Beacon, the previously “unremarkable” and generally poor upstate town is beginning to reflect the new art culture that Dia has precipitated, which will take form over the coming years with a planned conference center, shoreline housing developments, and a multimillion dollar Rivers and Estuaries Center. For now, a walk down Main Street shows a mix of old convenience stores and new art galleries. Two adjacent nondescript storefront spaces serve as additional exhibit spaces for Hudson River films commissioned for Watershed. Nearby, across the street is Beacon Project Space, a new gallery whose curator, David Ross, is the former director of the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

530 Part of the collapsing Tioronda Hat Works mill complex on Fishkill Creek. CLUI photo

Beacon Project Space’s current exhibition program focuses on artists and architects working in the Hudson River Valley. The inaugural exhibition included work by artist Carrie Mae Weems, who launched a new long-term residency project in Beacon. The gallery and the residency are programs of the Beacon Cultural Project, started last year by the New York developer and art patron William S. Ehrlich, who has purchased "half of Beacon" according to some published reports, and who has teamed up with the Mayor, David Ross, and others to spearhead the revitalization of the city.

Ehrlich’s sites include what is possibly the most interesting and pleasantly sited abandoned and crumbling mill complex on the Hudson, the old Tioronda Hat Works. It is a network of several connected buildings from different industrial periods, spanning the early 1800’s to the 1960’s, located at the intersection of the Hudson River and Fishkill Creek, Beacon’s 19th Century industrial corridor. Uses for the buildings that have been seriously considered include a performing art space for Twyla Tharp and an exhibit space for some of the Sonnabend art collection. In the meantime, the grounds are untamed and sort of open to the public. A path leads along the edge of the broken and collapsing complex, to a viewing area at a scenic marsh on the edge of the Hudson River, where scattered fragments of police-line tape allude to some unknown incident or rehearsal.