Dia: Chelsea

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 46 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Art made out of ginormous freaking laser beams!

Dia: Chelsea
Rita McBride, “Particulates,” 2017, lasers, site-specific particulates, extraterrestrial dust, and water

The Dia Foundation is a powerhouse in the world of contemporary art.  It got its start in 1974 to help artists “achieve visionary projects that might not otherwise be realized because of scale or scope.” (Source: Dia’s website.)

New Yorkers probably best know Dia in the guise of Dia: Beacon, an important contemporary art museum located in Beacon, NY, a bit over an hour by train north of the city.  The Dia Foundation also manages the Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room in SOHO.  And several other important art places and spaces around the world (most notably two key environmental art pieces out west: Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and De Maria’s Lightning Field).

Dia’s offices are in Chelsea, and it has two art spaces there, too.

Dia: Chelsea

Dia: Chelsea consists of two converted industrial buildings (one formerly the Alcamo Marble Works, Inc.) When I visited, one held a newly commissioned work (the aforementioned giant freaking laser beams), and the other presented a spare, elegant retrospective of the work of François Morellet.

Giant Freaking Laser Beams

I don’t have a lot to say about Rita McBride’s Particulates.  I love the blacked out windows of the gallery, and the warning sign on the door.  These aren’t just laser pointers, they are serious, mess-you-up, Star Wars-grade technology.

Dia: Chelsea
Danger: Laser Radiation

Walking into the installation, it’s dark and humid, and you immediately notice the gentle drip of water; condensation makes the lasers visible.  Machines rumble gently — mainly the fog-making apparatus, but possibly also the lasers themselves, underscoring the mechanical nature of the piece.

Dia: Chelsea
Rita McBride, “Particulates,” 2017. Lasers, etc.

The straight lines of the green lasers are cunningly deployed to create a complex interweaving of light in the air, reflected in the water pooling in areas of the floor.  The safety barriers, to prevent idiots from burning out their eyes or setting themselves on fire, are custom made by McBride and help shape the space and the spots from which you can view the mighty, Death-Star-like installation.

Dia: Chelsea
Rita McBride, “Particulates,” 2017. Lasers, etc.

And yet, when you spend time with the piece, it’s the details that are the most magical.  Little sparkles as larger drops of water intersect the beams.  Whole sections fade as parts of the room grow less foggy.

It’s terrific.  Beautiful.  Dangerous.  Interesting.  Made me think.  I wish more art had giant freaking lasers in it.

Cerebral French Geometries

Dia: ChelseaI’d never heard of François Morellet before I saw this show.  I was a bit skeptical of it — some French geometrician from the mid-20th century, I thought.  But Morellet balanced his somewhat pedantic, academic tendencies with a degree of humor that a lot of this kind of art lacks. Once I got beyond the grids and randomness, I found myself charmed by him.

If Morellet had taken himself and his work more seriously, I think I’d probably dislike it.  But here’s an artist who made things called “Steel Lifes” and “Geometrees.”  I smiled a lot when going through the show.  Imagine art driven by numbers in a phone book or digits of pi doing that.

Eventually Morellet’s works break out of being flat pictures, blurring the line between painting and sculpture, and doing clever things to perspective.  When I got to the point when, late in his career, Morellet made the radical move from straight lines and the grid to arcs, it was almost a shock. Arcs!


The McBride and Morellet shows each individually were impressive.  Together, they were even more so.  The Dia curators don’t hit you over the head with the connections between McBride’s giant tech marvel and Morellet’s spare geometric lines.  But wow, the two in tandem are amazing.  

There’s a Morellet piece called “Reflections in Water Distorted by the Spectator” (well, that but en français) that consists of a movable pool of water on the floor and a grid of neon lights creating 16 squares mounted above.  Visitors can nudge the pool and create ripples that mess with the perfect grid reflected in the water in unpredictable, unique ways.  It sounds stupid.  Even writing it I think it sounds stupid. But the McBride piece helped me appreciate it.

Dia: Chelsea
François Morellet, “Reflections in Water Distorted by the Spectator.” Distortions by Joe.

Should You Visit Dia: Chelsea?

The Dia: Chelsea spaces are good, if similar to many other Chelsea galleries in formerly more industrial spaces.  Clearly they’re highly flexible.  I appreciated the way they retain touches of the buildings’ former lives, for instance in the skylights and the signage.  

In addition to great installations, Dia also shines on the explanatory front.  The Dia Foundation exhibition brochures are always terrific: detailed, thoughtful, and interesting.   It made a huge difference between Morellet’s work being deployments of random lines and grids, and it being fun.

I can’t promise you’ll find whatever’s on at Dia: Chelsea when you visit as fun as giant laser beams or cerebral, mathematical Frenchmen.  Your mileage will certainly vary.  But I’m very confident that whatever’s on at Dia: Chelsea, it will be worth a look.  

For Reference:

Address 541 and 545 West 22nd Street, Manhattan
Website diaart.org
Cost  General Admission:  $8 for retrospectives; free for commissions


2 Replies to “Dia: Chelsea”

Comments are closed.