General 4-25-2004

The Column: The Slow Train to the Big Show

Michael Fallon dreams art through baseball this spring, and writes about one of the new uberMuseums, the Dia Beacon.

News Item:
April 7, 2004
Minneapolis, Minnesota (Mark Sheldon,

“Mauer needs surgery (Twenty-year-old catcher placed on disabled list)”

“An MRI exam Wednesday morning revealed that (Twins catcher Joe) Mauer has a torn medial meniscus cartilage in his left knee. It will require arthroscopic surgery and he is expected to miss up to a month…. Mauer had just made his much anticipated and heralded Major League debut in Monday’s season opener. ‘It’s not very good timing,’ Mauer said while standing on crutches near his clubhouse locker. ‘I just want to get back as fast I can’…. One of the more eagerly anticipated rookies to arrive on the scene in years, Mauer was the overall No. 1 draft pick in 2001 out of St. Paul’s Cretin-Durham Hall High School. His rookie season has been interrupted after just 14 innings.”

I AM ON A SLOW TRAIN HEADING UP THE HUDSON RIVER NORTH FROM NEW YORK CITY when I read the news about St. Paul’s great hometown hope, Joe Mauer, and I feel a twinge of disappointment for the kid, and even more for myself for the hope I’d pinned on him. A few moments later, ironically enough, the train clacks past the ancient tomblike majesty of Yankee stadium in the Bronx, into a roughshod suburban wasteland of housing projects, low brick factory buildings (Chuck’s Extrusions, Ray’s Auto Body, Ed’s Motorcycles), and railroad trestles. The day is overcast, the clouds are the roiling color of Baltic sea-foam. I am on my way to the Dia center in Beacon, and I feel a million miles from what I know.

New York City can make a Midwestern boy feel like a hapless rookie. It’s the Big Apple after all, home of the big-time, big-shot kings-of-the-hill, tops-of-the-heap, A-number-ones that Sinatra sang about. I swear I’m not exaggerating when I say that in the five days I’ve been here, I’ve heard more than a half-dozen disparaging references to the “heartland,” to “flyover country,” and to “the sticks.” The reality of New York is like that old New Yorker cartoon–a map of the U.S. with the City taking up two-thirds of the space, the rest of the country just a bumper for the Pacific Ocean. A 76-year-old New York artist I interviewed in the West Village the day before made terrible disparaging remarks about her hometown of Philadelphia (the third largest city in the country when she grew up there). She sneered that, with its “blue laws,” Philadelphia all but closed down on Sundays–nothing like the nonstop excitement of New York City. (You should never go to my hometown of Saint Paul, then, I thought.) Another guy I met in a bar, a writer on politics and on bar culture (of all things), snorted when I mentioned where I was from. “Huh,” he said. “What are you doing here in the big city then?”

Of course, such anti-heartland sentiment is not limited to New York. An art zine editor I met in December in Los Angeles volunteered his opinion, without my asking, that the Twin Cities were a “franchise city”–not on a par with real major-league cities like New York, Los Angeles, and, apparently, the great metropolis of Anaheim (where his favorite team, the Angels, reside). Well, my fellow flyoverians, let me say I have taken a good amount of hometowny offense to all of this abuse, but I have also bit my tongue–because despite it all the Coastal Snobs have a point. To carry on the Los Angeles editor’s baseball metaphor, I was at a playoff game at the Metrodome last year when the Yankees unceremoniously dismantled our boys with their $200 million dollar lineup (worth four times our own). The past seven World Series, since the Cleveland Indians were the last Midwestern team to appear in the fall classic, have been dominated by coastal teams (New York Yankees, Anaheim Angels, San Francisco Giants) and teams from up-and-coming Sunbelt retirement locations for ex-New Yorkers and ex-Californians (San Diego, Arizona, Miami, Atlanta). It’s not coincidental that when baseball owners tried to contract the league, they chose to eliminate a team from the Midwest (i.e., the Twins). After all, they must have thought, who’s gonna notice? (Fortunately for us, Hennepin County District Judge Harry Seymour Crump did notice, and issued an injunction blocking the ploy.)

This disrespect for the Midwest in bars and in baseball is similar to what happens in the arts–it’s very rare that a place like Minneapolis makes a national splash in this field. This is why it’s astounding that four hometown boys—that is, four young artists who, like Joe Mauer, hail from Minnesota—appear in this year’s World Series of art, the Whitney Biennial. In fact, these four–photographer Alec Soth, installation artist Santiago Cucullu, sculptor Rob Fischer, and documentary filmmaker Bill Siegel–were the reason I came all this way, daring to leave the backwoods sheltered existence of my sleepy hometown for the Big Show.

BACK ON THE TRAIN, I WATCH AS THE SUBURBAN GRUNGE OF THE BRONX THINS, the Hudson River widens, and the landscape grows lovely–wooded hills and horse paths, boat docks and church spires, Queen Anne cottage bed-and-breakfasts and wispy woodsmoke rising from chimneys. Beacon, located an hour and a half north of New York, is a hardscrabble river town that’s seen better times–though it’s also apparent that things are changing for the better. Dozens of people get off the train with me and make a short trek over a hill to the new Dia: Beacon Riggio Galleries, which are located in a 1923 printing plant once operated by Nabisco. Opened in 2003 by the Dia Foundation to house its collection of art from the 1960s to the present, this new museum is bringing to Beacon a sudden influx of regular tourism. The effect is so marked that Beacon’s main street of old boarded-up storefronts and flophouses is acquiring shining new shops to sell pottery, glassware, framed photographs, and other yuppie goods.

While the Whitney Biennial itself was solid, major-league stuff overall (as I wrote on mnartists last week), the Dia: Beacon is another story altogether–a sort of art Hall of Fame. Many of the artists on display are sluggers of a certain large-scale old-school minimalist vintage—Robert Smithson, Joseph Beuys, Robert Ryman, On Kawara, Agnes Martin. The museum itself is amazing. With its thirty-one acres of riverfront grounds designed by Robert Irwin, and 300,000 square feet of interior space gussied up with minimalist flare by the architectural firm OpenOffice, the place is the closest thing in America to a modern-day Hermitage. Inside the vast, warehousey gallery rooms, blue-gray steel beams and a burnished blond wood floor dominate the white walls. A day at the Dia is not unlike seeing a well-played game at Yankee Stadium: you get so much highlight-reel excitement that you’ll forget the occasional error, balk, and strikeout that happen even here.

At this point I have to point out that the superstar among Dia’s big leaguers—a resident Mickey Mantle worth the price of admission–is Richard Serra. He occupies the cleanup spot in the lineup—in a special hall (the factory’s former train depot) that houses four of Serra’s daunting “torqued ellipses.” These are massive sheets of steel that have been set up against each other to create structures as big as rooms, their walls angled and twisting in disorienting ways as you walk into them. These structures make one reexamine one’s relationship to the world—they are that strange and unusual an experience. There is an element of dangerous balance in them—a balance between terror and grace, as if this impossible beauty were about to collapse at any moment. This is akin to the balance inherent in great athletic feats—the horrible grace of an impossible hanging jump shot by Jordan, the terrifying distant beauty of a 500-foot homerun by Mantle. At the same time, the patina of rust and oil and human sweat and whatever else on the steel is suddenly poignantly close to your face as you squeeze between the ponderous metal walls. Everyone I know who has seen these works has admitted to me they couldn’t keep themselves from touching the walls–despite the prohibition against it.

I spend a full hour walking around Serra’s ellipses, looking at them from every angle, trying to comprehend their power and how the mind of one human could have conceived them. This is an experience one might have a half-dozen times in life—when you realize you are seeing something so unexpected, so revealing of the wonderment that is possible in human creativity, that you never forget it. This is the Big Time, right here—the once-in-a-lifetime, cloud-clearing, clarion call revelation of What It Is All About. From this point forward, I think, whenever someone asks why I do what I do, why I’m fascinated with young artists like the four Minnesotans in the Biennial, and why I follow their careers—I will tell them about the Serra ellipses. Whenever someone asks me why I am not content to stay at home among the local sandlots, and why I don’t stick to just describing the honest and good efforts of those who ply away at art just for the pure mediocre joy of it—I will remember this moment. I follow the burgeoning careers of people like Soth and Fischer, hometown kids who dare to dream that they might reach for supernova immortality of the kind that Serra or Mantle has attained, just on the off-chance it could occur.

A FEW DAYS AFTER I RETURN FROM NEW YORK, I visit Alec Soth in his Northeast Minneapolis studio, where the atmosphere has changed since I visited him this past summer (before he was accepted to the Biennial). The place is overrun now with shelves holding photographic paper, walls with event notices stuck to them, tables full of proof sheets, and an assistant helping Soth run his business. “It’s been crazy,” Soth said of the attention his work has received because of the show. “It’s been good crazy… Things have really changed.”

Among the changes since the Biennial, Soth has received assignments from the New York Times Magazine and from Newsweek. His work was featured in a Time magazine article on the Biennial, in the front section of the New Yorker, on the cover of Blindspot, and in advertisements for the Biennial itself. “The main thing about all of this is the power of the Whitney,” he says. “It’s created a lot of activity.” He tells the story about getting a recent call from a very major gallery–an offer to represent his work in an upcoming European art fair. He asks me not to reveal the gallery, as the offer still could fall through. “But it’s great nonetheless. It’s sort of like getting a call from Steinbrenner.”

Good for the hometown boys, I think. Good for Alec Soth and for Joe Mauer (who despite the current setback will come back strong, I predict). Soth and Mauer represent the best our community can achieve in the best of circumstances. We take joy in their accomplishments and bask in their glory because we know they represent the best side of us to the bigger world. “Joe Mauer is a St. Paul kid,” I’ve told my baseball-loving family and friends more than once. “He went to school just a few blocks from where I live, and we used to get our hair cut in the same place.” I’ve also told anyone who will listen that I knew about Alec Soth well before he became a star. “I liked his work back when I saw it in the Minnesota State Fair in 2002.”

Sure, Minnesota, stuck as it is in flyover country, can’t compete head-to-head with the big guns of New York—the Mantles and Berras and Dimaggios (and the Serras and Barneys and Warhols), but occasionally the little guy can show glimpses of greatness. And we can take pride in the hometown boys who struggle to succeed in the big world.