BEACON, N.Y. — Before it was converted into one of the country’s largest museums of modern and contemporary art, the building that houses the Dia Art Foundation here was a box factory, built in 1929. The front galleries upstairs were once printing sheds, and still signal their lapsed function through their saw-toothed windows and unstained wood floors. But it’s downstairs, in the old loading bays, that you really sense this minimal monastery’s industrial life.
An array of concrete columns, each topped with a mushroom-shaped capital, holds up the printing plant. Clerestory windows cast shadows on a huge concrete floor. Down here, where Dia has previously presented work by Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Tacita Dean and François Morellet, the museum fully foregrounds the awkward alliance of modern art and modern industry.
The basement is almost entirely empty right now, and in this dark vacuum lies one of the smartest and saddest exhibitions I’ve seen in a while — staged not by an artist, but a musician. For the new work “Party/After-Party,” the D.J. Carl Craig, a leading figure of Detroit techno, has converted Dia’s lower level into a phantasmal nightclub, illuminated only by a few strip lights and spots, and equipped with heavy-duty speakers that blast a precisely engineered score. For more than 20 minutes, Mr. Craig builds and layers four-on-the-floor explosions, deep-toned echoes and euphoric drops. You may want to dance, but no one is there to dance with you.
More than just a migration of the nightclub into the museum, “Party/After-Party” delves into the intertwined legacies of functionalist architecture, postwar art, and techno music: how industry shaped culture from the Bauhaus to Motown, and what happens to art and music when the factories close down. It’s an immensely cunning meld of factory, nightclub and art gallery. It’s a triumph for Dia, which has been quietly broadening its roster of participants without dissolving its commitment to a cool, narrow strain of minimal, conceptual and environmental art. And it represents one of the sharpest efforts I’ve seen to introduce a musician into the supposedly all-media terrain of contemporary art, which took experimental music more seriously in the late 1960s and 1970s than it does today. (MoMA’s “Björk” calamity is a cursed memory.)
Yet when Mr. Craig and the Dia curator Kelly Kivland began planning this exhibition five years ago, they could not have foreseen how devastatingly gloomy “Party/After-Party” would appear, now that you cannot dance in almost any city on earth. (Turn your browser to Mr. Craig’s touring schedule, and gasp at the litany of canceled gigs and livestreamed stopgap efforts.) Its integration of gallery and club, its conversion of sound into space, might have felt like a Brechtian defamiliarization of techno before March. Now it feels like an antiseptic memory palace before the “after-party” of Covid life. Museums are slowly reopening, but clubs are not coming back for a while. You may never taste a stranger’s sweat on the dance floor again.
Dia reopened to the public earlier this month, with timed ticketing and, naturally, a mask requirement. The galleries are even more serene than usual given the limited capacity, and upstairs John Chamberlain, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Gerhard Richter are now joined by the post-minimal sculptor Barry Le Va, whose circa-1970 scatterings of chalk, glass, felt and ball bearings cover the length of one gallery’s floor. You have to keep your distance, but you were already doing that. Minimal sculpture, like techno music, conditions the body to behave in certain ways — circling it, sizing yourself up to it, getting close without touching it.
This theatrical aspect, as if sculpture and viewer were two bodies on a stage, was precisely what the art historian Michael Fried, in an influential 1967 essay, despised about minimalism — and it got worse with the arrival of the camera phone, which turned minimal art into a familiar Instagram backdrop. Yet I found that Covid has revalued and reformatted my experience of minimal sculpture, which gives off new tensions amid the heightened body awareness we’ve all picked up from social distancing. Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses,” whose tight passages of contorted steel have loomed these past two decades in the factory’s old train shed, require the same careful negotiations we execute in pharmacy aisles. Donald Judd’s wooden boxes occupy space with as much exactitude as a quarantine venue: they keep their distance from each other, and silently dictate where you should stand.
No such objects are to be found downstairs in Mr. Craig’s exhibition, though its orchestration is just as careful and its impact on your body is just as profound. The D.J. and his sound engineers equipped the basement with equalizers and black fabric baffles to modulate reverb, so that his rippling percussion and expansive rhythms leave your heart beating and your ears ringing. His crescendoing blocks of sound have affinities with Sol LeWitt’s exhaustive systems of lines, with the identical rods of Walter De Maria’s “Broken Kilometer,” or with Flavin’s barrier of green fluorescent lights in the next room.
Just as important is the architecture of Dia’s stark basement, whose concrete colonnade echoes the garages that Craig and other African-American musicians in Detroit repurposed for parties in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the minimal and conceptual artists that Dia sanctifies upstairs worked in converted lofts in the 1960s and 1970s, of course. And techno, too, was shaped by industrial architecture. (Consider Kraftwerk, the German electronic-music group whose Bauhaus-type sound was decisive for the development of Detroit techno, and whose name literally means “power plant.”) Those vacated factories and workshops inspired art and music with a stricter, depersonalized edge — and “Party/After-Party,” with stunning confidence, establishes that Black electronic music fully belongs in the lineage of American and European art and industry that Dia guards.
By century’s end, the artists themselves got priced out of their SoHo lofts — and museums themselves began to move into the old warehouses, factories and electric plants of deindustrializing cities. The trend dates at least to the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, which became an art space in 1977. But it really took off in the late 1990s, with the opening of Mass MoCA in the Berkshires (a former textile printer), the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (an old train shed), and the granddaddy of museum conversions: Tate Modern in London, which opened in 2000 in a repurposed power station.
These museums, and Dia too, have turned the streamlined spaces of industry into the most rarefied and expensive of climes, and that gives a melancholy tint to the evolution of art, music, money and urbanism that “Party/After-Party” so cannily traces. In exporting techno music from one converted factory to another, Mr. Craig is increasing its historical worth but also depopulating it, objectifying it, giving it the same cool power as Judd’s specific objects. There is no party in “Party/After-Party,” especially now, in the reduced-occupancy museum. I could imagine it, as my breath under my mask got hot, as an exhibition of club culture in an ethnographic museum, an embalmed display of some vanished civilization.
At the end of the 20th century, both high art and popular revelry could infill our cities’ deindustrialized expanses. At this low moment in the 21st, only art is left. And maybe, in the era of Covid, this is what art is supposed to be: a time capsule of when our lives still had human fullness, an amulet of past joys we will not experience for a while longer. I may never feel the joy of dancing again, I felt, as Mr. Craig’s drop washed over me and my feet stayed planted to the floor. I have reached the edge of tears in nightclubs before, but this was the first time I’ve done so sober.
Maybe, before Dia brings down Mr. Craig’s installation in the summer of 2021, it will be safe enough for a few hundred bodies to pack the museum’s basement and dance. I hate to bet against it. But shortly after leaving Beacon I saw an item from Germany: Berghain, the immense Berlin nightclub (another power-plant conversion) where Mr. Craig regularly D.J.s, will not host parties for the foreseeable future and will instead turn its dance floor over to … contemporary art. For pity’s sake, we should just say it: Art is the luxury asset that moves in when the party’s over.
Carl Craig: Party/After-Party
Through summer 2021 at Dia Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon, N.Y. Advance reservations only; reserve timed tickets at diaart.org.