Oberlin on the Road: Classes Travel for Art

Thomas Huston

Over the past two weeks, students in the Studio and Art History departments set forth on journeys to enrich their perspectives through travel. The first brought Young-Hunter Professor of Studio Art John Pearson’s students to Beacon, NY, to visit Dia:Beacon, an arts foundation located an hour out of New York City by train. The second brought members of Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art Sarah Hamill’s class to Marfa, TX, to visit the Chinati Foundation three hours northeast of El Paso. Each trip represented a pilgrimage of sorts, a commitment by visitors to the experience of the art.

The New York trip was part of the Studio Art course titled The Nature of the Abstract, which seeks to provoke new ways of thinking about artistic practices and provide students with first-hand experience with the work of some of the most important contemporary artists. As we approached the former Nabisco factory that houses Dia:Beacon, an atonal, droning sound was emanating from somewhere within. It was unclear whether this was part of an art installation or merely a byproduct of the mechanical goings-on of the building. The effect was subtle, but it indicated that this was not going to be like any other museum visit — the art would be an experience. (It was later confirmed that the sounds coming from the building were indeed a sound installation.) What sets Dia apart from other art museums is the vast space it dedicates to individual artists. Unlike New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, where works by many different artists share a somewhat cramped space, Dia devotes entire galleries to the works of single artists. This allows the viewer to grasp a fuller understanding of what these artists were doing.

While Oberlin students could easily go to the Allen Memorial Art Museum and see works by most of the artists in Dia’s collection, such as Richard Serra and Dan Flavin, there is no way to fully experience the work until you have physically entered one of Serra’s huge steel structures or seen an entire gallery filled with Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures, for example.

The Chinati Foundation took the focus of Dia’s collection to an extreme. Founded by Minimalist artist Donald Judd in 1986 as a place to permanently install his own work, alongside the work of artists whom he admired, Chinati is located on an old Army base. It devotes entire buildings to individual artists, in spaces chosen and often remodeled specifically to house the work. In the case of Dan Flavin, six separate barracks buildings are devoted to a single piece of work.

The trip was organized as part of Hamill’s Art History seminar titled What Was Minimalism?. Compared to the voyage to Marfa, the hour-long train ride from New York City to Dia seemed like a stroll across campus. The 14-hour trip from Oberlin to the Chinati site truly felt like a pilgrimage, preparing the seminar for the awaited experience in the same way that the grand staircase entry to a major museum sets the tone for viewing its collection.

The highlight of Chinati is Judd’s own work. He has two large-scale installations, one outdoors in concrete (“15 untitled works in concrete”) and one installed in two former artillery sheds (“100 untitled works in mill aluminum”). The experience of “100 untitled works” is incredible: The aluminum reflects the light let into the space through the large windows installed by Judd himself, mimicking the desert landscape outside and constantly changing. Each of the 100 works has the same dimensions (41” x 51” x 72”) but nevertheless, each is unique. The combination of the lighting and the individuality of each work creates infinite surprises for the viewer. It is difficult to imagine getting bored by this art piece, and the same goes for the Chinati Foundation itself.