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Meg Webster

Long-term view, Dia Beacon

Overview

Drawing on Minimalist and Land art of the 1960s and ’70s, Meg Webster has brought loose natural materials—such as soil, sand, and salt—indoors since the mid-1980s, shaping them into elementary, sensorially rich sculptures. Her body of work spans simple geometric volumes, gardens, and hydraulic and grow-light installations that may be sited within or outside the gallery.

This long-term presentation of Webster’s work features her signature concave and convex earthworks, which recently entered Dia’s collection, complemented by sculptures constructed in beeswax, moss, salt, and sticks. Presented in the galleries abutting the west gardens, the exhibition’s organic materials comprise an ecosystem where color, scent, and sound enter into dialogue with the natural elements outside. Shown alongside works by peers Michael Heizer, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra, among others, Webster’s sculptures bring a unique ecological perspective to the formal concerns that animate the art in Dia’s collection.

Meg Webster is curated by Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, curator and co–department head, with Liv Cuniberti, curatorial assistant.

All exhibitions at Dia are made possible by the Economou Exhibition Fund.

Meg Webster is made possible by lead support from Their Excellencies Sheikh Jassim and Sheikha Al Mayassa Al-Thani. Significant support by Berkowitz Contemporary Foundation. Additional support by Agnes Gund, Anne Mosseri-Marlio and Reto Wey, Marsha and Jeffrey Perelman, and Deedie Rose. Special thanks to Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Dia Beacon Interactive Floor Plan

Drawing on Minimalist and Land art of the 1960s and ’70s, Meg Webster has brought natural materials such as mud, salt, sand, and sticks indoors since the mid-1980s, shaping them into elemental, sensorially rich sculptures. Dating from 1986 to 1990, the works in this presentation illustrate a pivotal period in Webster’s oeuvre, when the artist defined her distinct sculptural method and vocabulary of negative and positive volumes, containers, and enclosures. Her precise cones, cylinders, mounds, spirals, and rectangles formed from loose, unbound substances defy material expectations and provoke a heightened awareness of the natural world.

Born in San Francisco in 1944, Webster graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1976, and received her MFA from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1983. At Yale, Webster studied with Vito Acconci, Hans Haacke, Robert Irwin, and Donald Judd, artists similarly invested in the contingency of minimal forms within an institutional and social context. Upon graduation, Webster moved to New York and debuted her architectonic sculptures made of earth and hay at Judd’s Spring Street studio. She worked as the studio assistant to Michael Heizer, whose language of positive and negative shapes she would scale down to create the conditions for kinship with nature. For Webster, “earth becomes appealing as a worthy, dignified material in an era of nuclear threat and environmental awareness.”

Four works on view, Concave Earth (1986–90), Mound (1988), Mother Mound (1990), and Nearest Forest Soil (1987) are exemplary of Webster’s earthworks. Concave Earth is a wide, average-chest-height volume of soil in a welded-wire enclosure. The work’s calculated proportions invite proximity: its concavity reveals itself when up close, as does a fresh petrichor smell. The deep and scented void calls to mind a flower bed or a crater after the rain. For Nearest Forest Soil, soil is sourced from a nearby virgin forest and rammed into a cylindrical mold, which is indexically related to Webster’s body—it is as high as her waist and as wide as her full height. After thorough packing, the mold is removed to reveal a stratified and concentrated shape. Mound and Mother Mound are the convex partners to Concave Earth. Because of its expansive diameter and shallow rise, from a distance Mound appears as a disc, then progressively reveals its curve. Mother Mound is made by repeatedly oiling and pressing red clay until it forms a slightly ovoid mound, the swelling of the shape at once resistant and delicate.

The container is a parallel motif in Webster’s work with voids and volumes. Often employing two elementary materials—metal and water, plastic and oil, glass and asphalt—Webster stages the tensions between fullness and spilling. Steel Containing Salt (1990) is cylindrical in shape, again measuring at chest height, and filled to the brim with salt. In Cono di Sale (Salt Cone) (1988), Webster uses salt alone to shape a perfect cone, which is at once satisfying and surprising.

“I want the viewer either in the material or visually connected to it,” the artist has said. As such, enveloping enclosures join her sculptures in the round. Works like Stick Spiral (1986) and Wall of Beeswax (1990) set the body in motion and engage the entire sensorium. To enter Stick Spiral is to be transported into the meditative space of a wooded clearing. Gently curved and eight feet tall, Wall of Beeswax immerses the body in a sweet honey scent, similarly creating the conditions for intimacy with the material. While it cannot be entered, Moss Bed, King (1986), a moss-covered, horizontal sculpture the size of a standard king-size mattress, elicits a tactile memory. An imagined sense of the body in contact with the soft mosses is conflated with the everyday act of lying in bed.

Webster employs a knowledge that posits structural integrity to be an agent of time and gravity. Part engineer and part gardener, the artist’s instructions for her works outline simple operations to be carried through until the material holds its shape; tending to the work is on par with making it. As such, the dimensions of each sculpture negotiate with human scale, the artist’s desired shape, and the material’s angle of repose (the engineering expression for a granular material’s shape at rest). The infinite scalability of industrial fabrication—typical of an earlier generation of peers such as Heizer, Judd, and Richard Serra—is eschewed in her work, in favor of a speculation on the limits of natural growth. Spare, descriptive titles add to the concision of her prose and reveal the process, material, and site-specificity of the works.

When Webster’s sculptures were first shown in New York art galleries in the mid-1980s, their unadulterated materiality compressed into precise volumes felt primal, even hallucinatory to many viewers. Fellow artist Robert Gober included Webster in his early “curated rooms,” installations that created a psychological space through the juxtaposition of disparate objects. In that context, her work was understood to provoke repressed memories or shared fantasies. “Everything has been arranged to sidestep a received experience of normality within nature,” critic Gary Indiana wrote of Webster’s work in 1985. Yet, he continued, “It addresses the human sensorium grandly, demanding the full scope of the body’s attention—and rewards us with a slightly dizzying sense of what we habitually overlook, ignore, don’t have time for, take for granted.”

  1. Nearest Forest Soil, 1987
    Soil
    Dia Art Foundation
  2. Wall of Beeswax, 1990
    Wax
    H.E. Sheikh Jassim bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani
  3. Steel Containing Salt, 1990
    Steel and salt
    Dia Art Foundation
  4. Moss Bed, King, 1986
    Dormant moss
    Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
  5. Cono di Sale (Salt Cone), 1988
    Salt
    Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Panza Collection, gift, 1992
  6. Mother Mound, 1990
    Clay soil
    Dia Art Foundation
  7. Mound, 1988
    Soil
    Dia Art Foundation
  8. Stick Spiral, 1986
    Wood
    Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Panza Collection, gift, 1992
  9. Concave Earth, 1986–90
    Stainless steel and soil
    Dia Art Foundation

Meg Webster was born in San Francisco in 1944. She received her MFA from Yale University, New Haven, in 1983. During her graduate studies, Webster began gathering materials from nature in order to sculpt them into politically and socially evocative shapes. After graduating, Webster moved to New York where she worked as the studio assistant to Michael Heizer and debuted her architectonic sculptures at Donald Judd’s Spring Street studio. By the late 1980s, Webster was invited to produce large-scale, outdoor earthworks in international institutions. For the 1989 Whitney Biennial, she presented Lifted Wetland (1989)—a steel-lined plywood bed for plants featuring an irrigation system—presaging her larger installations of miniature ecosystems starting in the 1990s. Public gardens, fountains, and grow-light installations join Webster’s precisely shaped sculptures, organic monochrome paintings, and hydraulic systems in the 2000s. In recent years, she has received solo institutional presentations at MoMA PS1, Queens (2013); Villa Panza, Varese, Italy (2016); and Judd Foundation, New York (2022). Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions at venues such as the Aspen Art Museum (2017); Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh (2017); and Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas (2023). In 2019, Dia acquired the artist’s largest body of work, five of which are currently on view at Dia Beacon. Webster lives in New York.

Meg Webster | February 2, 2024

Artist

Meg Webster

(1944)

Meg Webster was born in San Francisco in 1944. She lives and works in New York City.

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