Robert Smithson, “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis)” (TK) (photo by JasonParis/Flickr)

Robert Smithson, “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis)” (1969) (photo by JasonParis/Flickr)

At Dia:Beacon there is an installation by Fred Sandback, a series of giant shapes formed from brightly colored string. In one room stands a series of three huge rectangles — the string reaches down from the ceiling, across the floor, and then back up again — standing at odd angles to one another. In another, the string stretches, taut, at an angle to the wall.

I was visiting the museum with a close friend on my 29th birthday, in September. It was a bright and warm day, one that justified giant sunglasses, and we had taken the Metro North up the Hudson River and eaten lunch in a backyard garden filled with bees.

Now, facing the string sculptures, I stood transfixed. They looked like planes of glass. I stuck my hand straight across. “Can we walk through?” I asked the guard. “Sure,” he said. I stepped back and forth through the shape like it was a door to another world. I imagined a log cabin in the Vermont woods, early-20th-century Vienna, The Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow (mostly that last one).

It was only after the sculptures had percolated in my mind for weeks that it occurred to me: I tend to envision all the things I badly want encased in glass boxes. I stand on the outside, watching the people inside enjoying their rewards, unable to penetrate the exterior and grab some for myself.

The contents of the boxes change. Because often I do at some point get what’s inside. I get my writing published. I get paid for my writing. I get my writing published in that magazine. Or: I go on a date. I go on multiple dates. I meet a man in a coffee shop, on a downtown bus. Whatever the achievement, the sense of victory — if there is one — is instantly supplanted by the presence of a new box. It’s like an endless succession of Sandback rectangles, on and on and on. What’s inside these boxes is never outlandish; people all around me are enjoying these desserts. But somehow, to my mind, they are tantalizing treats from which I am banned access and with which I will be taunted. By nature, because I want them, I cannot have them.

I know these boxes of impossibility are a trick of my wily mind. Still, when they appear, I believe in them completely. I simultaneously know that they are a delusion and believe the delusion is real. They feel impenetrable, unchanging, and certain. They also feel unique: everyone else can find love, but not me.

So, yes, the Sandback sculptures were like portals to other worlds, but not the literal ones I was envisioning. Stepping through the string, I granted myself permission to enter the experiential worlds I’d imagined were not mine to have. The giant glass planes, bordered by string, were not glass planes at all: they were blank space, all border. They suggested I had been mistaken, that all I see as glass may really be a door.

At Dia:Beacon, there is another piece, by the artist Robert Smithson, that is a mound of sharp glass shards. The piece is called “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),” so in theory it is arranged in the shape of the lost continent, but all I saw was a pile of sharp corners. I stood far away from it, afraid that if I got too close I might be tempted to impulsively jump into it like a pile of leaves — just like I have to resist the urge, sometimes, to grab a French fry off a stranger’s plate or poke the butt of the person walking ahead of me in a stairwell. I was reminded of the episode of Louis in which he’s on a date with Parker Posey as Liz. They go up onto a roof, and she sits on the ledge, which scares him. He asks her to stop.

“But the only way I’d fall is if I jumped,” she says. “That’s why you’re afraid to come over here. Because a part of you wants to jump because it’d be so easy. But I don’t want to jump. I’d never do that. I’m having too good of a time.”

One day I will crouch down right next to a pile of broken glass and feel no pull toward it, none whatsoever. It’ll be nothing more than the ghost of my old mind.

Jessica Gross is a freelance writer based in New York. She has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, and The Atlantic Cities, among other places.

6 replies on “Seeing Glass Boxes and Shards at Dia:Beacon”

  1. That is probably the most self-indulgent, egocentric review I’ve ever read. But why not? “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

  2. I have the same reaction to that piece by Smithson. Every time I’m in
    the museum, I cautiously skirt the edges of that area, cringing at the
    possibility. I’m sure we’re not alone in this.

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