The Art Scene: The Ghost of Donald Judd


Barbara Purcell

   Like most people living in Manhattan, Donald Judd dreamt of having more space. The five-story building he owned, on the corner of Spring and Mercer, wasn’t going to suffice. But instead of heading upstate or out east, the artist went west, to a town in Far West Texas, where he purchased a pair of old airplane hangars—along with the entire city block they sat on—turned an army base into an art mecca, and bought 40,000 acres of ranch land in the nearby Chinati Mountains. Space would never be an issue again for Judd. Time, however, was another matter: the artist died somewhat suddenly in 1994 at the age of 65. Marfa, Texas and Donald Judd have become more or less synonymous, with an evolving procession of minimalist enthusiasts and cultural nomads making their pilgrimage to Judd’s iconic boxes, permanently installed, unapologetically in the middle of nowhere, to see what art can be once it’s removed from a museum and released into the wild.    When looking out onto the horizon from the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, a no-frills beauty of pale sky and parched earth contends with the artist’s 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984, running along the eastern edge of the property. These 15 groupings of geometrically positioned blocks—easily mistaken for unused culverts—encourage the viewer to walk through them, and around them, contemplating their relationship to the wide open space. Judd’s brutalist forms found their forever home in the high Chihuahuan Desert, far from what he called the “harsh and glib situation within art in New York.” Judd, who was a noted art critic early in his career, wrote prolifically throughout his life on a wide range of topics, including his disdain for museums and their role in exploiting artists. “Most of the art of the past that could be moved was taken by conquerors,” Judd wrote in his Statement for the Chinati Foundation. “Almost all recent art is conquered as soon as it’s made, since it’s first shown for sale and once sold is exhibited as foreign in the alien museums.” In Far West Texas, with no art world to speak of, Judd would be doing the conquering.    First and foremost, Marfa is a schlep (unless you’re flying in on a private jet). Three hours by car from the nearest major airport in El Paso, and 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the remote Big Bend region boasts of the darkest skies in North America, where the Milky Way rivals, well, the Manhattan Skyline at night. Marfa began as a water station in the early 1880s for steam trains traveling along the Southern Pacific Railroad and was given its name—Russian for Martha—by a railroad executive’s wife. Scholars and historians have long debated her source: a reference to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov? A character in a Jules Verne novel? No one knows. But by 1911, the water stop with the Russian name near the Mexican border became a strategic military locale when U.S. cavalry set up shop to keep an eye on things during the Mexican Revolution. The post expanded into Camp Marfa in World War I, and later, as Fort D.A. Russell leading up to World War II. Marfa’s population peaked in 1945, though the numbers quickly dwindled when the base and a neighboring air field closed the following year; it’s treaded at about 2000 ever since.    The brief history of postwar Marfa boils down to three main events: Giant, drought, and Judd. The western saga, based on a novel by Edna Ferber, was filmed on location in 1955 and its megastar cast—Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean—famously stayed at the El Paisano Hotel, a Spanish Colonial Revival still in operation, two blocks from the town’s imposing jewel box pink courthouse. (Despite having one stoplight, Marfa is the seat of Presidio County.) But a movie about striking oil couldn’t replicate the real thing, and residents eventually left for jobs in boomtowns like Odessa and Midland. Drought did in much of the ranching industry and the economy dried up, too. When Judd arrived in 1971, the town was a bankrupt blank canvas.    Twenty-five years earlier, as an 18-year-old soldier en route to Korea, Judd came through West Texas by bus, heading to California for deployment. He sent his mother a telegram from a town just west of Marfa: “DEAR MOM VAN HORN TEXAS. 1260 POPULATION. NICE TOWN BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY MOUNTAINS. LOVE DON.” Judd’s subsequent visits to the American Southwest (he had a sister in Tucson) and trips to Mexico only seemed to reinforce his first impression of the region. By 1974, he had bought up an entire block of buildings in downtown Marfa, turning the main structures—World War I airport hangars and a two-story Quartermaster’s office—into a live-work space for him and his two young children, Flavin and Rainer. An adobe wall was erected around the perimeter, buffering noise from the trains and cattle feed mill across the street while a smaller U-shaped inner wall was added to frame the courtyard, a sun-scorched sprawl of gravel broken up by gardens, three newer, smaller structures including a bathhouse, a vine-entangled pergola, and a protruding rectangular pool nicknamed the Tank—which bears a striking resemblance to the artist’s 15 untitled works in concrete.    Though not an architect (he studied philosophy and art history at Columbia University) Judd held a serious and sustained interest in architecture. Similar to the production of his artwork, he outsourced his designs to trusted builders and fabricators. Judd’s home, La Mansana de Chinati—a.k.a. the Block—of course references the city block it occupies, yet with a nice utilitarian ring that falls in line with the artist’s overall practice: right angles abound as does symmetry and a sense of order. The Block is a physical extension of the artist’s philosophical approach to efficiency and space. The original buildings have remained largely intact—Judd preferred working with existing structures—though numerous windows were added to let in more natural light, and in one case, a door frame was moved a few feet over, to balance the visual layout upon entering. Basic but elegant pine furniture designed by Judd, their materials sourced from the local lumberyard, appear throughout the residence. Platform beds are placed in each studio, signifying the artist’s generative connection between work and rest. A long pine table fit for the Last Supper stretches out in the library (which holds 13,000 volumes) displaying an orderly array of books and stones and small objects that have remained just as they were when the artist died.    The Block’s studios are set up like galleries, featuring a selection of Judd’s early-ish works installed in each space. In the north room of the east building, the artist’s signature “stacks” rhythmically run up the wall like the rungs of a ladder while metal forms lightly commingle in the center of the floor. In the south room, a system of open-faced cubes made from galvanized iron form a barricade along the interior’s faded brick; a large, low-to-the-ground wedge of perforated cold-rolled steel minds its own business a few feet away. Many of these early pieces are said to have been damaged in transit to or from exhibitions. By permanently installing his work on his own property, Judd effectively cut out the middleman: no more dents or museum mishaps. Of course, part of the problem with these objects—industrial in material, form, and scale—is that they don’t neatly classify as art. (In at least one instance, a shipping label was mistakenly affixed directly to a lacquer surface.) Judd’s inscrutable constructions, placed in seriality or tout seul, made of metal or plywood or colored plexiglass, lack an opinion on every topic. It’s the space around them that does the talking.    Given the work’s spare, almost zen-like quality, Judd has long been associated with minimalism—a term and movement he openly opposed, instead referring to himself as an empiricist. Though he began as an expressionist painter—his first solo show in 1957 consisted of such work—Judd abandoned the medium by the mid-1960s due to what he viewed as its built-in constraints. The turning point in his practice—and consequently, in modern sculpture—occurred in 1962 with a roughly 4 x 4 foot square wooden construction, fitted with a black metal pipe and painted cadmium red. The piece, on view at the Block, was originally intended for a wall, but the artist quickly realized it was content to sit on the floor.    Judd refused to call his three-dimensional works sculptures, instead using the term “specific objects.” In his essay of the same name, published in 1965, he declared:

Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. Obviously, anything in three dimensions can be any shape, regular or irregular, and can have any relation to the wall, floor, ceiling, room, rooms, or exterior or none at all. Any material can be used, as is or painted.

“A work needs only to be interesting,” Judd continued. And Judd’s work is interesting, even more so in Marfa than, say, MoMA, where a metal box installed in a white cube gallery contained on a city block amidst a vast grid plan makes for a rectilinear set of Russian dolls. The lunar landscape of Far West Texas—the heat and harsh sun and stark outline of emptiness—instead gives these manufactured squares an exotic leg up. At times, Judd’s objects can appear aloof, indifferent. Untitled works give way to a sense of … untitlement. But the desert itself is a poetic reflection of Judd’s aesthetic convictions, where the dominance of negative space enunciates each specific form.    This enunciation culminates with the artist’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986, contained in two massive side-by-side artillery sheds at Chinati, a mile from the Block. One hundred pristine boxes—a fingerprint will permanently set in as little as 72 hours—line up on the floor like an army drill. Outwardly identical in size, each one embodies its own internal variations: a tilted top, a hollow center, solid as a rock. No two are the same. The artillery sheds feature floor-to-ceiling windows, part of Judd’s renovation, granting the desert sun carte blanche throughout the day. Light behaves differently in Judd’s temples, silencing the space into a meditative state. Outside, tall blonde grass waves back and forth with a sharp seduction. Measuring 41 x 51 x 72 inches and manufactured by the Lippincott Company of Connecticut, these 100 specific objects, simplistic and sublime, are an agglomeration of oneness. Their arrangement at Chinati would not have worked in New York—not at Judd’s building on Spring Street, or a schoolhouse in Long Island City, or even a hangar at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field—part of their allure is the pilgrimage to Far West Texas, and part of that pilgrimage is the inconvenience of transcendence.    The Chinati Foundation was, and is, Judd’s grand-scale vision for permanently placed artwork—his own and that of his peers—an integration of art, nature, and architecture within the site’s previous history. It is not Sedona, and it is not Santa Fe, where geologic cinema and Georgia O’Keeffe sunsets await. Chinati is a remote abandoned outpost, the land is rough and rugged and hard to walk; on the wrong day, traipsing around those 15 untitled works in concrete could prove hazardous. (The melanoma alone.) Judd first acquired this scrubland—all 340 acres of the former Fort D.A. Russell—in the late 1970s with the initial backing of the DIA Art Foundation, underwritten by the oil-enriched de Menils of Houston. When their stock tanked a few years later, DIA pulled out and Judd threatened to sue. They settled out of court, and he used the sizable sum to keep building his art fort. “I didn’t want to make a comprehensive collection of contemporary art or even of the artists whose work I liked, imitating the museums,” he wrote in 1985, a year before the museum opened.    Chinati’s original plan was to feature just three artists: Judd, Dan Flavin (who Judd named his son after), and John Chamberlain. Works by 13 artists are now represented in the permanent collection, with additional exhibitions running every six to twelve months. Flavin’s untitled (Marfa project), 1996, is arguably the second biggest draw, after Judd’s concrete blocks and 100 aluminum boxes: housed in six consecutive barracks, the series of slanted light sculptures turn tunnels into diagonal portals with their buzzing fluorescence. Chamberlain’s vivid mangles of metal—the most boisterous of the three—are located off-site, at the former Marfa Wool and Mohair Building. Back on the base, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Monument to the Last Horse” (1991) recalls the site’s not-so-distant history with a colossal horseshoe sculpture, driven into the sky by a giant nail, at the gravesite of Louie the last cavalry horse, laid to rest in 1932. More recently, a 10,000-square-foot building on the footprint of the former army hospital features Robert Irwin’s untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016, where two long corridors, dissected by taut scrims—one black, one white—meet in the middle, in a hall of darkness and light. Depending on the time of day, or the time of year, the installation reveals different moods, different angles of the sun, a circadian reminder of whatever the season. Chinati’s earliest examples of art, however, belong to the German prisoners brought there during World War II. Jovial drawings are still visible on the walls at the former Fort D.A. Russell, revealing an uncharacteristically upbeat mood: the P.O.W.s were giddy with Texas, delighting in the food and real American coffee.    Marfa post-Judd is a sticky subject. After the artist’s sudden passing in 1994, his two children, then in their early 20s, were put in charge of his estate and what is now Judd Foundation, which continues to oversee the Block and Judd’s other Marfa properties, as well as his building at 101 Spring Street in New York. The Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation—two major entities in one tiny town—run separately from one another, and for a long time, they were the two horses pulling Marfa’s art cart. By the early 2000s, a new wave of investors and developers, hoping to build on the minimalist design-scape and desert magic of the Trans-Pecos, began opening hip lodging and overly curated shops of high-end vintage Western wear. At some point, perhaps in retaliation to this boutiquey mentality, or because of the glampy teepees, trailers, and yurts that had sprung up within yards of the untitled 15 works in concrete, a bumper sticker emerged: WWDJD? (What Would Donald Judd Do?) The commercialized, commodified spectacle he had tried to flee caught up to him at last—his ghost, at least.    Modern-day Marfa is not all bad, it’s just not all Judd. In 2003, two savvy young Texas gals with ties to the region (and Manhattan) founded Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary art space based in a 1920s-era ballroom downtown. Suddenly, or perhaps finally, Marfa had a fresh take: Ballroom’s co-founders, Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn, next leveled the no-nonsense doctrine of Judd with a more playful, youthful idea about art. In 2005, the museum helped commission a permanent installation by Berlin-based Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, a freestanding mock Prada store 35 miles west of Marfa near the half-deserted town of Valentine. Prada Marfa, as it is known, contains the luxury brand’s fall inventory from 2005, shoes and bags, hermetically sealed in a time capsule of consumerist, materialist silliness. Nothing is for sale (though the store has been broken into), yet its presence—a bright white boutique plopped on the side of a desolate highway—attracts tens of thousands of selfie-snapping visitors each year.    Marfa has become an international cultural destination, the pinnacle of cool, where disciples of Judd and readers of Condé Nast Traveler get to spiritually if not sartorially channel its mystique. Small galleries with surprising punch are open on weekends—works from Andy Warhol’s “Last Supper” series are featured in perpetuity at the Ayn Foundation—while stores displaying pricey artisanal things in their windows may hardly be open at all. By Appointment Only is a way of life in this sleepy, sophisticated water station. Other than a few art-fueled annual weekends causing the place to balloon in size once or twice a year, the town is on permanent siesta.    Would Judd be surprised? Probably not. Not long after moving to Marfa, he bought a ranch south of town, and then another, and then another. Seems like the place was already getting on his nerves. Ayala de Chinati, as all three ranches are collectively known, consists of nearly 40,000 acres, extending toward the Rio Grande and Mexico. It is exactly where someone would go who wants more space, and then more of it. During my tour of the Block, our guide mentions that Judd had been experiencing strange symptoms for some time in West Texas. His doctors thought it was Giardia, with his habit of cooling off in the stock tanks. But further tests in New York revealed it was lymphoma; Judd lived for six more weeks. We are standing in his library—the one with the undisturbed table, and towering pine shelves for his 13,000 books, organized into various sections by the subject’s birth date. Judd, who wanted control over every detail in his work—who clearly planned—had such little time to plan in the end.    He is buried at his ranch, Las Casas, overlooking the borderlands from the Chinati Mountains. When you’re that far west in Far West Texas, wafting in and out of timezones in an ocean of isolation, you no longer feel like you’re in Texas—you no longer feel like you’re in the country. And that may have been the point. While going through Judd’s writings, I kept revisiting his essay on Marfa, and one parenthetical line in particular: “In 1974 I bought the remaining quarter of the block. (Also I went to Australia, where perhaps I should have gone in the first place.)”