Trip to Marfa, Texas – October, 2010

Marfa, deep in West Texas, is home to the foundation Donald Judd left when he died in 1994. Judd was an art critic before he was an artist, and he was a painter before he was a sculptor, but he’s best known for his sculptures, which, along with work by a few kindred spirits–notably Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin–are identified with the movement we call Minimalism.

The first, and most moving, site I visited in Marfa was Judd’s home, which occupies a city block — in true Judd spirit, a rectilinear one, surrounded by a high wall. Our tour group of half a dozen people were not allowed to take pictures, but here are a couple from outside:

It’s moving to go through anyone’s home, even if they haven’t been there in over 16 years, but what made this tour so striking was seeing that the layout and the furniture–all done by Judd–conformed almost without exception to the same rigid patterns as his art.  He designed all the beds and tables, and so on, and like his sculptures they’re characterized by boxy shapes and rigid lines. A big difference is that many Judd sculptures are elegant milled aluminum and steel, while the furniture was wood. You get an idea of his furniture from the Judd Foundation Web site, but what’s there is a set of reproductions made to his specifications–a step removed from the stuff he and his family sat around in. Happily, the reproductions are for sale. What a perfect souvenir that would make from this trip, though I settled for a couple of books.

Downtown Marfa is interesting. City Hall is decidedly unJuddlike, a stucco cake with pink frosting.

Judd’s name is all over the main drag, for example here on the Judd Foundation offices:

Even on this building across the the street you’ll see Judd’s name if you blow up the photo. But this one’s a bit of a joke. The name Judd there is part of a sign reading “Clarence Judd, architect.” Clarence Judd was Donald’s grandfather but not an architect, and our tour guide said Judd named his architecture practice as an homage to his grandfather. But Clarence was also Judd’s middle name, and I’ve read elsewhere that the name switch was a device to keep Judd from being sued for practicing without a license.

If Judd *was* the town of Marfa (current population, 2121), he was also always at war with the town of Marfa. The tour guide said his students adored him, and no doubt they did, but the picture one gets is that Judd was the kind of guy you’d rather have as a hero than as a neighbor.

On the following day I visited the Chinati Foundation (named for nearby hills) in Marfa–also established by Judd with the help of the Dia Foundation. Judd found a 340 acre former U.S. military installation in town with buildings dating back to 1911. The buildings (rectangular, of course) now house art. Here we could take pictures. I’ll keep my comments minimal and will save them for a few things I found really striking.

If you blow up the shots of the countryside, they’ll reveal some beautiful dark hills in the background–one of the features that drew Judd to the area, no doubt along with those straight lines of the surrounding desert–and you’ll also see rows of Judd concrete sculptures beyond the buildings.

The spaces are so enormous, inside and outside the buildings, they permit art to be shown–experienced–in a way that’s impossible even in the largest rooms of the largest museums. Here are some photos of row after row of Judd milled aluminum boxes, each one different from the others (and each one assembled like Ikea furniture, with little screws in the corners).

Judd had the height of the two buildings housing these sculptures doubled and added a new roof. (It leaks. Maybe he should have gotten his AIA license.) The sculptures were proportioned to fit into these buildings. The concrete floor is divided into identical squares. Each sculpture is placed almost exactly in the same spot, nearly dead center, of its square–Minimalism at its exacting finest.

Dan Flavin (after whom Judd named his son, Flavin Starbuck Judd) worked in fluorescent light. It has always seemed to have a special presence, but at the Chinati Foundation the presence was nothing less than spiritual because of the way the works are laid out. Each set of lights is at the end of a long room, and around a corner, so that your first view upon entering is of the shadows cast by the lights. You need to go to the end of the room in order to see the lights themselves.

Here’s a case where a few pictures make words useless.

It’s hard not to feel like the pilgrim in paradise in The Divine Comedy, where everything is an imageless vision of light. Except that here you can actually go up to the bulbs. From whatever perspective, the lights–so simple–are captivating.

I only wish the pictures were better. But for that we have the Chinati Foundation Web site and Google Images.

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