Marfa is a State of Mind. Art Mecca Step 3: Immerse
“It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum-iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.” – Donald Judd.
I was quite taken with 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986, Judd’s boxes in the artillery sheds at the Chinati. All 100 boxes have the same exact outer dimensions (41 x 51 x 72 inches), each with a unique interior. (You really have to look inside!). The Lippincott Company, a fine arts metal shop out of Connecticut, which has crafted large-scale sculptures and other pieces for the likes of Karel Appel, Keith Haring, Ellsworth Kelley, Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein, fabricated the works using Judd’s sketches.
My experience of Judd’s art, which he called “empiricism,” was, indeed, fully immersive and sensory, like when I’m in the throes of a good writing session. Wandering and imagining have led me to the nugget, the story, and the heightened moment is all there is. Walking through the boxes in the artillery sheds, peering into them, I become an actor in a three dimensional canvas of my own imagination — the perfect space of the shed, expansive yet contained, the sunlight from the windows warming and illuminating the aluminum boxes, my skin, the landscape and sky: all is one. I’m in the art.
Photos by Bruce Damonte.
The simple lines and geometries, the repetition and modularity, the seeming lack of content, the materials and craft, the light and shadow, the scale — they pull me in like good modern architecture, the Salk Institute, for instance, inviting me to imprint, to be imprinted. I stare into the boxes. Like the concrete boxes outside, there’s something elemental and haptic about them, first-building-blocks or primary structure, shelter, foundation, home. Their sameness and difference (like homes, people, sensations, feelings?) is compelling. There’s a beautiful chaos at the micro scale; my reflection is in there, moving, warped, multivalent. The landscape and the sky are in the boxes too. I am brought home to those streets whose names I never learned for lack of need — the eucalyptus, the oaks, those bends in the road and the dirt around them, and the sky framed just so, marking place and direction. I know every inch, my toes in the dirt, the canyons, hot and winding, they’re in those aluminum Judd boxes, memory from contour.
Art as Life
I can’t leave this piece without touching upon Judd’s living quarters, which revealed the pure doing that was his life and art. If permanent installation was what he wanted for his art, he took the notion a step further by living in a canvas of his own fabrication. La Mansana de Chinati, or “The Block,” is a full city block, former army buildings that Judd restored for studios, a library and his home, and which he surrounded with an adobe wall that shields the place from the immediacy of the interstate and railroad on either side. I had run my hands along the opaque wall while walking from the hotel into town, not knowing what it was but sensing something mysterious. Walking through the gate and into the interior courtyard, landscaped with pebbles, Judd’s sparse, rectilinear furniture, cacti and a pool he designed, I felt an overwhelming sense of quiet and calm, and that feeling, again, of having landed on another planet. Everything was symmetrical, the interiors (concrete, adobe, brick) sparse to the point of asceticism, the ornamentation and detail presumably derived from the life itself.
During our tour, the docent paused to let a train pass. We would not have been able to hear him otherwise. He said that the sound of trains in Marfa has always told the story of the American economy: loud with rail meant we were doing well, silence was an eerie telltale. The compound is filled with art, filled silence, filled with rail, filled with light from the large Texan sky. Staring into the pure form of a Judd box in an industrial building lit up from a ribbon window sun, a train rumbling past, I felt myself at some intersection of history and vision, in this place that is wild west, industry, war, art and fabrication, a unique combination distinctly Marfan.
Melinda in the boxes. Photo by Molly Thomas.