The Atlantic Monthly Press
© 1996 Anthony Haden-Guest. 
All rights reserved.

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Donald Judd

" I should put the flag up - it's been a month," Jeff Kopie said fretfully. "There's no need to be maudlin." The flagpole stood in the yard of La Mansana de Chinati, normally known as the Block. The flag was at half-mast for its late owner, the great, often cantankerous, artist Donald Judd, who had died of cancer in February 1994 at the age of sixty-five. Kopie, a pale, distrait man, who had been one of Judd's principal administrative assistants, knew that maudlin sentiments were among things – the many, many, many things -- that Donald Judd had abhorred.

There were tall plum trees in the pebbly yard and an uninviting swimming pool, surrounded by concrete blocks and pieces of wood furniture - all of Judd's own design. "Don pretty much regarded all this as a work of art," Kopie said. Judd's adobe walls were high, but not quite high enough to wall off West Texas in the form of the silvery cylinders of the Godbold Feed Mill. A couple of black-and-white German shepherds loped up and began to gambol around as Kopie unlocked the door and let us into the nub of what was one of the most ambitious art fiefdoms anywhere. Ever.

This was April and my first visit to Marfa, a cow town, from which life had been leaking since the Levi Strauss factory and the Coca-Cola bottling plant had been shuttered soon after World War II. The small, conservative-minded town was now best known for two phenomena, the Marfa Lights and Donald Judd. The Marfa Lights are a nocturnal show of moving flickering lights over the local scrubland for which no objective evidence exists, aside from some blurry UFOesque photographs, but which a great many claim that they have seen. Perhaps a leap of faith is required - rather the same sort of faith that is often required by art. Some art, anyway. Like Donald Judd’s. Typically, Judd himself declared that the Marfa Lights were "a hoax."

By the time of his death, Donald Judd had bought up enough of the local buildings to have become Marfa’s largest property owner. These included some of the swellest buildings in town, including the Marfa Hotel, many private houses, the First Marfa National Bank, where he maintained a drawing office, the Wool & Mohair Building, which he filled with the baroque artworks made by John Chamberlain from the carapaces of Detroit automobiles, to the more-or-less polite befuddlement of most Marfans, and the unswell but imposing Block, through which I was being conducted by Jeff Kopie.

The fundamentals of the Block are a couple of airplane hangars, originally on a local base but moved into Marfa’s little business district after the end of the war. They had seen service as an automobile repair shop for a while, but Donald Judd had bought them in 1973 and raised his family there. The spaces - rooms is not the word - were filled with Judd’s work of all periods, furniture of his own design, and other goods in which he saw merit, like Mission furniture, Biedermeier, horse saddles, Navajo blankets, and arrowheads - all in quantity. There was a bar, richly stocked with tequilas and Scotches, especially the single malts of which Judd was fond, and a scholar’s library. The roofs are hangar roofs - metal, with struts.

"It gets cold here," Kopie conceded. "The room with the Navajo blankets has another bed. You can put another heater in. It didn’t affect him much. And it can get to be 110 degrees. He hated air conditioning. The heat didn’t seem to bother him."

We walked out into Marfa. Sunny, with unpeopled streets, it had the feel of one of those brightly eerie American townscapes in a movie by a European director. Many of the Judd-owned houses, it turned out, were as empty as when the artist had bought them, but one building was hung with the earliest of his artworks that he cared to show, thickly textured and rather labored abstractions, made before he had repudiated painting as "finished." His businesslike later sketches on yellow paper lay on desks in the bank building, but the casualness was misleading. "Don kept every drawing," Kopie said.

One room contained a palette bed close to the ground. Judd, who was meticulous in allotting different spaces to different work uses, had such simple beds, ready to drop into, in most of his houses. I peered from an upstairs window. CLARENCE JUDD was lettered on a road-level pane across the street. This was the building within which Judd worked on architectural projects, using his grandfather’s name, but not for sentimental reasons. “He didn’t want to be sued by the Association of American Architects,” Kopie explained. “He wasn’t licensed.”

There was another oddity about that window. It was brown­-papered from within. That, it came to me, was a reason the streets had struck me as eerie. Most of the Judd windows were similarly papered up. A security measure, I supposed, occasioned by the artist’s death. Wrong. “Don was having a fight with the town,” Kopie explained. It had been just before his death, and he had been threatening to move out of Marfa, his buildings included. It had been the last in a life of fights.

We drove to the most ambitious project of all, the Chinati Foundation, which is on the outskirts of town and occupies the 440 acres of Fort D. A. Russell, a former army camp. On one side of the entrance lay the big, bland headquarters of the region’s largest employer, the Border Patrol; on the other were some shanties and satellite dishes. At the entrance itself stood a metal historical marker, noting that during World War II the fort had been “home to a chemical warfare battalion, as well as German prisoners of war.”

The core of Chinati are thirty-two former army huts. They are the color of creamy peanut butter and the shape of much-elongated Monopoly houses, except for eight, which are in a squared-off U shape, and they still look much as they must have when the soldiers pulled out in 1946. But the stuff in and around the huts includes a gargan­tuan red horseshoe by Claes Oldenburg, a ring of stones by Richard Long, an installation Ilya Kabakov, and plentiful Judds - enough, in short, for Donald Judd to have described Chinati as “one of the largest visible installations of contemporary art in the world.” Kopie explained: “He felt otherwise it wasn’t going to last.”

Most immediately visible of Judd’s own pieces are a row of concrete blocks lined up on the ragged land immediately inside the camp’s gate. They are examples of Judd’s never ingratiating art at its least seducing, and “Buck” Newsome, author of Shod with Iron: Life on the Mexican Border with the United States Border Patrol, certainly repre­sented a segment of local opinion when he railed to me over a cup of coffee about “those cement things - so-called art.” But the pieces have an obduracy other than they might have against the usual white walls, standing among rough grasses against the sky, and it suggests Judd’s singleness of vision that sitting not far from his pieces there are some plain circles of slightly yellower concrete, getting crumbly. Drinking troughs from army days. It simply never occurred to the artist that they would tug away attention.

I threaded my way through the antelope droppings and prickly-pear cactus toward the twin gun sheds, which are the biggest buildings at Chinati. Their original flat tops had been replaced by hemispherical roofs of Judd’s own design and the walls that ran lengthwise were mostly glass. There were still German-language orders painted on the brick interior walls, and the poured concrete floors had a greasy glimmer. Aluminum boxes lay on the floors of both gun sheds in three lines, sporadically broken by columns. Each box was as high, wide, and deep as the others. Every edge was screwed or joined, not cast - Judd could be raw but was no brutalist - and no two boxes were precisely alike, because the interior of one box had a single horizontal shelf; another, two. A third had a shelf set at such-and-such a slant, and so on, so that the light pouring in through the great windows affected each box dif­ferently, causing one to stand out in hard detail, making another trans­parent as glass, while a third was substanceless, as though carved in smoke. I looked into one box and it was dark - it was like peering into a well, but its neighbor was filled with furious light - which was like looking into a furnace. Then the sun dropped behind a cloud bank, and everything changed.

I wondered just what Donald Judd would have been thinking when he looked the way I was looking. Walt Whitman has some lines where he described God as a sort of living square. Walking through the gun sheds wasn’t a bit like walking through a museum (and, God, Donald Judd abhorred museums) because there was a sense of scale and time, so it was more like walking the aisles of a cathedral or among standing stones on a Bronze Age site. This, though, was a monument to the of Reason, and as such, it looked both fiercely rational and quaintly vulnerable in a way that old-fashioned work is not. The moldy wreckage of the Parthenon still looks pretty good, considering, and many experts suggested that the murky ceilings of the Sistine Chapel be left that way. But wear and tear is ruinous to much Modernism. A smear will ruin a purist painting - an Ad Reinhardt black painting, say - and when the work is not just purist but high-tech, the problems become overwhelming.

Now that their peppery creator and guardian is gone, increasing numbers of visitors will come to the gun sheds.

Kopie cautioned me against touching any of the seductive surfaces. “Your handprint would come up a couple of days later. It doesn’t come off,” he said. For those who positively have to cop a feel, there is a metal slab leaning beside the entrance to each building. A visitor in a wheelchair has already gouged one of the boxes. The Chinati Foundation can replace a panel, perhaps even an entire box, but at what point does it stop being a Donald Judd? No wonder the artist once told a friend, Peter Arason, that he had contemplated making his masterwork in Iceland. He didn’t, though. It is in the Judd fiefdom in the ratty Chihuahua Desert. It is there that Donald Judd rules - a crackpot visionary in a peculiarly American vein.

© 1996 Anthony Haden-Guest. All rights reserved.

 
 

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