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1.8.11

Chinati Foundation in Marfa

One of the places I have wanted to visit for a long time, since reading about it the first time in the 1990s, is Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation, which opened in 1986. For those not acquainted with the place, it is a special collection of minimalist art (like most minimalists, of both the artistic and musical varieties, Judd bristled at the label), constructed as a sort of permanent archive in the buildings of what used to be a military base, Fort D.A. Russell, in Marfa, Tex. Judd put into words his philosophy behind making a shrine to the art made by him and other artists like John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and eventually others, writing:
The art and architecture of the past that we know is that which remains. The best is that which remains where it was painted, placed or built. [...] 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.
In the time that Judd spent in southern California and then here in West Texas, he was influenced artistically by the desert, its clean lines and colors. On the properties that he bought in and around Marfa, he was also interested in preserving the land in a pristine state. He spent time restoring, but also improving aesthetically, the land he bought (including a vast ranch, still not open to the public) as a place in which to sink and incorporate his art and the art of others he admired. This puts Judd somewhere at the intersection of minimalism and land art, since he prepared or at least considered the setting, existing buildings and surrounding terrain, and placed his art into it. Last week, I finally had a chance to appreciate what he did firsthand.

In a sense the process behind Chinati is a variation on what cathedral builders did or what city planners have done to orient civic life to the contours of a locale. Judd had no religious motivation in his art, Western, Eastern, or anything else, but what he was trying to do was to tap into something timeless. The two most important permanent installations on the base -- Judd's 100 aluminum boxes and Flavin's six barracks full of fluorescent light sculptures -- have an eternal, even religious architectural character to them. The idea of long narrow architectural spaces -- two munitions sheds for the aluminum boxes, the U-shaped double-tunnel barracks buildings for the light bulbs -- in which the structure can interact with light both natural and, in Flavin's case, most unnatural, is familiar to anyone who has entered a Gothic cathedral for example. Judd and Flavin wanted to exalt, sanctify, set apart their own ideas, rather than the idea of a deity of any sort.

As Tyler Green has written, in his review of Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd and an account of his visit in 2005, a visit to Chinati is one of the least hospitable ways of viewing art. The sheds and barracks are not climate controlled, the temperature outdoors can exceed 100 degrees, and one is expected to walk through the dust and, although we did not encounter any as Tyler reportedly did, by rattle snakes. We did see a couple local pronghorn antelope, cooling off under a tree, and most unusually there was an afternoon rain storm. This has plenty of historical resonance, too, as far as examples of arduous journeys undertaken to experience important art, from drawings made in deep, distant caves to the hike up the cliff at Rocamadour to see the Black Virgin.

Some of the grasp at infinity in the major Judd and Flavin works at Chinati is mathematical, the numbers -- of colors, objects, rows, proportions of length and height and width -- that create a sense of visual harmony. The impersonality of the art -- Judd only designed the specifications of the boxes, for example, which were cut and assembled of mill aluminum and left as unmodified as possible, without polishing or other changes -- may seem distancing at first, but the installations leave many things to chance or reveal the hand of the artists, such as the less than straight-lined placement of some of the boxes. The imagery that kept coming to mind was similarly geometrical, the symmetrical vision of the Empyrean described by Dante at the end of Paradiso, a mathematically symmetrical ordering of the powers of heaven, the perfect gyration of the spheres of the heavens mirroring the turning of God himself, shown metaphorically as three joined circles. Mathematics imply both certitude on one hand but also ineffability: Dante cannot quite say what he understood of this final vision of the Trinity, and he uses the impossibility of "squaring the circle," that is, the geometric conundrum of attempting, with only a compass and straight edge, to create a circle and square of exactly the same area (something that is still accepted as an unsolvable problem). The object of the search for a vocabulary of the eternal is quite different, but the way of arriving there is similar.

The other installations at Chinati are far less successful. Judd's outdoor concrete boxes, lined up on the grounds in an arc paralleling the layout of the base, recall nothing quite so much as neolithic dolmens, but they are hideously ugly in their machine squareness. Richard Long's Lava Circles, left on a concrete slab almost like an afterthought, and Judd's Arena building nearby seem trite. Ingólfur Arnarrson's untitled white-on-white installation out-Judds Donald Judd but seems only a sad satire of the vision that is so compelling at Chinati. Ilya Kabakov's tongue-in-cheek recreation of a Soviet-era school, left like a painstakingly maintained artificial time capsule, provides some much-needed levity, as do John Wesley's fleshy, cartoonish, and sometimes naughty paintings.

A permanent Robert Irwin installation is still in the works at Chinati, with a Flavin-derived fluorescent light bulb piece on temporary display as a possible fundraiser. Carl Andre's cabinets of word art, texts diced up and catalogued with draftsman-like results, recall the experiments of Gertrude Stein and the OuLiPo writers. Andre's new sculpture installation, recently reviewed in the New York Times, had the most beautiful reaction to the brief rainstorm that passed over Marfa on the day of my visit last week, cold raindrops falling on its rusting metal. Our guide kindly let us carefully look through the accompanying temporary installation, which was about to be packed up and sent away, of wooden and steel pieces by Andre. John Chamberlain's crushed metal sculptures, in the depot by the railroad tracks in Marfa itself, seemed a world away from Chinati, their automotive and industrial origins too evocative of the regular world.

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