Saturday, August 25, 2012

Chinati

Robert Boyd

In my post about Marfa, there is a large Chinati-shaped hole. Without Chinati, Marfa is just a Border Patrol post/cow town. But it happened mostly by accident. New York artist Donald Judd, who had long liked the desert Southwest and had taken his family on camping trips many times, happened to be offered a couple of buildings for sale cheap in Marfa at a moment when he was pondering moving out of New York.

Donald Judd was a successful artist in New York. Certainly he was one of the most famous of the minimalists--perhaps not as well-known as Frank Stella, but up there. His name was known in the art world long before his art was because of his years as an art critic. In some ways, he made as big an impact as a writer than as an artist--his writing style is admirably matter-of-fact. Indeed, it recalls the stripped-down prose of Cormac McCarthy, another transplant to the desert southwest.
Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture. Usually it has been related, closely or distantly, to one or the other. The work is diverse, and much in it that is not in painting and sculpture is also diverse. But there are some things that occur nearly in common. [Donald Judd, "Specific Objects," 1965]
This quote from Judd's famous essay "Specific Objects" doesn't exactly sound like he's talking about Minimalism per se. When we think of Judd, we think of him in the company of Stella, Carl André, Dan Flavin, and so on. One of the things that surprises one about Chinati is that it isn't all striped-down Minimalism. You have work by artists like John Chamberlain, John Wesley and Ilya Kabakov there whose work has nothing to do with Minimalism. Judd had surprising broad tastes, and even in "Specific Objects," he refers with approval to artists who are working far afield from the Minimalist idiom.

His object with Chinati was not, therefore, to build a temple of Minimalism.  What drove him to the sheds and barracks of Fort D.A. Russell was a concern for display. As a sculptor, he had been disappointed with the way museums displayed his work. There was always too much other stuff around it--paintings in particular. His feeling was that sculpture needed to be in a dialogue with architecture, but that the relative clutter of a museum prevented this. (His ideas have been adopted at various newer museums, like the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art.)

To put his concepts of display in practice, he first bought a six-storey building in New York City that would be his home, his studio, and exhibition space for his work and work of artists he collected. But this building apparently became overwhelmed with artworks. He had the same problem as a museum--too much work to show.

In the meantime, Judd and his family had taken many trips to the Southwest, including two summers spent in Marfa. In 1971, he rented two dilapidated warehouses to store a bunch of his larger artwork. He subsequently bought the warehouses and some adjacent property in 1973. After restoration work, these would become Judd's studio and house in 1979.


Donald Judd's compound

The addition of a high wall around these structures give it the look of a compound. It ain't exactly neighborly. It makes me wonder what Judd's relation to the town was.

Today, this compound (and several other buildings downtown) are owned by the Judd Foundation. They contain his personal art collection, which is apparently substantial. I didn't see this work or the insides of these buildings, unfortunately. Despite their close relationship, Chinati and the Judd Foundation are distinct operations (I'd like to know the story behind this). You can tour the various Judd buildings in Marfa is you make a reservation and are willing to cough up $50. I passed this time, but maybe the next time I'm in Marfa, I'll take the tour.

In any case, Judd's personal properties were kind of a dress rehearsal for Chinati. Working with the Dia Foundation, Judd started buying up property arount town with the intention of exhibiting some large pieces of art by himself, Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. The first two properties purchased were the artillery sheds from Fort D.A. Russell. These large brick structures had been used for storing munitions and during World War II for housing German POWs. These buildings had been basically out of commission since 1949. Judd replaced the garage doors on the buildings with large windows, and when the roofs leaked, he added quonset-style metal roofs.


The artillery sheds at Chinati

These two buildings house 100 aluminum boxes by Judd. I'm sorry to say that I didn't take any photos of them--photography was not allowed. I'm sure there is some artistic justification for this, but the effect is to force viewers to buy the Chinati coffee table book, which I did. Here's a picture of Judd's boxes from Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd.


Donald Judd, Artillery Sheds with 100 Works in Mill Aluminum (detail), 1982-86, brick structure and aluminum objects

All the boxes are the same dimensions, arranged in four parallel rows. The large windows allow one to look east at another large Judd sculpture out in the field beside the old fort. To the west are old barracks. This display seems to fulfill Judd's desire for an uncluttered environment in which to view his work. It's easy to see the whole project as a bit megalomaniacal. The sheds were unair-conditioned, and it was cooler outside than in. It made us want to get through it as quickly as possible. But the environment was beautiful. Judd really created a work that made sense as a piece of architecture. The boxes came across as non-functional furniture within the space. It was the combination of the boxes and the architectural setting that made it work. And that was obviously Judd's intent.

The Dia Foundation commissioned the boxes, but all was not well with Dia. The main problem was that the foundation was financed by Schlumberger stock that it owned. (The stock came from Philippa de Menil, one of the founders of Dia and a daughter of John and Dominique de Menil.) I'm assuming that Dia financed Marfa through a combination of dividends and sales of the stock. The problem was that Schlumberger stock tracks oil prices (Schlumberger is an oil field services company). In 1980, the stock reached $21 a share. By 1982, it had reached $8.50. It climbed a bit in 1983 to $15, but it quickly fell and remained at $7 and $8 for the rest of the decade. The price of oil went into a 15 year decline. The Chinati book blandly states,
In 1983 an extremely critical phase began: Dia's financial situation took a turn for the worse. The foundation was financed almost exclusively by the returns on Philippa Pellizzi's Schlumberger stock, and after the price plummeted over a year's time and continued to decline, Dia was forced to take "extreme measures." [...] Marfa was to become a non-profit organization apart from Dia.
The actual story was a bit more complex. When Dia suggested to Judd that Marfa be spun off, Judd sued Dia. There was a great deal of tension between Dia co-founder Heiner Friedrich and Judd. Judd was very aggressive with Dia, and had negotiated a extremely lucrative contract with them. According to New York Magazine, after 1981, Marfa "would be permanently maintained and [...] Judd would get $17,500 a month as a combined installation payment and salary." ("Medicis For a Moment," Phoebe Hoban, New York, November 25, 1985) Basically with the threat of a lawsuit over their heads, Dominique de Menil effected a coup at Dia and tossed Freidrich out on his ear. But no board reorganization could make Schlumberger stock increase in value, so the divorce from Dia was completed despite Judd's wishes. (I'm reminded of the t-shirt that SubPop published when it went through an existential crisis--"What part of 'we have no money' don't you understand?")

This was how Chinati began in 1986--lots of assets but no money. Judd suddenly had to go begging, which must not have been pleasant, particularly for a guy who acted like he was entitled to Dia's millions just a few years before. Nonetheless, he was successful, even if it was touch-and-go for the rest of his life. When he died, his estate was in debt. The Chinati Foundation had to quickly expand its board and secure additional sources of funding. Which it accomplished.

In the meantime, Chinati had grown substantially. In addition to the 100 aluminum boxes, Judd placed a series of large concrete boxes out in a field on the southwest side of the old fort. Unlike the other works in the collection, visitors are permitted to photograph these Freestanding Works in Concrete. But you aren't allowed to touch them.


Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete


Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete


Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete

When I posted a photo of myself posing in front of one of these boxes on Facebook, Dan Havel wrote:
Ahh, good ol' Judd land. Whenever I see those concrete boxes of his, methinks Judd was just influenced by culvert construction...In fact, seen monumental stacks of these by highway that are much more interesting than Judds. On the other hand, 100 boxes is incredibly beautiful in context of the buildings they are in. (Comment on Facebook, August 14, 2012)
This comment was attached to a photo of concrete culverts that he had photographed--which look remarkably like the Judds. And the thing is, these kinds of practical undecorated concrete structures are all around us, mostly unnoticed. Obviously Judd noticed them.


Donald Judd, Freestanding Works in Concrete, 1980-1984, concrete, with concrete cisterns in the foreground

In fact, in the same field as Freestanding Works in Concrete were several old concrete cisterns, presumably dating back to the fort's days as a cavalry outpost. Aside from the fact that they are a bit worn and open on top, they are extremely similar to Judd's artwork just beyond them. Leaving them in the field had to be a deliberate action on Judd's part. He may have been reminding us that these sculptures, though abstract in any ordinary sense, were based on something--the practical heavy objects that people made of concrete.

But to me, when I imagine the way these cisterns have been used over the decades, or when I recall exploring storm sewers and culverts as an unsupervised kid, the preciousness of Judd's works seems slightly absurd. DO NOT TOUCH! I think Freestanding Works in Concrete would be improved by the addition of several teenagers drinking beers and smoking on them.


John Chamberlain Building in downtown Marfa

Not all of Chinati is on the site of the old fort. The John Chamberlain Building is in downtown Marfa. This former mohair wool warehouse sits alongside the railroad tracks that run through town (and which provided Marfa its original reason to exist, as a watering station for trains). The wool industry was subsidized by the U.S. Army during World War II. The armies invading Europe needed warm clothes, so that meant that West Texas, which had never had a wool industry before, was roped into the war effort. After the war, the subsidy and the industry disappeared, leaving behind this vast empty building. In fact, Marfa went into a long decline after World War Two--the military bases which had been so important to the city closed up, and between 1950 and 1957, there was a drought so severe that the area never fully recovered. Many farmers and ranchers simply pulled up stakes and left. When Judd came to town, land and buildings could be bought cheap.

The mohair warehouse was used to house a large collection of John Chamberlain. Again, photography was not allowed. And again, the work in conjunction with the architecture was perfect. I have long loved Chamberlain's work, and I was extremely pleased with his retrospective at the Guggenheim this year, but this was a much finer setting for the work.


Interior of the John Chamberlain Building

The pieces were large and impressive, scattered across the vast floor like boulders rolling off a mountain into the plain. That seemed deliberate. It was as if they wanted you, inside this warehouse, to be reminded of the landscape outside. But the arrangement was not random. It was more like a Japanese garden, where each element has a kind of autonomy while looking beautiful in conjunction with the other elements. A viewer had the ability to walk all around each piece, to step back and come close. But in this process, that viewer was always capturing glimpses of other Chamberlains receding into the distance. This effect worked well with the lockstep 100 boxes in the artillery sheds and worked equally well with this scattered group. It was the size of the spaces that Judd needed to do this. And this notion of massive spaces for large works has been repeated at such venues as Mass MOCA and Dia: Beacon. I propose that in this era of dead malls, defunct superstores, and places like the Astrodome, this concept could be expanded. I, for one, would pay money to tour Dia: Astrodome.

Most of the other works are in the barracks buildings. These U-shaped buildings seem a little awkward for displaying art. Judd initially offered them all to Dan Flavin, but Flavin only wanted six of them. His installations were not completed until after his death, and they are some of the most spectacular of all the installations at Chinati.

You enter one side of the barrack. The room is empty and fairly dark (there is a window at one end, so there is some natural light). The long thin room ends at the bottom of the "U", and the viewer can see some colored light shining faintly from this dark end of the room. When you walk down to the end, you see two trapezoidal hallways. And at the end of the hallways (which can be long or short, depending on which barrack you are in) are a series of colored fluorescent lights and a second bunch of differently colored fluorescent behind them. So each hallway has a different combination of colors.


Dan Flavin, untitled (Marfa project), 1996, installation


Dan Flavin, untitled (Marfa project), 1996, installation

Standing in these halls was extremely disorienting. The slanted lights and walls gave it the feeling of a funhouse. The longer I stood in the halls, the more you felt myself wanting to lean. I wonder if viewers ever fall over. These works show that "minimalism" is not necessarily the right terms for his art. He is using his medium--fluorescent lights and architecture--to create a total experience. It's not about subtracting or paring down. And by using architecture as an element, he was in tune with Judd's conception of Marfa.


Ilya Kabakov, School No. 6 (detail), 1993, installation

The same can be said of Ilya Kabakov, even though he is a very different artist from the others above, and his use of the barrack he was given is likewise very different. He wasn't interested in creating a perfect environment for displaying some objects. He was interested in the barrack's status as an abandoned, defunct space. These barracks had held cavalry soldiers, ready to mount up and push back any spillover from the Mexican Revolution. They were an obsolete corner of the history of the 20th century. Kabakov decided to create another obsolete corner of that history here--a Soviet schoolhouse called School No. 6.

The work barrack is filled with wrecked furniture, papers, straw, dirt, musical instruments, sports equipment, books, school supplies, and vitrines filled with pictures and little written notes. One good reason to buy the big Chinati book is that it translates the notes. They are memories of children of various events the school. Some seem quite universal, and some are very Soviet specific (a pilot donates a matchbook and a single burned match to the school--when he was shot down, he survived in the forest by lighting fires to keep warm as he made his way back to the front. The burned match was his very last one, with which he lit a signal fire and was rescued). The installation depicts a turned page of history.

The courtyard, unlike the other barracks at Chinati, has been allowed to become overgrown with desert plants. The top of the "U" is crudely fenced off. The fence is flimsy and has many gaps--when you look through them, you see Judd's artillery sheds. I think this may have been a little joke on Kabakov's part. He wanted you, standing within this deliberate shambles, to be able to see the clean perfection of Judd's vision.

When Kabakov created School No. 6, he took off the doors and windows facing the inner courtyard. The idea was that the elements would enter the building, allowing the artfully-created illusion of decay to become actual decay. Sand and desert critters would come inside. But when the staff discovered that insects were eating the paper, they asked Kabakov if they could close off the inside from the outside. Kabakov must have been amused by this request, but he assented. A staff of Chinati so dedicated to permanence--DO NOT TOUCH!--couldn't handle the idea that a work was designed to erode away to nothingness.


Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen, Monument to the Last Horse, 1991, aluminum, polyurethane, paint

And conservation is sometimes a challenge. Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen's Monument to the Last Horse was being repaired when I was there. The piece was made out of aluminum (fabricated from a small model by the same fabricators that did Judd's boxes.) But the rough surface was made of polyurethane attached to the aluminum framework. Then the whole thing was painted brown. It's a lovely tribute to the history of Fort D.A. Russell, and as an outsized sculpture of a normally small thing, it simultaneously fits in with Oldenburg and Van Bruggen's oeuvre and fits in with other local monuments--for example, the mammoth roadrunner Paisano Pete in Fort Stockton.


Deanna L. Belden, Paisano Pete, 1980

The problem is that the paint was being slowly sandblasted away by nature. The polyurethane was in danger or eroding if the paint went away. When I was there, they were removing the paint by "sandblasting" it with ground-up walnut  shells (a substance that turns out to have a large variety of industrial uses) in preparation for repainting it. The ground around Monument to the Last Horse was covered with reddish walnut shell dust.

In addition to these pieces, there are paintings by John Wesley, sculptures by Richard Long, Roni Horn, David Rabinowitch and Carl André, and drawings by Ingólfur Arnarsson. The base hospital is being slowly converted into a space for work by Robert Irwin.

In the end, Chinati feels like a monument to Donald Judd's ego, but that doesn't bother me so much. Many museums start their lives as monuments to someone's ego. Usually it's some rich guy--"Look, here is the beauty I owned." Why not let an artist do the same? After all, Chinati feels very different from your garden variety museum. Judd was willing and able to give the work he displayed profound dignity--each artist has his own place and room for the work to breathe. It should be noted, however, that his vision is very macho--gigantic pieces made of construction materials, and only one female artist in the whole bunch (and the piece Van Bruggen helped create is itself sort of a male fantasy). You see this and wonder, what would a female Chinati look like? What if Donald Judd had died 1970 of a brain tumor and Eva Hesse had lived on to create a vast collection out in the desert?

These are the kind of thoughts that can come to you as you wander from barrack to barrack, going crazy from the heat.


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