[Continued from Part 1]
Where to begin with an attempt at detangling the threads of recent Marfa history? The presence of the Art Mob, lead by the early 70s arrival of the late NY artist Donald Judd, is pervasive now, but everyone asks why? How?
As far as I can piece together the Marfa area had gone through a 12-year drought when Judd bought a house. Therefore real estate was incredibly cheap and plentiful. The town was on the verge of closing the door and turning off the lights — many large structures, banks, supermarkets, savings and loans — all abandoned. So here is an artist that had passed through this way previously, and had also admired the spacious desolate landscape in Baja. He had purchased a whole building in SoHo previously — this guy was a smart cookie — where his own work and that of his friends was on semi-permanent display. The notion that he could control and aestheticize the manner of presentation, the context, well it all must have been attractive. My guess is that the wide-open spaces of Texas offered the lure of more such opportunities. Judd had had a Whitney retrospective (that included no early work) in 1968, so by most standards he was a pretty successful artist. His work by then was pretty much what it was going to be — boxes. Here are some from ‘69.
So, the idea of installing this kind of stuff in the middle of nowhere is natural, right? Well, it wasn’t that unusual at that time — various land artists and others were creating huge installations in the U.S. deserts, appropriating the wide open spaces as some kind of symbol or metaphor.
Judd, amongst others, got the support of DIA, an arts organization with lots of Texas oil money. Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil created the Foundation in 1974… the de Menils are associated with Schlumberger, a company that RENTS the use of a very important drilling bit. At least that’s the story I heard. Mama de Menil collected surrealist art and beyond — her collection is housed in a lovely museum in the trashy tacky town of Houston. Her children’s art interests extended to minimalist art, land art and contemporary theater. Possibly at the urging of the artists they began to “support” certain artists in a big way — funding their work and permanent installations of their work. In NYC, for example, there is Walter DeMaria’s earth room and broken kilometer more or less permanently installed and maintained in the valuable real estate of SoHo. I remember hearing about their artist support when I moved to NY in the mid 70s. Medici levels of support doesn’t begin to describe how it seemed — it seemed like these artists were being bankrolled for whatever they wanted to do and were going to be given salaries for life — at least that was the rumor. Nice work if you can get it.
So, it seems Judd was supported in his quest to buy up buildings in Marfa and created both permanent installations and a kind of living version of his art — his homes, studios and offices were physical extensions of his aesthetic, an attempt to manifest his philosophy into his daily life — and that of his family. (See Eastern State Penitentiary entry below for more on architecture as will.)
Judd pretty much, for all intents and purposes, bought the whole town. Yes, there are some huge ranches around — I was introduced some someone whose family’s ranch stretches almost to Midland Odessa — that’s about 150 miles. Like owning from NYC to the Catskills. But many many buildings in and around the town were bought by Judd (with the help of DIA, I presume.) These were then scrapped clean of all décor and reduced to their industrial essence. An aesthetic that pervades the DIA exhibition spaces to this day. It’s an extension of the Moholy-Nagy and Bauhaus idea that industrial production and architecture is more pure — the decoration is usually left off as these structures are purely utilitarian — they are beautiful in their pragmatic scientific purity. Though Judd does recognize in his writings — he was an art critic in the early 60s — that these structures that are usually seen as being authorless, they do in fact have designers, engineers and authors behind them — he suggests that the great suspension bridges be named after their designers — or at least have the designer/engineers credited. Like the modernist architects of the early part of the century, these massive structures and frill-free applications of emerging technology were espoused as the way of the future. (Moholy-Nagy and his wife did a lovely photo book documenting “anonymous” American industrial architecture — grain silos, dams, factories — as did Le Corbusier, he of the funny glasses. Photo books as manifestos.)
Anyway, Judd and many others pushed these ideas to their limits — the “hand” of the artist was eliminated — the work was fabricated by “factories” using industrial technology — the artist merely submitted drawings and approved (or not) the finished piece. The work was outsourced, as we would say today. This way of working was an extension of the notion of “art as idea” that began in the early part of the 20th century and was applied by Warhol (I remember how shocking it seemed to many that AW didn’t actually silk screen some of his own paintings) and by conceptual artists in the 60s whose work consisted simply of written instructions. The surfaces, especially of Judd’s pieces, were made by machine, or at least simulated that perfection; the edges razor-sharp, the colors flat or non-existent and the look was inhumanly perfect. There were no fingerprints, smudges or smears. Furthermore, to add to the effect, these works were, and are often are, shown in former industrial spaces — SoHo lofts, white cubes around the world and the spaces in Marfa.
To some all this machine worship was heresy, to others it was inevitable and the only proper artistic reflection of contemporary society. As with anyone accused of heresy, many of these artists became a little touchy and defensive about their work — understandably — as they were being accused of being con artists, slick operators or lazy bums who didn’t make their own art. But being supported by the deep oily pockets of DIA sure must have lessened many of those hurt feelings.
Judd proceeded to buy property and tidy it up. Here is the former Fort Russell on the outskirts of town that he bought and turned into a massive permanent installation of immaculate (a perfect word for this stuff) aluminum cubes — no two alike but all almost alike, which is a metaphor, I would suggest. The Fort, established in 1911, was used as a based to “protect” Texas from Pancho Villa. Between wars it was a base for the Mounted Command, whose task was to stop Mexican immigration. Nothing much changed there. During WWII it became a kind of Guantanamo of West Texas. It was used to house German prisoners of war — some “renditioned” from North Africa and elsewhere and relocated to the Fort in the middle of nowhere, out of sight out of mind — certainly out of public and media view. Not much change there either.
Some massive sheds house 100 of the aluminum cubes…
…and massive concrete cubes dot the surrounding fields — like remnants of some abandoned huge highway overpass construction. A comparison that would not be sneered at, but most likely seen as a compliment. The area of buildings that comprises the former fort extends almost a mile, so that gives you some idea of the scale of this “installation”.
Another set of 12 buildings (each a pair tied by a narrow hallway — 12 buildings!) — house a Dan Flavin fluorescent light installation. Ostensibly it is one piece. Yow. These guys think big. Judd and Flavin were good friends — and neighbors in NY — but even though Judd named one of his kids Flavin the two artists had a falling out (no one could provide details) and the light bulb installation, though designed and proposed years earlier, was only installed after both artists were dead.
I have to admit that despite the scary inhuman perfection of many of Judd’s pieces the aluminum cubes are pretty luxurious and even sensuous. I wonder if these guys eventually allowed or admitted sensuality into their work consciously. I imagine they themselves always thought it was present — though maybe it was not apparent to most viewers — but some of these later pieces by both artists have a kind of awe-inspiring and even religious beauty that might be seen as antithetical to their own rigorous purist (Protestant Zen?) philosophies. Maybe the artists had transcended themselves and their own blinkered self-imposed rules.
Here are a couple of the Flavin pieces.
A far cry from the boring industrial sets of his white fluorescent bulbs that occupy a massive part of the DIA Beacon building, these seem more related to Jim Turrell and Bob Irwin’s light and space pieces. Otherworldly, transcendent. Turrell’s, Irwin’s and Flavin’s pieces of this type are popular; people are drawn to them and pass word on about them to others, like an “aesthetic experience” theme park ride you “have to see”.
In another building there are vitrines with Carl Andre’s concrete poetry displayed. Typewritten poems on various subjects that to me are lovely, joyous and playful — I like them much more than his sculptures.
move us to the cool chalk-like what clarity
over all tortures where once great centuries
danced celtic with gaiety bleeds on thy mouth
of me in paradises
In the process of buying up half of Marfa Judd helped the town reclaim their water rights — a not entirely altruistic move that had the side effect of allowing the town to revive, as it is doing now. This was no small matter. Water is everything around here. There are aquifers up near Balmorea, at least 40 miles away to the north, but I don’t know what lies beneath Marfa.
Besides the massive permanent exhibits of his own work he caused to be made here Judd had numerous houses and buildings scattered around town that house smaller exhibits, early work, furniture collections, and of course, his own house, studio and family quarters.
The earlier work to be seen in some of these buildings was also, except for one set of organic abstract paintings, fairly minimal — a word he didn’t accept — but even in the most Spartan of these one could see traces of the artist’s hand, traces which would soon be eliminated.
The living quarters abound with examples of Judd’s self-designed furniture. Hard-edged wooden plank tables and chairs that seem profoundly uncomfortable, but echo his art completely. The earlier furnishings are rougher — they seem imaginative and thrifty solutions to utilitarian and aesthetic problems. Later pieces became more polished, but were still made of humble materials like plywood.
Many of these table and chair sets were large, there is seating at each table for a dozen at least, implying that there were often guests, barbecues and drinking. There were beds — a mattress enclosed by a plywood box — in many of the buildings, allowing Judd to slip off to dreamland wherever he found himself. Towards the back of the house were the children’s rooms: immaculate little chambers, the little beds tucked under an alcove. By crouching under the alcove one could raise one’s head through a hole and see the children’s closets and storage — where the mess was hidden. I was reminded of Eastern State, but never mind — the kids, I was told by some friends who know them, are well adjusted and have turned out fine.
Across from the buildings above in this compound there is the library — a massive former industrial structure (naturally) with the books on building-length shelves grouped by subject and arranged within their subjects by peculiar organizing systems — artists’ monographs were arranged by artists’ date of birth, for example.
Here is a man who lived by his convictions, who turned — possibly as we all do, unknowingly — his philosophy, his aesthetics and his work into his life. There was no border between the two — at least not on the evidence available here. Mechanical, industrial or Zen, or all three?
Inhuman, post-human or spiritually transcendent? I sense the utopian ambitions of the 50s and 60s here, paired with a spiritual yearning and Protestant need for control. No sloppy hippie shit here. Libation and self-denial, simultaneously. Push and pull. A bundle of contradictions if you ask me, but fascinating.
People from distant parts are moving here. The “Pizza Foundation” restaurant (a pun of the various art foundations in town) is staffed by RISD graduates. Collectors pass through, there are dinners and drinks and late nights. MoMA runs a film program here (they’re thinking of moving to a drive-in to be built on Barry Tubb’s property.) Visiting artists — some invited by the art foundations — stay for a while and create editions and strange new works. The ranchers welcome the influx of cash, but it’s a bizarre coexistence. The real estate prices have rocketed up — especially for the charming and elegantly proportioned old buildings and houses that remain. The prices may be low by Houston or NY standards, but they’re becoming prohibitively high for locals.
On the 3-hour drive back to Midland-Odessa to catch the plane to NY I pass a church — even the churches look Spartan and industrial in this landscape.