Marfa Memo: The Chinati Foundation

Donald Judd. 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (detail), 1982-1986. 41 x 51 x 72 inches. Permanent collection, The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Douglas Tuck, 2009. Courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

This year, The Chinati Foundation is celebrating its 25th-year Anniversary (1986-2011). The following conversation was recorded by Sarrita Hunn and Ryan Thayer shortly after visiting the museum this past August.

Sarrita: It is really mind blowing how much of Marfa was bought up and taken over by Donald Judd.

Ryan: I think it probably took place more slowly than you think, but I’m struck by how much of the town was made up of abandoned military barracks and government buildings and that there was already such a large institutional presence here. It is really interesting to see these military and industrial complexes replaced by artistic projects.

S: Also, I didn’t know that the part that became The Chinati Foundation had been funded in part by the Dia Art Foundation.

R: Yeah, that was the first time I had heard that.

S: So, it wasn’t only his personal funds that paid for the purchase of the army barracks on the 300-odd acres that make up the Chinati and the Judd Foundation’s various little factories and shops all through the town of Marfa.

R: It was also interesting to me to hear the history about how he chose this location. He first learned about this military site when he was a G.I. shipping out to Korea. As I understand it, he was travelling through this region and possibly even stayed at these barracks while they were operational. But not all of the Foundation is on former military land – some of it consists of former manufacturing spaces, like the old textile factory that was converted into an exhibition hall for Chamberlain pieces. The use of these buildings makes me think about Judd’s house in New York. I remember hearing that he was one of the first artists to move into Soho in the late ‘60s and that he had bought a small factory that was above a storefront or something like that…and that he thought this was an ideal space to construct and display his work. That, essentially, he set the precedent for the artist loft and the industrial-style exhibition space that is still the standard for galleries in Chelsea and NYC to this day.

S: That is interesting to think about.

R: He seemed to always see this strong connection between art and the space it is exhibited in, that the art and the architecture are always in conversation.

S: We saw that this morning in the first part of the tour at The Chinati Foundation which covered Judd’s 100 Works in Milled Aluminum that are spread over two artillery sheds. Seeing those pieces in the space that was designated to house them really changed my understanding Judd’s work.

R: In what way?

S: Basically there are 100 milled aluminum boxes that are made of the same volume, with the same outer dimensions, but the configurations inside those rectangular boxes are all different. I always thought the choices Judd made about how the planes interact within the rectangular volumes of space was kind of arbitrary. I never fully understood it. Here, the artillery sheds are lined on both sides with windows and by walking from one end of the building to the other I finally understood the piece. I started to be able to see the works as I think that they were intended to be seen, which was with this additional element of light shining through the planes. The works change as you move around them, as light goes through the sculptures and, because the aluminum sculptures are reflective, they interact with light and reflect other parts of the boxes. They actually become ephemeral pieces. Here, the structure actually starts to disappear. When you see these kinds of works in a gallery space without natural light, they are just heavy square objects. In a gallery, these pieces are not activated in the same way they are in those artillery sheds. That was a new experience of Judd’s work for me and it was illuminating to all of his other works.

R: That is a really important observation and I think that the installation in that space activates the piece as a whole. It works on multiple levels. I find that people usually just grab on to a single dimension of Donald Judd’s work. One perspective is based on materials and construction, which you could overhear people talking about on the tour. They kept talking about the mill work and how great the angles line up and I think that misses part of the point. Then there are people who are just interested in the work in relationship to design and architecture as establishing an entirely minimal aesthetic for space, but for me the really important part of going to Chinati was being able to see and experience the framework he was setting up in its entirety.  You can see the idea that he started out with and experience it through the objects. All of the permutations unfold over time in a way that is unique to the display in the artillery sheds.

It makes me think of Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes, but the Sol Lewitt pieces are much more rational and strictly mathematical. The work consists of multiple cubes, all with equal lengths that define an empty volume, but each one is incomplete or missing a part. The way he decided which parts are missing from each volume is based more on mathmatical permutations.  Whereas for Judd, as you were saying, there is a framework that exists but it also exists in relationship to space, even to the interaction of light in the space, that determines how you experience the object. Instead of being able to project that if this one has 3 sides and that one has 4 then there must be 5 sides on that the next one. You can’t really predict the framework for the permutations of the Judd boxes.

S: They are related to the architecture surrounding them but also the human body. Since he made the boxes six feet long, they are human scale to some extent.

R: That is one of the things that I really enjoyed about the pieces here and some of his pieces I have seen at Dia:Beacon as well. That is, you approach a piece with this pre-conceived notion of what you are going to see, but there a structural play where sometimes a surface that appears to be solid actually ends up being a void. I’m thinking of this one specific plywood piece at Dia:Beacon, and to me there is almost a sense of humor to it. He knows that as the viewer approaches the piece they think they are walking up to a solid wall but it actually recedes into this incline that you are not able to see because of its scale and its relationship to your body.

Anyway, I think we could totally dork out about the systematic side of his work for a long time here, but there were also things that I didn’t realize or didn’t expect to see as were were going through the buildings. One is that he lived in some of these buildings and that he had to design and build furniture for the spaces and that there are multiple permanent installations at The Chinati Foundation by other artists that don’t necessarily seem like something that would resonate with the Judd’s work, like the Kabakov piece, or even John Chamberlain’s work, which has this obvious industrial connection but are so much more expressionistic.

S: Returning to what you were saying earlier about being influenced by the architecture and the surrounding areas, another place where this was so insightful was in the gymnasium [The Arena] where he actually lived for a while. Like you said, he designed the whole interior and built all the furniture.

R: I’ve always been interested in his furniture’s relationship to his artwork, that he designed and built all of these functional objects that look like a lot of his artwork. The thing that the tour guide said that struck me was that he started building all of this furniture because there wasn’t enough furniture available in Marfa. It was totally DIY and I think that attitude is still really part of Marfa’s identity. From our visit we’ve seen that if anyone here needs something they just build it, or if you have a service to offer you find someone else that needs it and you trade each other.  They’ve created these local alternative economies and distribution systems where someone with a garden will team up with a market or restaurant that needs produce, or since there is not a pharmacy in town a clinic has been established to run medicine from the nearest town. So I think that experiencing Marfa adds a really important dimension to Judd’s work.

S: The tour guide also mentioned that the dimensions of the furniture were based on the dimensions of the lumber that was available, so he was designing the furniture with the most efficient use of the lumber. For example, the backs of the chairs were a standard width of board. So, in Marfa, there is this element of efficiency. Materials are scarce and people save everything because either they’ll use it later or someone else will.

R: I think it also illuminates part of his practice because these decisions are not about formal judgements but are influenced by efficiency, this desire to be economical. This is another way in which an industrial economy becomes part of his furniture design and artwork.

S: Not just efficiency, but also using industrial standards as the starting point for creating something.

R: Coming here to experience his work in these environments and learning about the communal living environment of the gymnasium space and then hearing about the other spaces you can tour through the Judd Foundation makes me think about the ways in which Andy Warhol’s work has been reexamined and reclassified. There are so many dimensions to Warhol, at first there was a period when he was only associated with Pop Art, later his films became relevant as seen through the lens of identity politics, then artists started to revisit the legacy of The Factory in relationship to performance art and relational aesthetics as a space where people were living and creating participatory events all the time. I think this relationship also exists for Judd between his object making, architectural proposals and constructing living environments, but also his role as an influential art critic and eventually museum designer. I never considered how all of these things were part of his practice.

S: We’ve talked about that in terms of Warhol, but I was most struck by that when we went to see John Chamberlain’s work. First of all, we were seeing his materials in such a specific context, where old cars and rusted metal are really common. But there is also a video piece in the space by called, The Secret Life of Fernando Cortez. The video was just taken right out of Jodorowsky. I commented to the tour guide that I didn’t know that John Chamberlain was such a hippie!

R: The Holy Mountain director? His film or the genre in general?

S: Well, that whole genre I guess, but specifically his films because we just recently watched The Holy Mountain (1973) again. Chamberlain’s video was just this kind of sexualized surrealist film and that was really insightful. I began to imagine people moving to Marfa and building out these spaces, or visiting on some kind of holiday from New York City, and that what I saw in the film was actually what took place. That it was the secret life of John Chamberlain. On one level, people associate Judd and the Foundations with very minimalist sculpture, but when visiting Marfa you can start to see the larger context of what that meant socially, in the interaction between all of these artists and how they spent their time while they were out here…. because obviously there was a lot going on out here before it became a Foundation and a destination for people beyond Judd’s circle. Having this awareness is a new understanding of how to think about the work, as well as pieces that exist in these lived environments.

R: I think it is common for people who really love his work, and really hate his work, to have this singular narrative about what he did. I think visiting visiting Chinati and seeing these almost communes really problematizes the legend (or the mythology) of Donald Judd.

S: Even the tour guide said that in the gymnasium he build beds everywhere and people crashed out whenever and that it was a completely open space that people just stayed and lived in.

R: That’s the thing that I noticed. I didn’t watch much of that Chamberlain video, but there was basically this huge foam bed a lot of people could lay around to watch these two videos…

S: Which I think was a piece from the early eighties…

R: That was called Barge Marfa. The thing that I noticed about the videos was that there was a lot of cross-fading. He’d taken segments from multiples films and just blended them together, in this kind of psychadelic way, there were no really boundaries between the parts. That is something that I didn’t really expect to find out here at the Judd compound. These quirky hippie elements, these vestiges to 1970’s new-age culture. In the Chamberlain exhibition hall you have all of these monolithic metallic sculptures but in the middle there was this hole left over from a machine in the factory that was filled with sand and turned into a Zen garden. This seemed totally out of place but the hippie-awkwardness of it really lightened the seriousness of the environment as well.

S: The space was renovated specifically for John Chamberlain to show his work so it gives insight into how the artists think about their work because they are the ones that created the environment for their work to be show in. The fact that he would allow this rectangle in the middle of the hall to be filled with white sand and raked through….obviously a curator would never be able to make that decision.

R: That is the unique thing about Chinati. It is an environment designated by artists to demonstrate how they want their art to be experienced.

[Lunch break]

Dan Flavin. untitled (Marfa project) (detail), 1996. Permanent collection, The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo by Douglas Tuck, 2009. Courtesy of The Chinati Foundation. ©2011 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

S: The second part of The Chinati tour included a Dan Flavin piece that spanned six barracks and a couple of other buildings with other artists’ work, so, I believe the whole afternoon tour was artists other than Donald Judd.

R: Yeah, the Flavin piece, Untitled (Marfa Project), was a site specific installation and then some of the other adjacent mess hall buildings were converted to galleries that Judd designated to display the work of 4-5 other artists.

It was really amazing to see the Flavin installation in person because the photographs I have seen lead you to believe that its a piece only based on geometric orientation in the way a lot of his wall pieces are installed, or a variation on that…

S: Like a group of lights that form a rectangle…

R: Yeah, or in this case a diamond. The thing that you cannot get from the photographs is that these are actually full-room installations that are very experiential. More so than a lot of the Flavin pieces I have seen before. For example, each barrack is U-shaped and you can enter from either wing but you cannot get from one wing to the next on the inside. So when you enter the space you look down this really long corridor and at the very end are these glowing diamond shaped holes that appear to be cut out of the end of the wall. The first one I believe has yellow light emanating out of one and green light out of the other. I honestly thought Dan Flavin was making James Turell pieces, a work where the light is more phenomenological, more about how that the light dissolves and reshapes the architecture. So I walked all the way down the length of the corridor and looked into the hall. In the center of this diamond shaped hallway were the diagonal fluorescent tubes which you immediately recognize as Flavin’s. What I started to realize was that the amazing thing about this piece was that he turned entire buildings into light fixtures.

S: Related to that, I was just struck by the scale of the piece. Since it was located in six u-shaped barracks, there were twelve doors to go through to experience twelve sides of this six part piece. I think seeing Judd’s and Flavin work on such an enormous scale allows you to see their work fully. There were multiple cases when walking into the space. I thought the colors were one thing, for example blue and orange, but when I went to look at the bulbs themselves they were actually blue and red or blue and yellow. So, it makes you start to think about the color composition of light itself….which i don’t think I have ever thought about with any of Flavin’s other pieces. It became a larger piece that not only incorporated architecture, as you said, but also broader concepts.

R: There were a lot of unexpected qualities about it for me too. You see the buildings and you instantly form this rational understanding of the work. There are 6 buildings and 2 doors each, so there are 12 vantage points and he only worked with yellow, green, red and blue bulbs paired back to back in the 12 hallways. So all of a sudden there are a fixed amount of combinations and variations. So about halfway through the buildings I started projecting what would come next, and I thought I was becoming bored of the piece. It is such an endurance piece, with a certain type of physical/visual endurance, I mean you have to walk in the heat for like a mile…

S: The tour guide said that on average it takes a half an hour to walk through all of the spaces.

R: But the combinations of light have such an important role. You see different pairings in each barrack but by the time you make it to the last one the two diamond shaped hallways both emit yellow light. So I started thinking he couldn’t come up with any more combinations, that maybe he is just going to go monochrome. I walked down the corridor and the first hall was all yellow bulbs but the second one had red and green lights. I was surprised that the way the green and the red bulbs combined to create warm white light it happened to look exactly like the yellow light. It made me re-examine my experience of the entire piece. In the end the piece wasn’t just a set of color combinations, instead it created a series of perceptual variations and managed to manipulate my attention span.

S: I was just thinking how the experience of walking through those barracks was similar to the experience of walking through the artillery sheds to see the Judd pieces. You come to the piece with certain expectations from works you have seen by the artist before, but by the end, through the experience of walking through each of the pieces and having it unfold in really surprising ways, it gives you a new and expanded understanding of that person’s work.

R: Totally, I think it is a really rich understanding. But then on the tour I thought why did he designate these other galleries to other artists? Why these artists? I had this same question with the Kabakov piece during the earlier part of our tour but later realized the Kabakov piece was so interesting to Judd was because they created an entire environment to experience as an artwork. That is what the Chinati Foundation is all about, it is dedicated to creating permanent environments to experience artworks. Walking through Flavin’s Untitled (Marfa project) and getting so exhausted I became really aware of the significance of having these large scale permanent installations of artworks, that it is so rare to have this encompassing experience of a single artwork. Because of the long term maintenance of the works and the site requirements you could never experience these works without creating these long term, permanent installations. It stands in such contrast to a lot of the artwork I see being made today.  Specifically social practice artworks or relational aesthetics where the artwork requires a participatory engagement, that only exists while the project is happening and doesn’t exist again or beyond that.

S: Similarly, it makes me think about conversations we’ve had driving around and seeing people working on all of these adobe houses, and even some of the conversations I overheard waiting around for our tours about the dry environment here and the way in which these Chinati buildings are built and how they don’t have to be climate controlled. Plus, the works don’t need much electricity or any water. I am sure that it is difficult and there is a lot of maintenance and money needed to take care of them, but also compared to being somewhere with a more extreme climate, it is relatively easy to maintain them here. In this area, in these buildings.

R: I wonder how conscious artists were of that when Judd came down here because it seems like a lot of 70’s land artists, moved to this southwest region to create artworks. I wonder if they were considering the role of these conditions in the preservation of their works?

S: It would be interesting to know if that was a factor or if it was more a matter of…almost a frontier attitude, a desire to be part of this American frontier where there is seemingly endless amounts of empty space. I wonder how much of his decision was about the space and how much was about this environment, which is both extremely fragile but also resilient in the ways in which things can be preserved.

R: Yeah. Things move at geological time here instead of human time….

S: I experienced that first at Joshua Tree where I had to learn that if you leave any sort of mark it is going to be there for a very long time. There is no rain that is going to come and wash it way and that was totally mind-blowing to me. They say we are experiencing rain here in Marfa for the first time in ten and a half months. For a huge chunk of the year nothing gets cleaned, nothing gets washed away, so any impact you have is going to remain. Which preserves it for both good and bad.

Sarrita Hunn, managing editor
Sarrita Hunn is an interdisciplinary artist interested in exploring how information is mediated through cognitive and technological processes. She has exhibited internationally and is the recent recipient of a Danish Arts Council artist-in-residence grant which includes funding for a solo exhibition in Copenhagen in January 2012.
Ryan Thayer, regular contributor
Ryan Thayer is an artist making conceptually driven large-scale sculptures and photographs. He received his M.F.A. from California College of the Arts in 2006 and co-organizes Many Mini Residency.

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