Oberlin in Marfa

Notes from a Class Trip | March 8-11 2012

Kristina Goldenberg

Judd and Marfa: Carving Out a Piece of the Big Sky


Our first night in Marfa, in hushed, conspiratorial tones, Nico and I began to plot ways to stay in town long after the group had left. We walked across town as the soft blue twilight reflected of the train tracks, discussing what we might do if we lived there over the summer. I was captured by the sense of sheer space and openness that seemed to permeate every physical aspect of Marfa. I felt giddy, perhaps because I was no longer trapped in the back of the SUV. I felt electrified by my first encounter with the town. Every open business we passed was filled with attractive young people. The bookstore beckoned us- a brightly lit utopia. In a fever on feeling connected to the universe, I bought a book about the hummingbirds of North America. It seemed terribly important at the time.


The following days served to greatly complicate my initial sense of euphoric connection with the town and the pleasant, passionate people it seemed to lure in. Over the course of the Judd Foundation tour, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I began to feel troubled by Judd’s (omni)presence in Marfa. I found myself so intrigued by the way he mandated his studio spaces be left, enjoying the challenge such an act places on the divide between art and life. Yet upon further consideration, I was hit by the sheer depth of the self importance necessary to declare in one’s will that massive properties remain untouched. 


Throughout that day in particular, and throughout the rest of the trip, I began to find Judd’s entire project increasingly problematic in many ways. The act of the big city artist moving to the small town to escape the corruption of the urban art scene is indeed romantic. But Judd brought so much of the big city with him, in his art and in his interactions with the people of Marfa. The idea that as a wealthy urban dwelling man, he could descend on a town in Texas and simply begin buying up property for the sake of liberating his art is incredibly indicative of his own privilege. 


I additionally struggled to understand conflicting information about Judd’s personality. Many people we spoke to in Marfa commented repeatedly on how soft spoken Judd was. Yet the ego he must have had on him is omnipresent in the Judd Foundation properties (not to mention our tour guide’s description of Judd as a “great lover”). I attempted to gain clarity in asking more information of Rob from the Chinati Foundaiton, as he had enjoyed much personal contact with Judd. Yet my question was rather perplexingly brushed aside and remained entirely unanswered. We discussed this choice as a group at different moments throughout the trip. I found my interactions with Professor Hamill to be particularly helpful in attempting to understand Rob’s apparent protectiveness over Judd’s personal information. He seemed very interested in presenting Judd the artist, not so much Judd the person. Perhaps he would argue they did not exist separately from one another, particularly not in Marfa. Or perhaps he would assert quite the opposite- that Judd the person did not interact with his art in the same way as Judd the artist. I am of the mind that personality and personal history are fascinating and almost necessary factors in exploring art produced by any artist; I believe that it remains one of the greatest determinants of style and direction. 


Given my own ecstatic encounter with Marfa our first night, I can understand Judd’s attraction to the place. Something about the space does encourage you to plan, to dream, to think about how you might yourself fit into the space. But that is exactly what is problematic about his/my experience of the town. The interpretation of the landscape as ripe for development in any way indicates a fundamental hierarchy, in which you exist somehow above the town. YOU have seen more and therefore have your special way in which you’re going to interact with the history and the people. The town today flourishes because of these assumptions, and yet remains entirely trapped by them. 

When we first set out for Marfa, Texas I had an odd sensation of nervousness,  I had never been to Texas.  I had never been to a Minimalist exhibit before, and I had never traveled with a college class before.  During the parts of the fourteen hour trip for which I was not sleeping in some horribly embarrassing position I just kept telling myself it would be like traveling with my tennis team.  In reality it was naturally nothing like a tennis trip.  In fact it was far more exhausting, in a good way.

            Our first full day in Marfa was a Friday.  We spent the morning of that day touring the Judd Foundation which was a “collection” of sorts of Judd’s more personal spaces; studios, house et cetera.  These buildings had plenty of Judd works in them, in various states of completion and they also contained a few works of his contemporaries that he found compelling enough to collect.  I’ve found that you can tell a lot about a person by what kind of art he hangs on his walls.  Judd was certainly no exception.  However, he did not contain himself to just putting art on his walls.  That sort of inside-the-box thinking was not really his style.  Instead his entire lifestyle was dictated by his art; his furniture, his sleeping arrangements, his libraries, his light bulbs, his kitchens.  Every space he touched oozed minimalism and a sort of clean efficiency.  To be quite frank, I was slightly disconcerted by the prominence and pervasiveness of his artistic aesthetics in his everyday living.  Then again, my dream house is Versailles so one can see how Donald and I might not see eye to eye on interior decorating.

            Returning to our Marfa experience, in the afternoon of that first day we took a trip out to the Chinati Foundation which was also a Judd-centric foundation but of a very different nature.  The Chinati Foundation was essentially a vast museum originated by Judd during his lifetime and then expanded after his death.  Judd’s attraction to Chinati, and its appeal for Minimalists everywhere, was its vast, cheap spaces.  To me, the most interesting part of our Chinati visit was how very different it was from our Judd Foundation one.  The concept and arrangement of Chinati was very much that of an art museum.  The Judd Foundation, on the other hand, was much more a story of art as the object of a creator, and not simply as a standalone piece.  It is not very often that you get to experience something like this.  Seeing the works and ideas of one artist preserved and displayed in such different ways fascinating and, if nothing else, a fabulous lesson in the methods of curating.  I found that I experienced the art as its own entity and observed it more discriminately at the Chinati foundation but that the richness of the creative process that surrounded the art of the Judd Foundation was more emotionally compelling. 

The entire experience was quite new for me and quite exhausting.  All that looking somehow took more out of me then six matches in forty-eight hours ever does.  It was an incredible intellectual exercise on many levels and regardless of the experience of the art, I believe it has given our class a certain amount of camaraderie and engagement that would be very hard to find in other seminars of the same size.

Judd the Artist

Our first full day in Marfa was spent visiting the various buildings around town that housed Donald Judd’s “studios,” architecture firm, and home.  I found these visits to Judd’s personal spaces both extremely interesting but also quite frustrating.  

The studios did not fit into the traditional notions of an artist’s studio.  Essential to Judd’s work was the complete absence of the artist’s hand.  Most of his work, aside from his very earliest pieces, were fabricated in industrial factories.  So, instead of the studio as a workshop where he could craft things with his hands, Judd’s studios served as places for him to contemplate his art.  Permanently installed in his various studios were works by the artist, spanning his career.  He also was an avid collector of things.  All sorts of things.  He bought tools and objects on the basis of aesthetic and design, and filled his tables with them.  He curated these objects, precisely laying them out for his observation.  His studios were a place to gather visual information, to collect his thoughts, to think about his work.  As mentioned in many other posts, Judd also installed beds in his studios.  While the exact purpose of the beds is unclear, they do suggest that he would spend many hours at a time in the studios, thinking and drawing and who knows what else.  These spaces seemed to emphasize the objects.  

How then does this emphasis on the object fit into the phenomenological philosophy of minimalism that has been emphasized in so many of our readings, emphasizing the experience of the object in space?  I have not been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question quite yet, but I have found that the best way to get around the question is to stop trying to look at Judd’s work in his studios from a strictly art historical angle.  By distancing myself from the theoretical readings of Judd’s work by art historians I could get a lot more out of my experience of Judd’s working spaces.  I actually learned a lot from looking at Judd’s studio as an artist.  Judd surrounded himself with visual information, coming from his meticulously laid out collection of objects, his own work and the work of other artists, and the West Texas landscape itself.  From this information he culled ideas, making drawings of the spaces, possibly reorganizing his objects to find new connections, and from this he moved his work forward.  This is where Judd “worked,” where he let his creative energies out.  

Visiting Chinati on Saturday relieved the frustration I had felt the previous day in Judd’s studio.  It provided the link between Judd’s creative process as evidenced by his work spaces and the theoretical analysis that our study of minimalism has been based around.  Judd’s two large pieces at Chinati, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum and 15 untitled works in concrete, both fit nicely into the phenomenological reading of minimalism that we have been studying, as well as exhibiting many of the characteristics that Judd writes about in Specific Objects.  At the same time, the other artists do not fit so nicely, or at all, into Judd’s philosophies.  His inclusion of artists like Ilya Kabakov, John Wesley, and Roni Horne speaks to the fluidity of his artistic vision.  He may have pushed his own work in a very specific direction, but that was not the end-all, be-all of Art in Judd’s eyes.  His own interests are manifested in all of the art that he chose to show at Chinati; the way that Kabakov utilizes the space of the old army bunker, how Horne’s piece emphasizes the multiplicity of an artistic experience.  Each artist in the Chinati collection approached making art in their own unique way, but each is successful in their execution.  The Chinati Foundation is a place about the art, not about some art historical movement or theoretical discourse, and that’s exactly as Judd had intended it to be.  

After visiting Marfa I now see Judd not only as a minimalist, but also as an artist.  

-Thomas Huston

Judd the Curator

Throughout our few days in Marfa, I began to develop the impression that we were visiting an enormously large-scale exhibition curated by Donald Judd. It seemed that practically the entire town had been purchased by Judd and converted into art exhibition spaces or curated living/working spaces: an entire abandoned military base which is now the Chinati Foundation; numerous buildings in town including “the Block,” a former Safeway grocery store, a bank, a tiny barbershop, the Cobb family house, and the former Marfa Wool and Mohair warehouse that now houses Chamberlain’s sculptures; not to mention the several nearby ranches he owned (which were not part of the tour—who knows what he may have done with all that space?). Many of these places in town are surrounded by the exposed mud-brick walls designed by Judd, demarcating these sites as part of “the exhibition.”


The sheer enormity of Judd’s endeavor prompts the question, how does one come to curate an entire town? What must that experience and process be like for the curator? I found myself drawing mental hypothetical comparisons with Oberlin, which if not for the College might be a small town not too dissimilar from Marfa in plan and population (although our number of traffic lights alone dwarfs their one “blinking light,” which serves as the landmark whenever directions are given). What if Oberlin were a somewhat-sleepy town, and an artist rolled in and started buying up property? What might he or she install in an abandoned Gibson’s, IGA, or any of the historic buildings on Main Street? How might this change the experience of the town?


But of course Oberlin is not a sleepy town, and this is not going to happen (much as we might like to see a random bed in Gibson’s aisles). In fact, I have tried hard to think of any parallels where a municipal area has undergone a similarly drastic transformation at the hands of a single artist, and I’ve yet to come up with one. This singularity contributes to the totality of the experience of visiting Marfa, in which one is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of Judd’s intervention. It is easy to overlook, however, that Judd probably did not have an over-arching vision in place for the town when he came to Marfa, but that his undertaking was a long and gradual process. He acquired spaces as they became available, designing his plan for each individually.


As has been brilliantly discussed by the many student posts on this blog, Judd curated every inch of space available to him—he not only curated the exhibition spaces for the display of his art, but also the exterior and interior of his countless office/studio/living areas, and even the interior of his car. I am using the loaded verb “curate” here rather than a more neutral term such as “design” to indicate that Judd conceived of himself as an overseer of the total aesthetic he was fabricating, and of the relationship of every building and object to each other. Although the properties comprising the Judd and Chinati Foundations have now become literal museums, Judd’s spaces functioned as museums in his lifetime as well. We see the results of Judd’s curatorial eye in these spaces today, but what is less clear to us is his curatorial process. How many times did he redo the installations of his early work at the Block, for example, before he decided that they were finished? What is it like to curate so many diverse spaces in one area, knowing that they will be on view indefinitely, even after you’re gone? And most mystifying of all, why did he really decide to install all those beds in every room?


—Denise Birkhofer, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, AMAM

Former barber shop and Cobb house bought and converted by Judd, surrounded by Judd-designed adobe brick wall

Former barber shop and Cobb house bought and converted by Judd, surrounded by Judd-designed adobe brick wall

Former Safeway grocery store, bought by Judd and converted into studio space

Former Safeway grocery store, bought by Judd and converted into studio space

Judd-designed bed at the Arena, Chinati Foundation.

Judd-designed bed at the Arena, Chinati Foundation.

Judd-designed revolving doors at the Arena, Chinati Foundation

Judd-designed revolving doors at the Arena, Chinati Foundation

View of Monument to the Last Horse by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Chinati Foundation

View of Monument to the Last Horse by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Chinati Foundation

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Five Elements, 2011. Temporary exhibition at Chinati Foundation.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Five Elements, 2011. Temporary exhibition at Chinati Foundation.

Judd and Modernism

     As I remarked in the DFW food court, learning the reasons that Judd placed beds throughout all of his studio/gallery/workspaces, i.e., among all of his own art, really encapsulated how our trip to Marfa allowed me to understand Judd’s relation to the tradition of modern art.  I don’t mention this nugget of information—just to be clear, our Judd Foundation tour guide mentioned that Judd put all the beds in his studios so that he could languidly contemplate his art over an extended amount of time; she did also venture to mention that Judd was a “lover,” who had the beds in the studios for his own convenience—to be sensationalistic, moralizing, disparaging, or gossipy.  Actually seeing the studio/gallery spaces in his own living complex, and imagining how Judd himself used these private spaces and conceived of his own art, led me to rethink minimalism as much more of a continuation of modernism than a radical break from it. 

     The beds, as well as Judd’s entire endeavor into the western frontier for the sake of his art, place him as a figure in line with the swaggering, dauntless, unapologetically masculine hero-artist of the modern tradition.  Again, I hesitate to draw a conclusion like this based on a detail from his personal life and then allow it to shape how I understand his art objects.  Still, I think it is valid, after seeing the way Judd installed his work on his property, for his own uses, to wonder what he thought of the “value” of his work.  This word “value,” or others I considered using like “function” or “purpose,” doesn’t quite get at what I’m trying to say.  I think the idea is more along the line of the relationship between the work of art and its viewer, and my point is that this relationship is closer to the one between the modernist sculpture and its viewer than has traditionally been ideated.

     So, how did Judd think of the relationship between his art, as he had it personally installed on his own property, and its beholder?  It seems clear that Judd found in his art some type of contemplative, creativity-inducing utility.  For all the talk in the 1960s of minimalist art being degraded to mere object-hood, Judd’s presentation of his own work does not seem to radically depart from the traditional notion of the art object as something to be hallowed and revered.  Indeed, Judd seemed to find his own work so spiritually valuable that he consecrated entirely separate spaces among his property for its installation and his own reflection and creative reverie.  Even as his objects pare down form to its barest essentials, or reduce the idea of artistic expression to non-existence, they still stand in relation to the viewer as art objects traditionally have been conceived, i.e., as socially redemptive, or otherwise as good, positive, or worthy things for the viewer to experience.  Yes, Judd’s fanatical attention to the space of beholding, light, and the architecture surrounding the art does lead to an encounter where the art object, to use Robert Morris’s famous words, is less self-important.  But the entire experience of art is not changed in kind, only in degree, as an expansion of the experience of the self-contained, glorious modernist art object to include the entire situation of art beholding as spiritually valuable.

     At the same time that Judd thought of his art as requiring a kind of special sanctuary separate from generic, everyday, non-art experience, he also seems to have exhibited an almost maniacal concern for surrounding himself with a consistent, personal aesthetic.  I believe the traditional way of understanding this idea is to label it the “art/life distinction,” so that Judd’s inclusion of special art viewing spaces in his compound/homestead, alongside his personally-designed furniture and architectural, landscaping, and remodeling efforts somehow blur this distinction, as if Judd desired to live among his art or include it as part of a “lifestyle.”  This idea can be seen in the “minimalist” austerity of Judd’s furniture.  I remain very curious about Judd’s impetus for beginning to design furniture; on the surface, it can seem as if he wished to extend the aesthetic experience of his sculptures to the other objects he encountered as part of his life.  This implicit desire for a cohering of all of his private object experiences around a discrete sensibility for me reached its apogee with the Land Rover sitting in the yard of compound, which he had customized to include inside a self-designed central compartment space reminiscent of his metal shelving and chair designs.  This impression of the way Judd lived his life could lend credence to Clement Greenberg’s concerns that minimalism was too aesthetically similar to “good design,” as if sculpture just becomes another designer object to sit between a desk and a lamp in an International Style office building.  However, our tour guide at the Judd Foundation was quick to point out that Judd conceived of his furniture- and art-designing efforts as separate entities, so that a Judd stack, for example, emphatically could not double as a shelving unit.  Indeed, the grandeur of Judd’s vision for Chinati, and to some extent Marfa itself, as a refuge for a kind of utopian art experience should stand as a testament to Judd’s commitment to art as something far above and beyond the mundane reality of our everyday experience of non-art things.  This reverential attitude to art seems very modernistic, especially in comparison to the later art that comes after minimalism.  

-John Michael Morein

Optical Illusions: Judd and Flavin’s manipulation of light as a comment on the materiality of objects

The experience of being at Marfa provided me with an entirely new way of perceiving the relationship between light and space. The contrast between Judd’s 100 Untitled works in Mil Aluminum and Flavin’s Untitled (Marfa Project) provided two complementary viewing experiences which both emphasized, almost through opposite means, the dissolution of the materiality of the objects through light—which maintains a role as a kind of solvent.
    Judd’s 100 Untitled works in Mil Aluminum addressed the dissolution of materiality through its highly specific surface quality. The material chosen was aluminum, and the surface quality enabled by this material was an increased reflectivity. The surfaces’ of Judd’s objects—when struck by the natural light from both sides of the warehouse—were illuminated. The patterns of illumination varied both as one encountered the objects from a multitude of perspectives as well as through the slight variations in the form of each object. The transfigurative qualities of the light, rather than the variant qualities of the forms, thus became the central focus of the installation. The objects enabled a condition in which light could be be presented and experienced in variant optical forms—therefore enabling the material object to exist only as a platform for the experience of light.
    Flavin’s Untitled (Marfa Project), unlike Judd’s 100 Untitled works in Mil Aluminum used light that was generated and dispersed through a material vessel, rather than the light being applied externally—ie. not contained by the object but cast upon it from the environment. In this sense, the need for Flavin’s works to be installed almost entirely in darkness, was a choice in order to address the source of the light from a self contained material object. Although the light in Flavin’s work is cast out from the material object—the lightbulb—itself it still manifests a similar immaterial quality in which the light distorts the optical perception of the lightbulbs themselves. The object emitting the light is therefore dissolved and the experience of light’s distortion of the visual sense thus becomes one’s experience of the objects. The viewer’s encounter with light of such a strong and saturating frequency, disorients the visuo-spatial relationship the viewer maintains with the gallery. The gallery space itself becomes dissolved through the sheer oppression of the light, which distorts the viewer’s sense of space, time and balance. As one moves away from Flavin’s lights, the presence of windows, situated a sizable distance from the piece, act as a kind of de-compressive mediator between the assertive power of Flavin’s lights and the equilibrated sense of space one experiences when in natural light. During this walk of “re-calibration” the dissolution of space becomes most apparent, as one is evidently trapped in limbo between a perceptual sense of space which functions simultaneously through “flatness” and “depth”.
    In both installations, light interacts with objects which act as vessels. These installations appear to differ significantly in the methods in which they resolve this  issue of a material object being perceived through an experience—in which the external materiality of the object becomes dissolved by the subjective nature of encountering an object through the condition of one’s visuo-spatial present.  Flavin’s work utilizes negative space in order to capture this immaterial quality. This is made evident through the installation of lights within a space which is kept dark. The space that is illuminated by his lights—is the only understanding of space that can be maintained because outside of the light depth of space cannot be perceived. The sense of space in his work is “flattened” by the presence of both darkness and the intensity of the lights—and thus space exists through a series of relational silhouettes. Judd’s works can be understood to utilize reflection as a means to dissolve the materiality of objects. The reflective surface of the object serves to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the relationship between light and material surface. Because people see through the optical processing of light both absorbed and reflected by objects—one can understand Judd’s use of a reflective surface as the exposing of the imperfection of our optical vehicle of perception to understand the existence of things in three-dimensions.
    Judd and Flavin’s installations working in conjunction with one another stand as a kind of perceptual exercise. It is difficult for me not to call this exercise “optical” because both installations appear to be conscious of their almost scientific testing of human visuo-spatial experience. It must also be added that my analysis of these installations, as I have attempted to outline in this reflection essay, could not have arisen from exposure to photographic reproductions alone. I would not be able to detail these installations to this extent if I had not been able to perceptually encounter and experience them in real space.
-Nico Alonso

moving through installation sound

Video reproduction of an encounter with one of Judd’s 100 Untitled works in Mil Aluminum

"The Artist is Present."

Hanna Exel

Based on all that we’ve read and seen in our class so far, it has become increasingly clear that Donald Judd’s oeuvre was rife with contradictions between the ideologies he put forward in writing, the objects he produced, and the various possibilities for viewers’ interpretations thereof. For instance, in “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd,” Rosalind Krauss makes a convincing case against Judd’s characterization of his own work as “intentionally blank and empty,” instead attributing to it “a beauty and authority which is nowhere described or accounted for in the polemics of object art.” Joshua Shannon, also interested in the dissonance between the messages of Judd’s writings and the evidence found in his artworks, investigates “what might it have meant for Judd to refuse representation even as he worked with the architectural vocabulary of [New York] city?” On our trip to Marfa, I was repeatedly struck by a different, though closely related, question: What might it have meant for Judd to make such a show of “taking himself out of his work,” so to speak, even as he strove to create and preserve the precise imprint of his lifestyle and sensibilities that we saw on the Judd Foundation tour?

I think that looking at Judd’s artistic process in relationship to Abstract Expressionist painting might a useful jumping-off point for exploring this question. It seems fair to say that Judd had an ambivalent relationship with the movement. His work, like that of the AbEx movement, avoided pictorial illusion, and we know that Judd deeply admired Barnett Newman. Judd’s body of work, though, reveals several crucial points of departure from Abstract Expressionism; in addition to working entirely outside of the categories of both painting and sculpture, Judd had his work manufactured to his specifications rather than physically constructing it himself. This calculated attempt to distance himself from his objects, one might argue, has the effect of stripping the work of the emotional content or the sense of connection to the artist that an Abstract Expressionist painting works to impart. But if Judd was not interested in sharing something of himself with the viewers of his work, then how can we make sense of what we saw on our tour of the Judd Foundation?

Several of the other posts here mention a handful of spare change that we saw on a long table in one of Judd’s studios, formerly a Safeway grocery store. Taking up no more than a few square inches of visual space, these coins were a microscopic fraction of what we saw in the weekend. Despite this, members of the class seemed somehow haunted by the image; it was brought up several times after the tour. What the coins made us feel was a carefully cultivated impression that Judd himself might have passed through the space just a few minutes before we’d walked in. These coins were just one example of the ways in which we were made to feel the artist’s spectral presence; the books kept exactly the way he had arranged them in his libraries and the half-full bottles of booze (and grenadine, who would have guessed?) that were left in his kitchen at the former bank also come to mind. No one on the staff of either the Judd Foundation or the Chinati Foundation directly addressed the degree to which Judd had actually controlled the display of his more quotidian possessions (including pencils, protractors, and slippers) as we see them now. However, I think it’s safe to conclude, based on the meticulous care that he took in displaying the art objects he collected and created, that Judd arranged all of these objects with the intention – and aware of the potential power – of leaving behind something essential about himself for future visitors to apprehend. Donald Judd’s art objects may not bear any discernible visual indexes of his presence – at least not of the kinds that we are trained to look for – but, nevertheless, he is always present in his work. It is in his fastidious attention to the details of his objects that – their materiality, color, shape, scale, and the ways in which they were meant to relate to both viewer and environment – that we can grasp traces of the artist.