Minimal Sculpture, Maximum Lights

“Untitled (Marfa Project)”

Material, space, and color are the main aspects of visual art,” the artist Donald Judd wrote in an essay published just after his death in 1994. “Everyone knows that there is material that can be picked up and sold, but no one sees space and color.” Making people see space and color was the principal aim of Judd’s spare, minimalist sculpture. And it is the striking, resonant effect achieved by Dan Flavin’s “Untitled (Marfa Project),” a permanent installation which opened in October at Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas.

You can’t describe either Flavin’s or Judd’s work without first describing their surroundings. Marfa is a town of around 2,500 people in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, 200 miles east of El Paso, not far from Big Bend National Park. Besides the art, Marfa’s claims to fame include the “mystery lights”—distant, shimmering orbs of unknown origin, occasionally visible at night—and the fact that Giant was filmed there in 1955. Desert grasses and yucca mark the country, small mountain ranges rise in the distance, and the air is thin and clear. The town grew up around a train depot in the late nineteenth century and was named by an engineer’s wife for a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov, then recently published. These days Marfa is an odd but intriguing mix of sleepy town and art destination, home to both a feed store and an espresso bar.

Judd first came out to Marfa in the 1970s. After a few years, struck by the vast horizons and the stark countryside, he began to buy property, including a bank, a Safeway, and eventually an abandoned army base, Fort D.A. Russell. In 1986, Judd established the Chinati Foundation and created a museum where large-scale contemporary art could be viewed exactly the way the artist wanted it to be seen: not in the corner of a white-walled gallery space, next to some entirely different, possibly distracting, work. In addition to works by Flavin and Judd, the Chinati Foundation exhibits art by John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Roni Horn, and others whose work Judd endorsed. It is a place where art cannot be divorced from its context, and Judd’s sculpture—in particular, his series of a hundred mill aluminum boxes, displayed in two renovated, light-filled artillery sheds—is perfectly matched by the gorgeous austerity of the desert landscape.

Dan Flavin was one of Judd’s best friends—Judd named his son Flavin—and allies in the group of Minimalist artists that came to prominence in New York in the 1960s. Born in 1933 in New York City, Flavin studied art history at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University, but he was largely self-taught as an artist. He served in Korea, then, after graduating from Columbia in 1959, worked as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History—a job where, he later recalled, he walked around with notes about “light art” stuffed in his pockets. He had his first solo show in 1961, at the Judson Gallery in New York, working at that time in charcoal, ink, and watercolor. But it wasn’t until he began to use fluorescence that he made a serious name for himself in the art world, and he stayed within a specific vocabulary of light for the rest of his life.

Flavin and Judd belonged to a generation of artists who rebelled against traditional, representational sculpture, and in so doing dramatically redefined the way people think about art. Their work reacted against the visceral, emotive gestures of Abstract Expressionism by using abstract geometric forms and industrial materials. The materials they used called attention to themselves, rather than trying to look like a particular artistic subject; often the artists sent the materials to professional manufacturers rather than laboring over them personally in a studio. They displayed the finished product on the floor or the walls of a space, without pedestals or frames to define it as a work of art.

Flavin took fluorescent light out of its commercial context and reinvented it as a material for art, tailoring it specifically to the site where it would be viewed. His works are installed in the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, the Menil Collection in Houston, and in a church in Italy. The site in Marfa, though, is the largest of Flavin’s works. He began the plans for “Untitled (Marfa Project)” in 1981, and completed the design six months before he died in 1996. Installed according to his instructions, the project opened to the public in October and will be the subject of a symposium hosted by the Chinati Foundation on May 5-6.

“Untitled (Marfa Project)” is housed in six identical horseshoe-shaped army barracks that look utterly plain and unremarkable from the outside. Each building contains two long, empty, parallel spaces with separate entrances, connected by a corridor through which you cannot walk. Light blocks the passage: specifically a barricade of vertically angled fluorescent tubes. The tubes are eight feet long and arranged in groups of 10, in varying combinations of pink, green, blue, and yellow. Glowing in one color and backed by another color, the fluorescent lights form gates across the corridor. You can stand in front of one gate, looking through it at the gate on the other side. The passageway is both fully lit and completely inaccessible.

In a 1965 autobiographical sketch, Flavin said about his own work:

Now the entire interior spatial container and its parts—wall, floor and ceiling—could support this strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it. Regard the light and you are fascinated—inhibited from grasping its limits at each end. While the tube itself has an actual length of eight feet, its shadow, cast by the supporting pan, has none but an illusion dissolving at its ends.

If Judd wanted to get away from the traditional use of a gallery space, Flavin’s project calls attention to the space itself—the interior container he was referring to. He not only manipulates the space of the barracks by closing off the passage; he also (literally) highlights his own manipulation. Some of the fluorescent gates are recessed inside slanted niches, so that light escapes from them and hits the wall. There it forms a painting made of sheer color, recalling Barnett Newman, Flavin’s friend and mentor. It’s a painting freed from the canvas and the frame. If you walk up close to it—entering, as you do, the world of the painting—the light alters your perception of the air, the color of the room, even the way your own skin looks. Light in our culture is often associated with spirituality, and Flavin’s lights do cast an almost holy glow; but they are also playful in the brightness of their obviously commercial colors.

Most of the windows in the army barracks have been covered. Natural light filters into the space only through two windows at one end of the space. There is no sound except for the faint buzz of the fluorescence and the wind outside, if there is any that day, rattling the building. Because you can’t walk through the corridors, you must constantly go back out into the natural light, as you make your way down through the six barracks. So there is a constant dialogue, a set of continuing readjustments, between the fluorescent lights and the natural light of the desert.

The effect is beautiful, and elusive. The light carves space, and makes you think about the architecture of the long, empty room, and the wide, empty landscape outside. Instead of utilitarian decoration—the stuff of industrial buildings and office cubicles—the fluorescent light looks meditative and ascetic. “No immediate feeling can be attributed to color,” Judd also wrote, and you bring your own emotions to Flavin’s work. “Untitled (Marfa Project)” doesn’t tell what you think. It doesn’t have a single, overbearing conceptual point to make, and this quality of withholding, perhaps more than anything else, accounts for its power.

Inside the artillery sheds where Judd’s aluminum boxes line up in shiny rows, you can still see the graffiti written by German soldiers who were imprisoned at Fort D.A. Russell during World War II. Judd knocked out most of the walls and replaced them with windows, bringing in the horizon and creating a sense of expansive freedom in a place that once served as an enclosure. In much the same way, Flavin’s work combines barrier with escape, artificial color with natural desert, a dark room with the bright glow of light.

Walter Benjamin famously ascribed the originality of a work of art to its “aura,” a force that could be diminished by distance and reproduction. At a time when every masterpiece has its own postcard, when you can look at art on the web without leaving your home, Flavin’s lights insist on direct experience. You have to see them in person, and you have to travel all the way to Marfa to do it. It’s worth the trip.

Alix Ohlin is an M.F.A. candidate at The University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers.

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