BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Presence of His Absence Donald Judd’s Minimalist Occupation of Marfa BY KAREN OLSSON rif he town of Marfa in Pre sidio County is not an easy place to reach. It takes more than six hours to drive there from San Antonio, almost five from El Paso. So if, say, wealthy patrons of the arts want to get to Marfa, they fly there by private planewhich is what happened on the weekend of October 12, when Lear jets touched down on the tiny Marfa airfield so that art connoisseurs might attend a twoday open house, celebrating the work and memory of Donald Judd. A central figure in the so-called Minimalist art movement, Judd, who died in 1994 at the age of 64, built a small fiefdom in Marfa over the last two decades of his life. Critical of the temporary nature of gallery art shows and the inexpert handling of exhibit pieces by gallery staff, he first came to West Texas in the early ’70s, seeking space where he could create large, permanent works. With support from the Dia Foundation he bought Fort D.A. Russell, an old army base on the south end of town, and there installed his own works and those of other artists. Closer to the center of town was a cluster of buildings, at one time the Quartermaster’s Office and Commissary for the fort, which Judd converted into his private compound: “La Mansana.” \(Judd didn’t live year-round in Marfa; he also Judd also bought a number of storefront properties on Marfa’ s main strip, for future exhibition spaces. Though he was known to be aloof and temperamental, in photographs Judd looks like a cheerful Hemingway, bearded and dimpled, wearing dusty black jeans, cowboy boots and a natty tartan sportscoat. A little too modish to qualify as a desert ascetic, he nonetheless fit the part of the sculptor who sought in Texas a kind of purity for his endeavors that Manhattan couldn’t support. His actual constructs in Marfa suggest something more than a will to artistic purity, however: as you come into town, Donald Judd’s presenceor rather the presence of his absenceis made immediate by the fortress where he lived, a compound the size of a city block, surrounded by an adobe wall that Judd built before moving in. It’s an imposing edifice, across from a feed mill and not far from the Dairy Queen. Although in his writings Judd justified building a walled enclosure in the middle of town by declaring his opposition to the American strip city and suburban house, La Mansana does more than strike a blow for decent architecture. Along with the buildings downtown that Judd bought and reminder that Judd didn’t just escape to the middle of the desert, he occupied Marfa. As the wealthiest man in the region \(and at walled compound in the middle of town, he carved out a role for himself, at least symbolically, as something more than a quirky artist from the East. Judd’s holdings are now controlled by two separate organizations, the Donald Judd Estate and the Chinati Foundation \(which Judd established after a 1986 the two hope to cooperate in making a permanent museum out of Judd’s properties and works. They co-hosted the October event, open to anyone who wished to come, and fashionable Europeans and Marfa ranchers alike wandered through La Mansana and the Chinati property. The juxtaposition of art snobs and cowboys, though in itself too fleeting and too extreme to provide for much more than an anecdote, served as a reminder of the two worlds Judd lived in. The internationally renowned artist tried to create his own environment in West Texashis efforts grandiosely ambitious, his projects never completedand Marfa today is a peculiar sort of modernist ghost town, distinguished not by a defunct silver mine or trading post but by the works and buildings on which Judd left his mark. To an observer, strolling through the courtyards and rooms of La Mansana \(open for the first time white interiors and simple furniture, it seemed that the private life of a wealthy recluse was of as much interest as the art work. There were Judd sculptures on the walls, but it was the house in its entirety that was on displayand because not all of it has been opened, the touring was particularly voyeuristic. Through the windows of locked rooms one could see racks of Judd’s clothes, his liquor bottles, a bathtuball maintained as if in a time capsule since his death. The estate hasn’t determined exactly how the house will be exhibited. Several hundred people came for the weekend, but how many will make a regular pilgrimage to Marfa? The problem faced by Judd’s estate now echoes the problem . of his escape to West Texas, which in turn reflects, in geographical terms, a difficulty inherent in much of modern art: who is its audience? Beginning in the ’60s, the Minimalist movement emphasized simple geometric forms and the physicality of the art object, in contrast to the romantic, introspective Abstract Expressionism that preceded it. Judd, whose writings helped define the movement, used the term “specific object” to designate the literal nature of the minimalist work, which was what it was a painting of stripes, a metal cuberather than a representation of anything. Judd abandoned painting in 1961 and instead produced three-dimensional work in which structure and material were paramount. Though his sculpturesboxes, frames, shelf-like wall unitswere created using simple, industrial components, terms like “minimal” and “reductionist” displeased 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 8, 1996
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