This is not an essay about Marfa. By now you’ve probably read an article or two about the place, breathless odes in a variety of publications—glossy monthlies, art journals, travel magazines, the New York Times . You’ve heard about how this tiny little one-traffic-light town, isolated in the high scrub just north of Big Bend, has become the improbable pleasure ground of the Euro-American art crowd, how galleries and boutiques and nice hotels and restaurants have opened there, how it’s been turned into an oasis, or perhaps a blight, in West Texas. I’m not going to talk about that at all.
This is an essay about space and time, and if that sounds even more dreadful, let me explain: I spent a month in Marfa last spring, as the grateful guest of the Chinati Foundation. They had invited me to stay in a bungalow on the grounds of a decommissioned Army base, which now serves as a 340-acre compound dedicated to the art of Donald Judd and the artists he loved and which hosts, on a semiformal basis, artists from out of town who need space and time to work.
Judd settled in Marfa more than thirty years ago. Soon after he arrived, he began buying local properties, and in time he came to own a good part of the town, along with 40,000 acres of land down by the border. In 1979, with the help of the Philippa de Menil—funded Dia Art Foundation, he bought what had once been Fort D. A. Russell. On the grounds were two run-down artillery sheds, which he rebuilt and renovated, giving them great windows along the sides and semicircular roofs, and in which he installed 100 large boxy sculptures made of mill aluminum. They’re identical in their dimensions—41 by 51 by 72 inches—but they differ in their construction: Some are whole, some are transected, some have recesses or partitions. There are 48 boxes in one building and 52 in the other, immaculately arranged in rows of three, from one end of the space to the other.
Marfa is a company town, and the company is Judd. The sheds at Chinati are the purpose and point of the whole endeavor, but the boxes they contain are mysterious things, mute, silvery, exact, definitively modern. My bungalow lay right beside them, and there I sat, through most of April. My truck was parked in a garage in Alpine, waiting for a new transmission, so I couldn’t get around, and anyway, I was supposed to be working on a novel. But mostly what I did was look at the boxes and think.
I thought about space, to which visual art is beholden more than any other cultural activity. To begin with, there’s the space you have to cross to get there, for unlike books or movies or music, art can’t be reproduced, and it consistently demands a specific kind of attendance. In the simplest sense, this means that you generally have to travel: If you want to see the Titian, you have to go to where the Titian is. A magazine with very deep pockets once sent me on a seven-thousand-mile trip to go look at a single piece of art; such a journey does tend to concentrate a man’s mind. Getting to the Judds was easier than that, but not so much easier: seven hours on the road from my home in Austin, rather than fourteen hours by airplane. It’s still different from hopping the subway down to the Met, and I’d imagine that’s the way Judd wanted it, not out of coyness or sadism but just because the country you cross to get to the sheds is part of the perception you bring to bear on them. The sculptures they contain are pinpoints of energy in the midst of a vast volume of dust and wind, but to feel that, you have to take your time and pay the distance.
Then there’s the space you learn by being there. Judd’s sculptures have no content whatsoever: They don’t represent anything or refer to anything or symbolize anything. They can’t be explained, they can’t be paraphrased, they can’t be glossed. They can’t even be analyzed, really, in part because they can’t be broken down into elements; for while they vary, one from the next, each is essentially indivisible. Abstraction, of course, is one of the great innovations of modernism, but few artists took it quite as far as Judd did, removing every possible meaning, paring away all connotations, until the result earned the name that it goes by: Minimalism.
Judd disliked that name, but then, Judd disliked a lot of things; he didn’t like being called a sculptor either, but there’s no question that he (and cohorts like Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, both of whom have works at Chinati) did a great deal to renew the three-dimensional art object. Mid-century modernism wasn’t kind to sculpture: In the years after World War II, the old joke “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting” had become so obviously true that no one was entirely sure who first said it. Rauschenberg’s combines and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were sculpture-ish, but it would be hard to argue that they were working in the tradition of, say, Brancusi. By the time Judd came around, it had been a while since anyone had taken the medium all that seriously; it’s telling that the first major show of Minimalism, which opened in 1966 under the name “Primary Structures” (Judd objected to that title, too), was put together by a young curator from Trinidad and mounted at the Jewish Museum in New York. It’s even more telling that it became one of the landmark exhibitions of the decade.
There are a few more historical points I could drag out here, in lieu of explaining what the work is about, since, as I say, it’s not about anything. I could describe the movement—distinct from Minimalism but roughly contemporaneous