One Hundred Boxes

Living with Donald Judd’s austere sculptures for a month convinced me I’d misunderstood them all these years.

October 2007By Comments

Donald Judd, 100 Untitled Works In Mill Aluminum, 1982-1986, Detail Permanent Collection, The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas
Photograph by Florian Holzherr, 2002; Art copyright Judd Foundation. Licensed By Vaga, New York, New York

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 with it—to take art out of cities, out of galleries and museums, and install it directly in nature. I could tell you about the significance of the switch sculptors made in the sixties, away from traditional materials like wood and marble and toward industrial substances like engineered steel, neon light tubing, and—Judd’s choice—Plexiglas and brushed aluminum. I could mention the fact that Judd didn’t actually make the sculptures himself; they were fabricated by a company in Connecticut. (A cheat? Of course not: Rodin had someone cast his sculptures as well, and some weren’t made until after he died.) All of this would give you some context, I suppose, some background, conceptual underpinnings, and so on. But that wouldn’t give you any real sense of what the sculptures look like, still less what it’s like to look at them.

Abstraction is not a rare thing to come across, so this problem—what to say?—is not unusual. Nor is it insuperable. “A poem should not mean but be,” Archibald MacLeish once said, and he was almost right: A poem or a painting or a sculpture shouldn’t mean or be, it should do. What we need to ask, then, is not what Judd’s boxes say, or what they are, but what function they have. Why would a full-grown man, ambitious and resourceful, hie himself to one of the world’s most desolate landscapes and spend his days making big metal boxes to stick in big empty rooms? What was he trying to accomplish? The answer is, he wanted to make space manifest.

Such an effort, conceptual and contingent as it is, will necessarily be hit-or-miss. Art that’s meant merely to exist is easy enough to pull off, but art that’s meant to do something always runs the risk of failing its purpose. Think of it as a machine, an invention: Whether it pushes the world around the way it’s meant to depends in large part on the world it’s set loose upon. A ship, no matter how ingeniously designed, can’t float on dry land, and Judd’s sculptures often seem beached and abandoned. For years I’d been coming across them in this museum or that, and two or three times in people’s homes; I knew that it was important work, and I felt the appropriate respect, in the appropriate, obligatory manner. But I can’t say it excited me. Yes, I thought, I see: Sculpture is about forms in space, materials unhidden, lack of illusion, denial of content, and the way an object seems to draw in and knit together the empty volumes around it. I got it, and then I moved on. Judd’s sculptures suffer if there’s anything else in the room, especially if there’s any art of comparable power. They’re a bit narcissistic that way: They don’t play well with others.

I would imagine Judd knew as much and came to West Texas to play alone. A very wise move. If seeing one sculpture in a gallery had been like watching someone plonk on a single piano key, seeing one hundred of them installed at Chinati was a revelation, like listening to Bach for the first time. Walking through the sheds, or even passing them on the path, I could almost hear them, working a series of variations on a theme, growing ever more complex and contrapuntal, the aluminum boxes opening, unfolding, and recombining, echoing one another in elaborate patterns of rhyme and dissonance. I could feel them jostling one another, and jostling me, very rigorously but also a little bit playfully, and each time I went through the installation I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: a new progression, a new harmony, something new about the space inside and the landscape outside. From the right angle, the boxes are as reflective as mirrors. You can see the desert bouncing off their surfaces, the long, scrubby slopes, the pale-yellow grasses, the mountains in the distance, and above all, the sun. They’re about waist-high, and to me they seemed to be genuflecting. They reminded me of monks I once saw in a monastery in southeastern Tibet, individual but identically clad, aligned patiently in rows while they performed their devotions.

I should admit at once that Judd himself would have no truck with such rank anthropomorphism; it was precisely what he was trying to overcome, the idea of sculpture as representation of the human form. Mea culpa. But I think he would have acknowledged the Bach comparison more readily, for that was what he listened to (along with, God help us, bagpipe music), and I suspect he would have endorsed the meditative, studious qualities I’m trying to get at. He started out with a philosophy degree from Columbia—as, for what it’s worth, did I—and much of his library is preserved in his house in Marfa: Wittgenstein, Carnap, Paul Benacerraf’s Philosophy of Mathematics, classics in mid-century epistemology. He liked to call himself an empiricist, and he meant something very specific by that: The word describes someone who believes that knowledge emerges from experience rather than from reason. A number of critics, and probably quite a few viewers, think of Judd’s work as the product of pure intellection—intensely rational, deliberate, arithmetic—but the drawings for them are surprisingly free and intuitive. “Empiricist” is the right word, after all. What he was after, and what he achieved, was not abstract appreciation of noumenal forms but a specific engagement of the senses, called forth by that metal with that surface, arranged in those forms, in that building, awash in that light, in that landscape.

But space is only part of what art reveals, and the plainer part at that. The other part is more subjective and more elusive, though by no means less profound. Space is one axis of art’s effect. The other axis is time.

There’s the time that passes between the fashioning of a work and our apprehension of it, a span that a work will wear on its face, by its style and sometimes because of its patina. There’s the contrast of time between a work and its context—new paintings in old buildings, old paintings in new cities. West Texas, for example, always seemed to me to be an ancient place (though in truth it’s no older than any other part of the planet), and against that background, Judd’s sculptures, bright and shiny and built out of a world-of-tomorrow material, have a quality both futuristic and ancient, like the monolith on the moon in the movie 2001.

There’s the time an artist spends on a work, and there’s the time we spend looking at it. Some art, especially art in public places, we merely glance at, at best. Even in a museum, most of us walk at about 3 miles an hour, pausing now and then to gaze at a single painting for a minute or so before moving on. We page through books of reproductions or photographic prints at much the same pace. It’s the inevitable rhythm of looking, mandated by everything from habit to economic exigency. Unless you’re wealthy enough to own an artwork, or stubborn enough to resist the throng, there’s no way to look for any greater length of time.

Or you can get lucky. I had the good fortune, when I was just out of college, to find a job in the curatorial department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, working, coincidentally, for the same Trinidadian curator who first brought Judd to prominence. I was essentially his secretary, and the job paid poorly, but it had one unbeatable perquisite: On Wednesdays, when the museum was closed to the general public, employees were allowed to wander through the galleries at their leisure. No guards, no crowds, and a full lunch hour to look at whatever we wanted. So each Wednesday, I would slip down from the offices, remove a cushion from the window seat in what was then the Matisse room, and lie on the floor in front of whatever painting I had selected that week—van Gogh’s Starry Night, a Mondrian, a Pollock. For an hour I would look at it as if it were mine, my possession if not exactly my property, and when I was done (I’ve never admitted this in print before), I would rise and gently touch my lips to the surface of the painting I had been studying, in much the same way as I used to kiss the fringe of my tallit after touching it to the Torah in synagogue—with that reverence, if not that official sanction. In fact, if I’d been caught, I would have been fired immediately, and quite rightly. But I never was.

An hour, I soon discovered, was both too much and not enough. Too much because it’s almost impossible to focus for that long on a single image. You can go up to get a good look at the surface, pull back to get a sense of composition, the colors, the figures if there are figures, but after a while your eye’s saccade begins to break down and the painting begins to dissolve. At Chinati, though, I had even longer—a lunar month—plenty of time for the sculptures to cross over into insubstantiality and then cross back again.

Eventually I began to notice how fantastically diurnal they are. They’re sundials, calendars, clocks: They measure time as elegantly as they apportion space. If I woke before dawn, I could see them come alive, cheerful things, catching the first rays of the sun. In midday, when the sun was highest and the sheds most shadowed, only the outermost edges of the outermost boxes caught the light and gave off a fiery gleam. In the evenings they seemed to glow like embers, winding down from the day, breathing. You don’t ordinarily think of Minimalism as being responsive to nature: It seems like a quintessentially citified sort of endeavor, cerebral, a lab experiment. But nature is finally what it refers to.

Or not nature, but Nature. There’s something Emersonian about the Judds—Emerson with a twang, since the grand old Yankee never saw this landscape. It’s all there, though: the obeisance to the sublime, the elevation of experience to a fundamental fact about the world, the idea of art as a revelation of the categories—space and time—by which experience is organized. Emerson would have loved the Judds. He would have understood that someone like him had made them.

As for me, I’ve said all I can, and maybe a little bit more. The only thing left to mention is this: If you happen to be out that way, heading to El Paso or down to Big Bend, or maybe just looking for a way to spend a weekend, drive over to Marfa and up to Chinati. Take your time, tune out your tour guide, and, while you’re at it, forget everything I just told you. Walk through the sheds, look at the sculptures, and see for yourself what there is for you to see.

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