Visit to Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation
by Evan Levy
Art is a quest for time. To be
forever connected with the current and protected from the
ravages of time is the most precious thing an artist can look
towardsųto stand against the cultural entropy of disinterest. No
work of art embodies this desire more than the
precisely-rendered works of Donald Judd. So what irony and what
lessons might be contained in the damage suffered by a
twenty-year old sculpture by Judd? What vandal would dare so
blatantly to defy Judd‚s ideals regarding monument and time?
In the early 1970s, Judd had
the vision to transform a decommissioned army base in the town
of Marfa, Texas into a cultural nexus in the middle of nowhere.
In the era of the Vietnam and Cold Wars, converting the former
training grounds of the war machine was itself a work of art.
The barracks, mess hall and artillery sheds are now an art
center, with permanent galleries for Judd and several other
artists who shared his philosophic sensibility.
pilgrimage there takes one back to 1960s conceptualism. Oddly
enough given the chaotic emotions of that decade, the work is
predominantly a form of order and sequence, its deliberateness
distinctly removed from abstract expressionism, its stylistic
predecessor. More crystalline than organic, it recalls the
interest that Judd and other artists of this period had in
geology, mineralogy and illumination. Yet even the name of the
Chinati Foundation, dedicated to preserving this legacy of
rationality, contains the seeds of the inexplicable: it comes
from a nearby mountain range where mysterious, unexplained
„Marfa Lightsš flash across the desert floor.
Beside a field across from the
artillery sheds, Judd created „15 untitled works in concrete,š a
kilometer-long series of highly finished cement boxes. In an
aerial view the crisply cast boxes look like cryptic symbols, a
modernist linear Stonehenge aligned as were the sky drawings of
ancient astronomyųin axis with the Anasazi, Mayan and Incan
Judd said, „There are no
believable new monuments,š yet these megalithic forms are
certain monuments, mystical and militant, aimed straight at the
Davis Mountains and the McDonald Observatory, where modern
astronomers hunt the stars and search the fate of the universe.
At noon on January 27th 2003 I
began walking the kilometer-long sequence of gray concrete walls
and lintels. Under the blinding blue sky, the heated prairie
landscape rendered all things small and bright. Objects began to
hover. This transcendent state reminded me that artist Robert
Smithson once observed that „the concealed surfaces in Judd‚s
work are hideouts for time. His art vanishes into a series of
motionless intervals based on an order of solids.š This is
evident in viewing Judd‚s work. The „specific objectš fades
under a clinical repetition and a trance becomes the experience.
There is a flaw, a missing
corner, in one of the concrete sculptures. In the face of such
precision, the damage is a gaping wound of exposed aggregate.
The tour guide explained it was struck by lightning last year.
This explanation seems plausible, but there are no burn marks,
and the Chinati Foundation refused to allow either photographs
or further analysis of the damaged sculpture. Marfa is a place
of superstition. Nothing is ever what it seems. Why hide what
caused the damage? Was some aggrieved Marfan sniping at modern
The answer to this question
seems to lie, though, not in the sky of southwest Texas, but on
its ground, a geologist‚s nirvana called the Permian Basin,
which is the heart of U.S. oil production. Tens of thousands of
years ago tectonic plates shifted and caused a collision of
earth‚s crust that put the bend in the Rio Grande and spilled
mineral stones throughout the desert. These multicolored rocks
now litter the dusty grounds of the Chinati Foundation.
meteorite the only intergalactic rock to have struck a work
of modern art?.
While wandering in the field
beside Judd‚s sculptures, I picked up a strange, heavy black
rock, very different than the myriad other-colored rocks in the
vicinity. As it turns out, this rock is a meteorite, probably of
a category called „achondrites.š More specifically, this
meteorite seems to be an „angrite,š which isotopic studies have
dated to four and a half billion years ago. Split and cracked
from its molten reentry shell, the meteorite hit something hard
and cleaved. The only objects in the vicinity are the concrete
Did a meteorite damage the
corner instead of lightning? The location of the strike and the
trajectory make this possible. Scientific analysis would be
required to determine absolutely, but to know such a thing is to
settle only a part of the mystery and speculatively contemplate
the beginnings of a Chinati myth. This rock might be the only
known intergalactic object to have hit a work of modern art.
The Judd Meteorite is a
ready-made of cosmological origin and perhaps a vandal. The path
of this small stone forms an arc from the first conceptual
artwork, namely the urinal that Marcel Duchamp directed into art
history. Though not uncommon, meteorites are the rarest natural
materials found on earth. Having marred a work of art makes this
one even more rare. Judd questioned monument and the cosmos
questions Judd. He has been forced to posthumously confront his
minimalist strivings for the „perfect surfaceš against,
ironically, his own geological interestųa four billion-year-old
rock from another galaxy.
What can be expected of
monument after the tragedy of September 11? The western world is
braced for disorder and poised for another man-inflicted
disaster. To express this moment is to offer a response to the
anxiety and fear in the population. Tense times require new
approaches and activism. The artists of Judd‚s generation
distanced themselves from cultural centers to focus on the
larger cosmos. Current artists seem confused about how to emerge
from consumptive self-referential systems and move ideas beyond
the art world.
Time ravages all displayed art.
Nature vandalized this sculpture in a unique way, however,
nicking this monument, this „specific object,š with a splinter
of light. The Chinati Foundation should restrain from trying to
recreate Judd‚s perfect surface. Leave the damageųa flaw is a
part of the myth. A meteorite was once a fallen star and in
superstition they bring a wish to earth. Lightning, concrete and
meteorite become a small monument to the moment when the spirit
was not damaged but reaffirmed.
Evan Levy‚s „Judd Meteoriteš
project will be at Atlanta‚s Sandler Hudson Gallery from May 23
to July 5th.