No matter how loud political art shrieks against it or how determined revisionists are to denigrate its formal qualities, Minimalism will not die. Annexed onto postwar American art in textbooks, Minimalism was shoved into place by artists who, like Donald Judd and Robert Morris, doubled as art critics, all the better to promote the repetitive austerity of their vision, beefing it up with defensive verbiage.
At the October 3-5 annual open house weekend at the Chinati Foundation, Judd’s huge conglomerate museum in Marfa, Texas, viewers were treated to 98-degree weather during the day and a rousing barbecue at night.
Judd’s transformation of the tiny cattle town used for filming “Giant” (with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson) is extraordinary. Not content to adapt only nearby ex-German prisoner-of-war camp, Fort D.A. Russell, for permanent and temporary displays of his work as well as work by Barnett Newman, Carl Andre, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, and Icelandic artist Ingólfur Arnarsson, Judd also took over half of Main Street in Marfa.
With his two-square-block “home” steps away, Judd converted abandoned storefronts into a bookshop, foundation offices, an architecture firm, and a Dan Flavin installation. A double-building warehouse near railroad tracks was redesigned for a permanent display of John Chamberlain’s wrecked-auto sculptures.
One thing is certain: Donald Judd liked to be in control. It was one thing to write Artforum articles essentially reviewing his own work; at Marfa, he was curator, dealer, real estate developer, and town boss all rolled into one. Since his February 1994 death at the age of 65, the situation at the Chinati Foundation (named after a nearby mountain range) has solidified and clarified. Administrative officials are in place, along with curators, preparators, conservators, and museum interns from all over the world, to create a proper custodial shrine for the art and furniture of the pioneering Minimalist and the art Judd deemed significant enough to buy, beg, or borrow. For example, when he and Richard Long had a show together in Reykjavik, Iceland, Judd acquired the British artist’s “Sea Lava Circles” (1988) and re-installed it outside the Arena at the Chinati Foundation.
On view as temporary exhibitions in the converted prisoners’ barracks are 18 etchings by Barnett Newman, who was often credited with anticipating Minimalism and is therefore a figure of virtually religious stature; stoneware pottery by California ceramist Rupert Deese; and more than 100 pencil drawings done by Dan Flavin between 1962 and 1975. With Flavin’s death in 1997, the grouping took on added poignancy-in addition to a distinct period flavor.
As Judd the irascible person and irate artist recedes into history, his legacy as artist-collector and architect-designer is sure to interest people in the coming century. Pilgrimages to Marfa will no doubt increase despite the high-priced, somewhat cheesy motels the town offers. During open-house weekend, there were so many German tourists it was hard to tell if they were Judd fans or just curious about the places where German POWs had been held.
The military analogy of the setting should not be ignored. It matches Judd’s longing for absolute control and yet reveals how he “liberated” the prisoners’ buildings, “turning them into architecture” (as he put it), opening up windows, and letting in the Texas sunlight. The converted Artillery Shed, which holds 100 aluminum Judd works, is awesome, intimidating, and curiously totalitarian.
Arising in the 1960s, a time of freedom and radical ideas, Minimalism needs to be separated from its claimed affinity to left-wing politics (remember Carl Andre’s blue French worker overalls?). Nearly 30 years later, the hard metallic materials, repeated elements, and mania for wedding site to object take on an aura of a “return to order,” to borrow the term used by French fascists of the 1930s. Though Kabakov satirizes and criticizes the collapse of the Soviet system in his “School No. 6” (1993) at Fort Russell, almost all the other art on view is about the ordering and controlling of space. Set against the open-ended, and often violent ’60s, Minimalism seems less of its time than a response against it. This is the movement’s secret history.
Paradoxically, such expressive repression takes on a beautiful dimension in Texas. Instead of nostalgia, there is a sense of awaiting another future, in which two ghosts walk the streets of Marfa, oblivious to one another-James Dean (who died soon after shooting Giant here) and Donald Judd, resident for 20 years, local hero, and, for all time, Big Daddy of Minimalism.