Donald Judd Found Perfect Canvas In Texas Town

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In the 1970s, artist Donald Judd grew frustrated with New York City's small gallery spaces. He moved to Marfa, Texas, where he created giant works of art that bask beneath vast desert skies. Judd died in 1994.

In the 1970s, artist Donald Judd grew frustrated with New York City's small gallery spaces. He moved to Marfa, Texas, where he created giant works of art that bask beneath vast desert skies. Judd died in 1994. Courtesy Judd Foundation Archives hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Judd Foundation Archives
Glass walls let the sunlight play against the surfaces of 100 boxes in old artillery sheds. i

Sunlight streams through glass walls and bounces off the surfaces of 100 boxes housed inside a pair of immense artillery sheds on an old army base. Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation
Glass walls let the sunlight play against the surfaces of 100 boxes in old artillery sheds.

Sunlight streams through glass walls and bounces off the surfaces of 100 boxes housed inside a pair of immense artillery sheds on an old army base.

Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation
An exterior view of the artillery shed housing Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. i

An exterior view of Judd's renovated artillery sheds. Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation
An exterior view of the artillery shed housing Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum.

An exterior view of Judd's renovated artillery sheds.

Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation

Judd In His Own Words

Watch clips from Chris Felver's film Donald Judd's Marfa, Texas. This is the last interview with Judd before his death in 1994:

The Cobb House was renovated by Judd in the early 1990s. i

The Cobb House was renovated by Judd in the early 1990s. Nick Tenwiggenhorn hide caption

itoggle caption Nick Tenwiggenhorn
The Cobb House was renovated by Judd in the early 1990s.

The Cobb House was renovated by Judd in the early 1990s.

Nick Tenwiggenhorn
John Chamberlain's sculptures of crumpled cars. i

Judd created spaces to feature other artists' work as well. Above, John Chamberlain's 24 variously titled works in painted and chromium steel. Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation
John Chamberlain's sculptures of crumpled cars.

Judd created spaces to feature other artists' work as well. Above, John Chamberlain's 24 variously titled works in painted and chromium steel.

Florian Holzherr/Chinati Foundation

More On Donald Judd

'Prada" installation in the Texas desert. i

Prada, Marfa is a faux boutique displaying Prada bags and shoes in the middle of the sparse Texas landscape. "It's got a great ironic factor to it," says Marfa resident Boyd Elder. "I hate it, but then in another way, it's so outrageous, you've got to love it." Elmar Vestner hide caption

itoggle caption Elmar Vestner
'Prada" installation in the Texas desert.

Prada, Marfa is a faux boutique displaying Prada bags and shoes in the middle of the sparse Texas landscape. "It's got a great ironic factor to it," says Marfa resident Boyd Elder. "I hate it, but then in another way, it's so outrageous, you've got to love it."

Elmar Vestner

Highway 90 cuts through the sun-blistered West Texas borderlands between El Paso and Big Bend. It stops once: for the blinking light in the tiny town of Marfa. Marooned in a dry blond prairie, Marfa's desolate beauty is the kind of blank slate filmmakers love; you can catch glimpses of the town in Giant, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood.

Marfa was also the perfect canvas for artist Donald Judd's ambitious dream to create a Xanadu of contemporary art — an indoor-outdoor museum where artworks come alive beneath the wide blue skies and sharp Texas light.

Judd was a cantankerous, larger-than-life figure who was born in Missouri; served in the U.S. Army in Korea; and graduated cum laude from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy. Four years after his graduation, he had his first solo show in New York in 1957.

By the time he had turned 40, Judd had already scored a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His meticulously proportioned aluminum and colored Plexiglas boxes were as much a signature of the 1960s as the work of Andy Warhol, Richard Serra and Frank Stella.

Yet Judd grew frustrated with New York's small gallery spaces. He wanted his art displayed in what he considered "clean" settings: unmediated by titles or artist's statements or curators' notes. So, in 1971 he moved to Marfa, Texas.

An Ambitious Art Fiefdom

Judd bought 16 decaying buildings, an entire decommissioned Army base, and three ranches spread across 40,000 acres.

"Basically, he behaved like a Texan," says Carl Ryan, a longtime friend and Judd's lawyer. "Don didn't want all the land in Presidio County. He just wanted what he had, and what joined him, and what he could see from there."

In Marfa, Judd could finally realize his art on a grand scale. On the old army base, he transformed a pair of immense artillery sheds into modern art cathedrals. Glass walls let the sunlight play against the surfaces of 100 of Judd's boxes, making some shimmer. Some glow from within like furnaces.

For his residence, Judd turned two former airplane hangars into a starkly modern compound called the Block. Craig Rember, the Judd Foundation's collections manager, calls it a fusion of art and architecture.

"Here at the Block, not only do you see his furniture, his art, his living spaces, [but] how he modified his living spaces for art and working," Rember says.

Rember swings open the square, metal-and-glass front door that gracefully pivots in the center and steps into a bedroom the size of a basketball court. Inside are three variations of the artist's "stacks," which Rember says are among Judd's most acclaimed work. In each piece, 10 boxes of stainless steel and yellow and blue Plexiglas climb the walls in mathematically calibrated progressions. Larger boxes are placed in the center of the room, like sleek, futuristic sarcophagi.

Not A Personal Shrine

Judd dedicated equally lavish spaces to the artists he admired most. A cavernous warehouse along the railroad tracks houses John Chamberlain's baroque sculptures of crumpled car parts. Six U-shaped barracks are the stage for Dan Flavin's hypnotic light installations. New York painter David Novros was commissioned by Judd to create work specifically for Judd's exhibition spaces.

"There are a lot of artists who've had similar visions about having art in place, but they only think about it for themselves," Novros says. "They only think about how they'll get their own projects built, you know? Don's way beyond that. He was thinking about places where art could be seen by everybody for free, made by a lot of different people who all shared this one idea about making a thing in place. And that's really unique."

While many of the spaces Judd created in Marfa have remained virtually unchanged since his death from cancer in 1994, some things have changed.

If you come into Marfa at night, you'll hit the brakes at a bright candy box of a store, emitting an extraterrestrial glow. It's an art installation, called Prada, Marfa — a faux boutique displaying beautifully lit Prada bags and shoes. It's hard to tell whether this store-as-sculpture is meant to be whimsical or wry. Is it art disguised as commerce? Or a big wet advertisement for Prada pretending to be art?

Boyd Elder is a videographer and artist whose painted cow skulls graced album covers for the Eagles. He knew Judd for 20 years. Elder works out of a studio in an old water tank within sight of Prada, Marfa.

"The really ironic thing about it is," Elder muses, "you think about all the morales, all the immigrants who've walked across the desert in huaraches and tennis shoes and cactus stalks woven into sandals ... and carrying a bag. Then you walk by the Prada store and you see these shoes and these Prada bags on the immigrant, drug-dealing path into the North. So it's got a great ironic factor to it, you know what I mean? I hate it, but then in another way, it's so outrageous, you've got to love it."

Judd's two children grew up in this vast raw desert where sculptures outnumber people. Rainer, his 38-year-old daughter, oversees her father's estate as president of the Judd Foundation's board. She says living in Marfa took some adjustment.

"As a kid, I was really into trees. And I would say, 'Where are the trees? There aren't any trees here,' " Judd remembers. "The reason I mention trees is he would say, 'If you look out here, you can actually see the shape of the land, where if it's covered with trees you can't see it.' And I think about the way he would talk about his work in defense, when people would call it minimalist and he didn't like that description. Just in the way that the desert is extremely rich and beautiful and it doesn't have a lot of trees, I think he was interested in creating extremely rich work that didn't have a lot of trees, if you know what I mean."

The environment Donald Judd created in Marfa has drawn countless other artists who've put their own stamp on the town. Marfa's become a trendy art Mecca that's attracting celebrities. Weather-beaten ranchers still eat homemade donuts at Formica tables in Carmen's Cafe. But they may be sitting next to Lance Armstrong or Julia Roberts.

To capture her father's relationship with the town, Rainer Judd began filming a documentary two years ago, called Marfa Voices. One of them belongs to Jack Brunson, who helped Donald Judd build his art. It took Brunson a while to fully appreciate Judd's 15 concrete cubes, arrayed across a field of tall prairie grass.

"You have to stop and look at those and wonder what in the heck they are," Brunson says in the documentary. "But you sit up there on the hill and look back down there and watch that in the afternoon, and you watch the shadows move about, you can see you're looking at something that you never saw before. You don't realize it driving up the highway — you see these blocks out there and there's nothing. But if you get to the proper place and look, and watch — take your time and watch — you see art!"

And that's exactly what Donald Judd wanted.

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