‘Art Becomes Retail Surprisingly Quickly’: How Marfa Went From Donald Judd’s Anti-Commercial Escape to a Mecca of Luxury Minimalism
Read an excerpt from Kyle Chayka's new book, "The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism."
In the midst of his Marfa project Donald Judd was offered a blank check. The Dia Foundation promised to fund almost any work he wanted to make there, toward the goal of establishing a permanent museum by allowing a handful of artists to fill the town’s abandoned buildings with Minimalist installations. Judd signed a contract for “certain sculptures, the number and nature of which shall be determined in the artist’s sole discretion.” The only proviso was that the works had to be “a unified aesthetic entity of works and space,” which was all Judd wanted to make anyway.
This was an opportunity for the artist to distill all of his ideals into massive projects that would stand the test of time in a context completely under his own control. Judd ended up breaking off the Dia collaboration in 1987, yet again dissatisfied with his level of autonomy, and turned over the museum project to an entity called the Chinati Foundation (separate from the Judd Foundation), but the two Dia pieces are the apex of his artistic career. Planning began around 1979 for one indoor work and one outdoor. The original site for the indoor work was a former wool store in downtown Marfa, but when Judd decided the sculpture would consist of 100 separate aluminum boxes he realized the storefront would be too small. Instead he took over two artillery sheds that were built in 1939, aligned end to end on the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell, a military compound on the southwest outskirts of town where the grid gives way to open scrubland and ribbons of highway. Dia promptly bought the entire property.
The final work is equal parts architecture and art, which might after all be the same thing. Judd ripped out the crumbling garage doors that housed the guns and replaced them with gridded glass windows so that the desert light passed straight through the width of the buildings. Then he added semicircular corrugated steel roofs—imagine a grain silo cut in half lengthwise—doubling the buildings’ height. Sketches for the box sculptures evolved into floor plans. An initial prototype commissioned from a factory in Connecticut was too dark and dull; the artist looked for an aluminum that would shimmer in the sunlight. The installation—formally known as “100 untitled works in mill aluminum”—wasn’t completed until 1986.
The boxes are an evolved form of the ones Judd left in his SoHo loft, multiplied and arranged in a vast grid three rows wide across the sheds’ cement floors, a composition echoed by its gridded cement ceiling. The silhouette of each metal box is the same: 72 inches long by 51 inches wide by 41 inches high, and oriented so that their longer side faces the shorter side of the building they’re in. But each one is different from all of the rest, like so many snowflakes.
Some of the boxes are self-enclosed and impenetrable while others are open so that a breeze would pass through them, if much air moved through the enclosed sheds. The pieces are divided in half vertically or horizontally, or in slices so that gradients of shadow form in their inner absences. Others are bisected diagonally with aluminum sheets like ramps. As I paced the long aisles in silence except for the sounds of my echoing steps, the light bouncing off the metal made it hard to tell what was actually the inside of a form and what was out. Vibrations of the blue sky and the dun desert reflected everywhere.
Each new box configuration created a continuing rhythm, a sense of movement throughout the rooms like the rippling of waves. The sun made the metal seem soft and hazy. At the right angle some boxes disappeared completely, leaving nothing but reflections of the cement floor, the yellowed landscape, and the red-brown brick of the buildings’ front and back walls. Looking out over the grid that spread out around me I felt like I was surrounded by aliens, as if some day, far into the future, the boxes would all come alive and replace us in a world built for them alone.
According to Minimalist principles, we have to fight the need to anthropomorphize or impose a metaphorical meaning on the installation. The boxes do not symbolize anything. They don’t refer to the soldiers now vanished from the Army base, nor do they represent the variations of our bodies, astrological arrangements, or ideal geometric proportions. Rather, the aluminum boxes are just there, empty of content except for the sheer facts of their physical presence, obdurate and silent, explaining nothing and with nothing to explain. They are perfect “specific objects,” the fulfillment of Judd’s 1967 essay. It might sound deathly boring, more math problem than artwork, but wandering through the installation is a constant affirmation of the simple possibility of sensation, all the ways that the human eye can perceive shifts of light and space and the ways that an artist can intentionally shape that perception.
The boxes are beautiful to look at, but the word is not exactly appropriate. I also felt an edge of fear in their midst. Instead of being comforting in the manner of a clean apartment or a bare gallery space, they are instead implacable, aggressive, and intimidating. Their emptiness in all its variety is a suggestion not of absolute control but absolute freedom, an opportunity to confront the world as it stands before you. Minimalism is a reminder of our ultimate autonomy, that the next second is an unforeseeable future in which we might do anything, or anything might happen to us. Being comfortable within that freedom is the challenge that Minimalism poses. Instead of perfection, it can mean an absence of judgement or an acceptance of reality. “Art is no kind of Utopia, because it really exists,” Judd said.
This real existence, however, is not just about art. I found that I kept getting drawn back to the work’s human element, noticing the intrusion of the temporal into the artificial image of a forever present. The industrial aluminum was as polished as a mirror, but the crevices of the boxes collected dead flies and dust; they have to be cleaned once a week by conservators, an endeavor that takes all day. There was also the building itself. Judd could proclaim a kind of post-historical objectivity all he liked, but his structures were still military in origin.
On a few of the walls, scuffed painted signs in German are visible, the way Maoist slogans still remain on some of the old factories that have been refurbished into contemporary art galleries in Beijing. The signs were meant to be read by German prisoners held in Fort D.A. Russell during World War II: “Unauthorized access is forbidden,” they warn. “Better to use your head than lose it.” The signs show how a degree of oppression is inherent in the scale and stature of the architecture itself, something the ahistoricity of the boxes and Judd’s belief in the possibility of a purely aesthetic art bypasses.
I made my pilgrimage to Marfa in 2018 during the height of a particularly controversial moment of the Trump presidency, when public outcry followed reports that border guards (posted only 60 miles away from where I was) were forcibly separating immigrant children from their parents. When I was driving east on the highway on the way to Marfa traffic slowed to a halt as cars passed through a high roofed structure in the distance. It was an immigration checkpoint where police and guards with dogs were checking IDs. As a single white man traveling in a spotless rental car I got waved on without a second glance.
The experience stayed with me as I spent time with Judd’s work. The aggressive geometry of the artillery sheds and the unfeeling shapes of the boxes put me in mind of the tall barriers that mercenary architecture firms were designing to make Trump’s impossible border wall proposal real, as well as the chain-link rooms that the separated children were being caged in. I found that even in the installation simplicity could be a mask, an invitation to overlook certain things and focus on others, putting aesthetics above all else.
Judd’s other Dia-commissioned work is located down a barely marked path through the scrub near the artillery sheds. I went one morning equipped with the requisite hat and heavy sunscreen and walked until I hit an enormous box made of concrete, a rectangular prism of slabs 25 centimeters thick, two-and-a-half meters square on a side by five meters long. The sun was glaring down on top of the box over my head but the interior, left open and empty, looked dark and cool. Its scale was geological, like a boulder deposited there by glaciers, but its proportions were precise and the corners sharp. Extending in the distance running north-south was a line almost a kilometer long of more concrete boxes repeating in various configurations—rows, triangles, and grids—shrinking toward the low horizon.
This was 15 untitled works in concrete, which Judd made from 1980 to 1984. Of course, he didn’t make them, exactly. They were cast in place by workers whose fingerprints, like those of the builders of Stonehenge, are long vanished, leaving them authorless except for the artist, whose name will inevitably fade in time as well. Judd initially had trouble fabricating the concrete boxes; the sides didn’t quite match up or the seams weren’t clean. He had to bring in a specialist from Dallas and eventually fire the company he originally contracted, save one employee who kept overseeing the project. But after the struggle, the boxes are now as much part of the landscape as the rocks or trees. They look eternal.
You have to interact with the concrete boxes with your body. It’s a sweaty process. I walked from one set of boxes to the next, feeling the variations in composition. Another sensory rhythm established itself over time and space. Further down the line, the boxes increase in number and the arrangements become more geometrically complex, like a series of diagrams beamed out intergalactically to demonstrate human intelligence. The 15 of the title describes the number of discrete sets: the unit is the configuration, not the individual box. Four boxes in one gridded set are open on both of their longer sides forming frames for the desert, golden in the morning light. Down the path, a triangle is made by three boxes with one square end open each, the resulting tunnel pointing inward to the center of the triangle like a blocked telescope A kind of narrative in light and shadow, emptiness and solidity, takes shape, with the logic of a higher order but no clear message except that what is there is there.
The world still intruded implacably on the art. The running vines that one Chinati tour guide told me were called stink squash ran along the ground. Animals had left what seemed like nests in some of the boxes, particularly those with a closed side, which needed sweeping out. Large moths attached themselves to the interior walls seeking shade. I stepped over a lot of antelope poop. Without attention from conservators nature will gradually overcome the constructions, but in the desert it will take a while. As climate change intensifies it’s more than conceivable that the boxes will outlast the life around them as the sand accumulates, and will remain as ruins.
After the last set of boxes is a small hill with a path upwards. By climbing it you can get a view of the entire installation that’s impossible while walking through. When I came to the base of the hill, however, there was a family of antelope perched on it. A mother and four calves wandered the ridge of the hill, picking their way through the bushes. The father—I presumed from the aggressive curlicue horns—lay at the base of the hill by the path. He gazed straight at me like he was keeping guard, looking on impassively and imperiously toward Judd’s sculptures. I didn’t go any closer, since I wasn’t sure the animals would actually flee if I did, so I never got to see the whole thing.
The antelope reminded me of an experience Judd recounted in his diary on December 3, 1986, while he was staying at one of his ranches farther out in the desert. He recalled a moment the previous September when the landscape was in bloom from rain. He noticed a jackrabbit hop out of the grass then disappear into the blank spot of a mirage caused by the rippling air. “The desert was spare, as usual, but very green and beautiful. I realized that the land and presumably the rabbits, quail, lizards, and bugs didn’t know that this was beautiful,” he wrote. “The observation is only ours, the same as the lizard’s opinion of the bug. The observation has no relevance, no validity, no objectivity, and so the land was not beautiful—who’s to say. It simply exists.”
This is Minimalism’s most powerful and frightening insight. It has nothing to do with the aesthetic cues associated with small-m minimalism, the consumer products, interior decoration, the curated items of clothing. Minimalist art doesn’t need to look good. It tries to make us understand that the sense of artistic beauty humanity built up over millennia—the varying colors, stories recounted, the representation of bodies human and animal—is also an artificial creation, not an inevitability. Minimalism requires a new definition of beauty, one that centers the fundamental miracle of our moment-to-moment encounter with reality, our sense of being itself. Any attempt at elegance is extraneous. Judd left another note in his diary that winter: “A definition of art finally occurred to me. Art is everything at once.”
Though Donald Judd thought the art world was already too crowded in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s far larger and more influential today. Art galleries are now behemoth shopping malls, the white cubes bigger than museum spaces, proliferating across entire neighborhoods. Auction-house sales net a billion dollars in a night as collectors compete over blue-chip artists, though Judd’s prices have never reached the heights of Warhol, Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst. Art has been commodified at a scale that Judd may have never imagined, and its most successful figures are mainstream celebrities who work with clothing brands and collaborate with pop stars.
Judd couldn’t get far enough away. Over time he got sick of the bustle and gossip of tiny downtown Marfa and focused his efforts on small ranch houses hours into the desert. He participated in local politics, advocating against any borders that infringed on the land. The sense of freedom in his art was reflected in a kind of libertarian socialism: “If you don’t act, someone will decide everything.” He died at the age of 65 in 1994 from a sudden diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the midst of working on projects around the world, including renovating an old hotel in a Swiss village and planning a series of barn-like galleries in Marfa, bigger than ever. His spaces became just as important as the objects he made. “It is my hope that such of my works of art which I own at the time of my death will be preserved where they are installed,” Judd’s will read—the two forms were inextricable.
When lawyers proved themselves ignorant of the art world as well as Don’s wishes, [his children] Rainer and Flavin Judd, who were in their 20s at the time, took over the estate and made a controversial decision. They sold a portion of his work that he had kept for himself at auction in order to fund the preservation of what they thought was most important: the loft at 101 Spring Street and Marfa spaces like The Block. Selling a chunk of an artist’s work at once risks depressing the market by flooding it with supply. When I met Flavin, a sandy-haired filmmaker who spends most of his time managing the Judd Foundation, in the modernized office in the basement of 101 Spring Street, he explained the logic of the sale. It was an anti-commercialization move, in a way: Only the pieces that were installed in the spaces Judd designed truly represented his vision.
“If we install it, it’s kind of a warping of what Don did,” Flavin said. “There are plenty of places that are institutionalized, where the original artist’s touch or intention is not there, and you can feel it. It just feels different; it feels more corporate or something. That’s to be avoided. You’re degrading it no matter what you’re doing.” Without the full context, the light, space, and architecture that the loft or the desert provided, the works weren’t as meaningful. I had to agree; Judd’s work never looks as good as when it’s in his own spaces, part of a total work of art.
Over the decades art itself has become a commercializing force in the wider economy. Richard Florida’s Creative Class theory, circa 2002, made it common knowledge that artists are on the front lines of reviving urban space—a process also known as gentrification. SoHo was the classic example. Judd and so many other artists demonstrated how factory loft living could be cool, giving post-industrial space a veneer of cultural capital.
In 1997 Frank Gehry opened the Bilbao Guggenheim, the famous structure of arcing steel waves that became one of the largest museums in Spain, though the city was small. In the decade that followed, the museum’s instant landmark status, tourism boom, and the artistic community that sprung up around it led to the coinage of the “Bilbao Effect.” It’s “a phenomenon whereby cultural investment plus showy architecture is supposed to equal economic uplift for cities down on their luck,” according to The Guardian.
The tactic has been adopted everywhere from Denver and Athens to Abu Dhabi, Leipzig, and the Japanese island of Naoshima. Each place tries to lure money like bees to flowers by installing an extravagant array of art in equally extravagant surroundings—part art museum, part intentional tourist trap. Marfa has either thrived or suffered under the same theory, depending on your perspective. Kickstarted by Judd, the town is now a hipster oasis. It features in lifestyle photo shoots and literary novels alike. Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 evoked Marfa as the locus of artist residencies, late-night parties, and accidental ketamine ingestion.
While researching there I stayed in an inn that was operated entirely on Airbnb. It was a series of small apartments filled with plastic-y faux-mid century furniture ringed around a gravel courtyard with trees shedding pink petals onto the sidewalk. The inn had opened not so long ago and I suspected I was the only occupant until late in my trip when some neighbors arrived. Elsewhere the few blocks of downtown were dotted with clothing boutiques selling cowboy hats and leather boots; a sleek new hotel with an upscale restaurant and pop-up bookstore; a single Whole Foods-esque market stocked with vegan sandwiches and Topo Chico seltzer, and, of course, rustic-chic coffee shops like Do Your Thing, where I visited almost daily to get the almond-butter toast. Everything shuts down early in the week but by Thursday tourists start trickling in, breaking the companionable silence of the cafe regulars.
The original ranch-town vibes still peek through with goofy food trucks housed in Air Stream trailers and plentiful UFO kitsch, but it’s getting paved over with contemporary minimalism. When I drove out into the surrounding blocks of houses it was easy to spot the newest, largest homes, modernist-style boxes with glass window-walls sealed against the elements. There’s a wine bar in a beautifully renovated old storefront, designed to split the difference between Old-West saloon and Judd architecture. I ate there several times and saw everyone I knew in town doing the same, including Rainer Judd, but it always felt a little strange. Judd hadn’t built all this so you could get a nice homemade pasta dish and a glass of rosé in the desert. The area is beautiful in its own right and might have drawn the Coachella crowd eventually, but Judd is one of the only reasons it’s a destination. These days, though, you can go to Marfa on vacation and not think about him at all. Plenty of people don’t.
Money is flowing in. The Bilbao Effect worked. Bartenders, booksellers, and a fellow freelance journalist all complained to me about rising rent prices in town. When Flavin goes to Marfa, he stays with a friend. “It’s very much as if the Hamptons had been plopped down in the middle of the desert,” he said. “No one can afford to live there except lawyers. Who wants to live in a town full of lawyers? It’s the biggest nightmare ever.”
Not even the distance matters if you can afford your own plane. “It becomes this kind of town of absentee owners who have a superficial interest within the town. It’s just secondary and aesthetic,” Flavin told me. Marfa has suffered the same gentrifying fate as SoHo, where the lofts renovated into glossy sameness now rent for tens of thousands of dollars a month and the ground floors of former factories are occupied by luxury fashion brands more often than not. Few artists, except for those who bought in in the ‘60s, can afford it. Nike recently took over the entirety of a 101 Spring Street-sized building and turned it into a playground for sneaker shoppers.
Art becomes retail surprisingly quickly. On the highway 10 minutes outside of Marfa there’s a single building on the side of the empty stretch of road. It looks like a retail storefront in an outlet mall though it stands totally alone, a symmetrical glass box with a door in the front. The two shades on the windows proclaim Prada. There are lines of luxury bags on the all-white display boxes inside—the minimalist interior design that all the brand’s stores adopted—but the door is always locked. “Prada Marfa” is actually an installation from 2005 by the Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. It’s an Instagram trap. With nothing else around but cows cars pull into the gravel lot or across the road so travelers can hop out to take selfies. The piece mocks the transformation of modernism and then Minimalism into aspirational commodities; it’s the endpoint of the circuit from Philip Johnson’s Glass House. But I still overheard tourists referring to it as an actual store that they wanted to go to—“Do you know what time it opens?”
There’s a Bilbao Effect for aesthetics, too. Artists rush out into some unclaimed territory, in this case the appreciation of pre-made industrial materials and conspicuous emptiness, the single object on a blank wall. As the aesthetic percolates first the early adopters and then more mainstream audiences realize that they like it, too. Soon enough brands and business are cashing in on the consumers and it becomes hard to tell that a style ever seemed off-putting or challenging to begin with. It’s hard to escape popular taste in the long run, no matter how radical you think you are.
From The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, by Kyle Chayka. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing in January 2020. Copyright ©Kyle Chayka, 2020.
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