For those who’ve taken a shine to minimalist art and design, any mention of Donald Judd and the lonesome Texan town of Marfa will likely ring a big, bawling bell. If you’ve not yet met this maestro of form and the place he hewed around it, it’s a fascinating story. Judd was born in 1928 in Excelsior Springs, Missouri and finished off in New York in 1994. In the time between, he emerged as a landmark figure of post-war art. He’s celebrated for his hollow, rectilinear forms as well as the town that he reshaped to be their permanent home. Judd’s work remains inextricably linked with its environment, as the key material of his oeuvre is space itself. Judd’s art recasts ‘real space’, allowing us to see the invisible and grasp this force that suffuses our lives.
Judd started off as an art critic before his curiosity spilled over into creating works of his own. He made prints that explored space, splicing and dicing it in an attempt to comprehend its nature. He then stepped into sculpture, designing what he termed ‘objects’ which he had produced in commercial materials like aluminium, plexiglass, and plywood. This approach effectively divorced the artist from the process of physically making the work, which marked a pivotal shift for Conceptual artists. It was a move which championed the notion that ideas can exist as art, separately from any physical manifestation. Thankfully, though, Judd’s ideas were cast into forms, which hold and communicate his inner explorations for all the world to contemplate, even as time marches on without him around.
Judd’s objects serve to illuminate this element within which we are all inevitably, invariably immersed: space. He encapsulates space with other materials, like copper and concrete. On other occasions, he changes the composition of what was once open space, casting it in coloured acrylic so as to highlight its presence. His wall-mounted objects seem to measure space by occupying it with intermittent, shelf-like signposts. In doing so, he inculcated space itself into his work as a perceivable material.
Notwithstanding Judd’s pioneering creations, it isn’t until he steps away from his home at 101 Spring Street in New York’s Soho that we can truly grasp the importance of space in his life and work. In 1973 the artist relocated to Marfa, Texas, population: 2,647. The town sits sixty miles east of the United States – Mexico border, with the Chinati mountains presiding over its modest smattering of structures. Judd purchased a large block of buildings, La Mansana de Chinati, which left him with two large hangars to renovate. Having settled in quite nicely, he proceeded to buy several more buildings in Marfa, including a grocery store, a bank, and even a ranch in the mountains. These would become the footholds for his new, contemplative expression of art.
In Judd’s words, “the space surrounding my work is crucial to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself”. He inspired others to take the same approach, like duo, Elmgreen & Dragset in their site-specific 2005 installation of Prada Marfa, which draws intrigue almost entirely from context and contrast. This desert town was perfect for Judd’s ardent pursuit of unity between art and environment. He created his pieces from and in space, and Marfa was by no means short on great swathes of the material. His work comes alive in the open air of this Texan expanse, where it remains today under the stewardship of the Chinati Foundation. This was a very intentional and non-negotiable point, which Judd expands on, noting that the foundation’s purpose is “to preserve my work and that of others and to preserve this work in spaces I consider appropriate for it. This effort has been a concern second only to the invention of my work”.
It seems clear that Judd was inspired by sparsity and the space that it gave him to create – or rather, for inspiration to come to him. He lived and worked in a place which gave him exactly that, designing within it built environments that were very sparsely decorated, with great, echoing expanses left unoccupied. These are the conditions that were necessary for him to coexist with his work and develop his ideas. His art both utilised and created space, defining it and drawing attention to it as a material force in the world. So, naturally he was interested in how one lives within the fabric of space – how we interact with it and how it influences us, our ideas, and our actions.
Out of equal parts necessity and interest, Judd became involved in architecture and design. He felt that these old buildings of his “should be repaired and basically not changed”, fitting them with glass to facilitate a dialogue between interior and exterior spaces but maintaining their fundamental structures.
For lack of good options in Marfa, Judd began designing his own furniture as well. He built desks for his children, then realising they would need chairs, too. He drew a line between his artistic and design practices, positing, “the configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture. The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which must be functional”.
Despite Judd’s delineation between his art objects and furniture pieces, there are traces of his characteristic geometricity and exploration of space in both spheres of work. For example, when his Chair 84 meets his dining table, these distinct pieces merge into one block, closing space within it. The sheer backs of the chairs form the outer walls, hinging on the table’s legs and capped off by its top. When the chairs are pulled back again, space is re-opened, becoming accessible, usable, and visible.
Judd’s work has fused with the environment of Marfa, producing a complete piece of art and a creative mentality that knows no bounds. His impact on the place, and its influence on him, collided to create conditions for other artists to make expansive works of art that inspire countless visitors as the years roll on. Judd even commissioned works from artists he felt would contribute to the uniquely bewitching quality of the place. And so, this small, dusty Texan town becomes a beacon of creative exploration, a point of pilgrimage for art afficionados, and a haven for those of us who’ve known the inspirational, nourishing quality of wide-open space. Judd’s work holds that space, capturing fragments of it so that we may examine this elusive force and contemplate the quiet power it presents.
Text by Annabel Colterjohn