Judd and Smithson in West Texas

by Susan Noyes Platt


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According to lore, the landscape around Marfa impressed Judd when he passed through on the bus in 1946. He was traveling from army training in Alabama to California en route to Korea. Probably equally important to his later career is the fact that as an engineer in the army he built walls and prefabricated houses for a year as part of the US occupying force at the end of World War II.

Perhaps when the movie Giant came out in 1956, just as he was launching a career as a painter, he was reminded of that earlier experience. The landscape in Giant is part of the story, the vast expanse of open plains was filmed around Marfa, although the actual King ranch that the movie was based on is in Southeast Texas along the Rio Grande.

The main characteristic of Marfa, from the perspective of Southwest Texas is that it is typical Chihuahua desert environment, although much grazed over in the last hundred years by cattle. It has none of the enveloping spectacular geology of the Rio Grande valley, Big Bend to the South, or the Davis Mountains just to the North.

Judd returned to West Texas in 1971 with a philosophy degree, an art history degree, a didactic attitude on the appropriate installation of art, and a well- established reputation for stacks of boxes made in metal and other materials. He lived in the "Quartermaster's House" and the airplane hangars for bi-planes of the Marfa Army Air Field which patrolled the US Border from the time of the Mexican Revolution until the late 1930s. He surrounded these buildings with a high adobe wall which he claimed as one of his art works and dubbed the complex "the Block". The wall is made with cement mortar between the adobe bricks, rather than the traditional technique of mud based mortar. Since cement is harder than the adobe, it makes a messy framework as the adobe erodes, which Judd apparently admired, but which seems amazingly out of character for a man of relentlessly disciplined art work.

With a contract of support for his projects from the Dia foundation from 1978 to 1984 Judd purchased an entire army base, Fort D.A. Russell which included barracks, gymnasium, and artillery sheds ( former German POW quarters) as well as about twelve other buildings and houses in downtown Marfa. Judd became by far the dominant landlord in this small town which today is 70% Hispanic. He also bought three ranches overlooking the Rio Grande totaling 45,000 acres, land that was also once held by Hispanic ranchers, but stolen from them by Anglos around the time of the Mexican Revolution.

Judd's earliest permanent installation installed 1979-84 was a series of fifteen groups of three to six concrete boxes on the perimeter of his property. They sit on the land very much like the repetitive geometry of the derelict industrial feed bins, train cars and storage tanks that are scattered all over West Texas. The concrete configurations are inert, changed by light, slight cracks of moisture, and varying configurations of open and closed sides. Behind them is a flimsy line of trees, apparently Judd's only foray into changing the character of the landscape. These boxes inevitably call to mind his work on prefabricated housing in Korea.

Inside the artillery buildings used for German POWs during World War II, Judd's one hundred aluminum boxes reflect the sun. The solid sides seem to disappear and reappear amid a mirror house of reflections. The light softens the inherent rigidity and demanding order, but the military precision of the identical proportions and scale is still apparent. In the second building, Judd has scrupulously saved (and it would appear re-painted) German language instructions to the German prisoners held there during World War II "Unauthorized persons are forbidden to trespass./ It is better to use your head than lose it." Judd was caustic in his condemnation of traditional art exhibition practices and chose this site in order to have control of the way his work was displayed in perpetuity. The German slogans felt like chilling commands to me, and I am certain that Judd intended them that way.

The compound now contains entire buildings with installations by Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, and a display of poems by Carl Andre. Outside installations by Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg and Cosssje van Bruggen, and downtown another building devoted to John Chamberlain's sculpture. While Judd's lavish aluminum boxes, seductively altered by light, trumps all the other artists, the concept he realized was a series of permanent installations by his favorite artists. The result is a museum of late 1960s art which consciously links itself to the earlier eras of classical modernism such as the Bauhaus and the early Russian avant-garde, with all the politics stripped away. Both his museum spaces, now run by the Chinati Foundation and his personal spaces, are consciously integrated down to the tiniest detail according to his austere modernist aesthetic including elementally uncomfortable geometric wooden furniture designed by the artist.

To those participating in the self referential art world Judd's modernism defines Marfa, but check the web and ironically more sites are devoted to the mystery of the Marfa lights and the ruins of Riata (from Giant) than to Judd. But more powerful than those competing pop cultural aspects is the sense of Judd's work as a continuation of the military implant that arrived in this part of Texas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as part of the Indian wars and Mexican Revolution. It is only a recent arrival in a long series of cultures that have marked this land. Judd collected artifacts from some of these cultures - a collection of arrowheads, massive turquoise jewelry, Navaho rugs, moccasins, ancient Mimbres pots. But the question remains, how much did he actually engage with the land and its history. His home was the quartermasters headquarters, expanded with new buildings in perfect military precision, creating an exactly symmetrical layout. He owned a 1969 Land Rover, but he never had a horse or a cow, in spite of his three ranches. Apparently his plan was to return the land to its "natural" state, although in that part of Texas, the natural is very quickly a field of prickly pear cactuses, not the original grasslands of earlier eras.

Horse riding Apaches and Comanches came through this land, and after that Hispanic farmers and gringo cattlemen. Much earlier there were other nativetribes, more peaceful pueblo peoples.. Coronado bypassed this part of Texas. Perhaps Judd was honoring these histories in his native collections. Perhaps.

But the military theme is everywhere, the forcing away of accident in order to prevail with authoritarian austerity. His own works framed and defined his entire large living spaces, other than a small work by his chosen friends, Stella, Flavin and one tiny red wriggly snake in plaster by Yayoi Kusama from 1962.

The military history was all about subduing the other, Judd follows on that history, his alpha male friends, all seem to join in a new taming of the West. Only a short way from here the last of the Mescalero Apaches were defeated by the Buffalo Soldiers after the Civil War. The "never free" defeating the "always free" as the label at Guadalupe National Park stated.

"The Block" is about Judd enshrined, the ordered books, the ordered tables and chairs, hats and beds, the slippers even. But it all seems so puritanical and narcissistic. It is a cloister of old fashioned white male high modernist elitism, in the midst of a hardscrabble impoverished West Texas Hispanic town. It has spiked real estate and motel values (one of the cheap local motels has gone minimalist and high dollar recently) but on the ground reality remains - the border patrol has a large headquarters not far from the Chinati Foundation, the name given to Judd's non-profit contemporary art museum.

Robert Smithson's Amarillo Ramp in the Texas panhandle, left unfinished in 1973, is slightly earlier that Judd's work in Marfa. Smithson was one of Judd's inspirations for moving his work out of New York. The Spiral Jetty was completed in 1970 and by 1973 Smithson was deeply involved in plans for industrial reclamation projects, most recently working with a strip mining company in Denver. The Amarillo Ramp was a sudden casual event, a quick invitation to visit Stanley and Wendy Marsh on a ranch in Amarillo, a quick sketch on a napkin in a bar, and an interest in an ecologically simple irrigation system.( 1) CoplansNorthwest Texas also has a history of extensive settlement by early native tribes along the Canadian River just to the Northeast of Amarillo (excavations and a reconstruction of unique pueblo and kiva designs are preserved in the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas). Coronado came through here in the sixteenth century, but left quickly, not finding the gold he wanted. The wanton slaughter of the buffaloes as part of the slaughter of the Southern Plains Indians drenched the land with blood in the 1870s.

By the end of the 19th century reservation land was opened for purchase.

Wendy Marsh's grandfather William H. Bush bought the land in 1881, right after the railroad came to town. The Marshes understated house is still in the same location as his original stone house and reuses some of those stones; it feels like the lived in family home that it is, in contrast to Judd's stark spaces. The well-fed cattle are still companions to anyone going to view the ramp, 21st century cowboys mind them and an old windmill pumps water. The big change is that Amarillo as a city has grown out to the ranch borders, so you no longer feel you are in a remote wilderness.

The Amarillo Ramp is almost invisible and getting more invisible all the time. It sits in what is now a field, the lake it was intended to define has long since disappeared with the collapse of the dam that formed it. It has lost part of its arc, so that today it is only a fraction of what it was when first conceived with a 150 foot diameter. The scar in the land from its construction (completed by Nancy Holt and Richard Serra after his death) is overgrown with desert mesquite and yucca. Smithson's idea that entropy is a primary theme of life is here fulfilled, as his piece gradually disintegrates into the earth. It is so understated now that you wouldn't even know it was there, its small hill blends with other long, low hills in the land, left over from the old lake levees. Recently, the Marshes reduced the vegetation on the top of the ramp, removing some large trees and a few weeds, perhaps in homage to the Smithson retrospective in Dallas this winter. The result is that the shape is clearly emerging if you know where to look.

The 1973 Artforum photographs of the Ramp, in a dried up cracked waterless red mud lake were taken when the work was first completed. Serra and Holt cut the dike and drained all the water in order to find Smithson's stakes which had already disappeared underwater. The piece was photographed in a lake, about a year later. Today the work seems much gentler, more like another archeological site that has a story to tell if you know about it. It is poignant to think that the Ramp is where Smithson died (along with one of Stanley Marsh's best friends), his spirit is part of the earth here in the tradition of native Americans who buried their dead in their homes. Although his body is not here, you can still feel the reverberations (and see the indentation in the earth) of that sudden crash so many years ago.

The Amarillo Ramp is a dramatic contrast to Judd's Marfa, which is such a highly controlled monument to the artist. Smithson's appreciation of geologic forces and history, as well as his use of local materials, allows a more open interpretation. Granted, he shoved the land around quite a bit in order to create his work, but he knew it was all going to disappear, that his activities were futile on the scale of geological time. Not far from Amarillo Ramp, the Palo Duro Canyon opens up in the earth, with astonishing red, yellow and pinkish rocks that formed ninety million years ago. It is like a fantastic vision, that reveals the ancient geologic strata hidden under the flat prairie. The Amarillo Ramp is disappearing as part of those same forces of nature. Because of Smithson's death at the site, he himself is also part of the land's history, particularly its tradition of violent deaths that goes back 10,000 years and includes the Red River Wars in Palo Duro, the battles that subdued the last of the Plains Indians.

Given the many layers of history and occupation in West Texas land, it is not so surprising that two well known modernist artists from the East Coast provide significant layers of that history. But in another hundred years, the Smithson Ramp will be invisible and Judd's boxes, both indoors and outside, will probably be just weathered. Yet, Judd's boxes will never escape their association with military occupation, while Smithson is already intimately joined to the land and itshistory. In that difference lies the paradigm shift from modernism and the idea of heroic individualism to acceptance that unavoidable and accelerating disintegration marks our current world.

[About the author: Susan Noyes Platt is an art historian and critic in Seattle.]