Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Art in West Texas

Spent last week driving through West Texas with one of my oldest and dearest friends. We flew into Austin, then drove 7 hours due west to Marfa, a small town that boasts both the “Marfa Lights” (UFOs) and a huge installation of artwork by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and John Chamberlain, among others.

Judd’s and Flavin’s pieces are minimal and meticulous. Flavin’s spare but vivid fluorescent light environments are housed in a series of six former military barracks. Donald Judd designed and installed a large number of antiseptically clean, rectangular aluminum boxes into two huge artillery sheds. All of the boxes have the same outer dimensions, with variations of inserted planes and open sides.

With most sculpture, the setting is the frame within which one perceives the work. In this case, not so much. There was a nearly complete lack of interaction between the art installations inside the buildings and the landscape surrounding them. The buildings that housed the art could have been anywhere—say, in upstate New York or urban Seattle or southwestern Ohio. The grand and glorious desert landscape did not matter, for the most part. Judd did have some concrete boxes out in a field, but the scale was wrong (too small) and they seemed plonked down somewhat randomly, without any clear rationale or apparent sensitivity to how they were placed in that space.

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The Texas desert is spectacular. Huge sky, clouds moving constantly, and a landscape of muted color: sage, sand, dark browns and greens. Small deer. Coyotes. Cows. Sheep. Goats. Horses. Llamas. Vultures. Turkeys. Sun. Rain. Stars. And lots of open space. It's a landscape on a gigantic scale which made me feel small and rather inconsequential. Not so for Donald Judd, or so it seems.

* * *

One of the aluminum boxes in the artillery shed created a frame for the desert, but the others did little but reflect each other. It seemed very odd to me that the artist chose largely not to interact with and respond to the beautiful land and sky.

I came away thinking that Donald Judd’s ego was significantly larger than his vision.


lucyfree said...

I love your photography and your comments. Didn't even know you were out in West Texas. When I was first introduced to Midland-Odessa, they said it was "where dust goes to die." Spoken in a West Texas accent it sounded like the truth. They showed us their 'tree' which was a large shrub all by itself!

Kathleen Dames said...

I didn't understand the phrase "Big Sky Country" until I spent a summer at Rice University. The sky in Texas is bigger, even in Houston.