Dear Friends and Readers,
“Every individual or national degeneration is immediately revealed by a directly proportional degradation in language.”
– Joseph de Maistre
“Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”
– Lauren Bon
“Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved away.”
– Donald Judd
On my recent trip to Marfa, Texas I was reminded of my first travels to Italy in 1987. I was profoundly moved by seeing works of art in the flesh, especially those in the site-specific contexts of apses or chapels. And I was thrilled to commune with their physical and material presences that were inseparable from the auras endowed by the artists who made them. Be it Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, Piero’s The Resurrection at the Museo Civico di Sansepolcro, or Fra Angelico’s scenes from the life of Christ at San Marco in Florence, one takes for granted that older art was primarily based on commissions, with the result that its content was largely prescribed and restricted by patrons. Modern art, particularly since the middle of the 19th century in Paris, the collapse of the patronage system, the final surrender of academic art, and the rise of Impressionism, freed artists to determine the content and form of their work through their free associations and personalities. This mode of individuality and freedom of choice amplified the concept of authorship while magnifying the activities of an artist’s daily life. Our culture as a domain of self-development and free communication was beginning to take shape.
Since Marfa, I have felt a renewed interest in Allan Kaprow’s 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” which explored the insistent blurring of boundaries between art and life that was the genesis of “happenings,” “performances,” and “land art,” and also advocated for replacing traditional craftsmanship and materials with new thinking that incorporated household and industrial materials such as food, water, neon, steel, and Plexiglas.However, I see now that I had only intellectually understood the progression from Kaprow’s perspective to Rosalind Krauss’s in her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” (I’ve similarly understood the emotive power of Pollock’s drip paintings which, as an example, opened endless possibilities—while also absolutely requiring thorough meditations on how to utilize new materials, procedures, and processes, rather than meditations on how to emulate the mere physiognomy of the images.)
It wasn’t until this trip that I finally understood Donald Judd’s compelling vision. The phenomenology of my experience—my body in space and time, the seen objects in relation to their conducive surroundings—enabled me to appreciate Judd’s rare commitment to the philosophy of self-cultivation and self-reliance originally conceived by Thoreau and Emerson and further solidified by James and Dewey among other philosophers.
There are two forms of urban provincialism: one from big-city citizens that pay no attention whatsoever to elsewhere, and one from smaller city citizens that are indifferent or even hostile to the activities that originate from big cities. Neither of these opposing views seems to have crept into Judd’s perspective. He chose to remove himself from the urban completely, and shares Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, and James Turrell’s commitment to site-specificity (all in American landscapes) for the permanent display of his work. Heizer proclaimed, “If you want to see the Pietà, you go to Italy. To see the Great Wall, you go to China. My work isn’t conceptual art, it’s sculpture. You just have to go [to Nevada to] see it.” But Judd’s vision is singular. He didn’t create his work or deploy interventions out of the landscape, he saw the potential of what was already there: manmade objects and found buildings, through which he tore holes to bring in light (so many windows, so few bulbs). He used industrial materials, as did Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin, to explicitly remove traces of the artist’s hand. Marfa is complemented by John Chamberlain’s alternative use of similar ideas, Richard Long’s use of natural materials, and Ilya Kabakov’s site-specific work School No. 6, reminiscent of an abandoned schoolhouse from the former Soviet Union, among many other examples. Chinati is otherwise an attempt to emphasize the beautiful contrasts between them.
Judd also built a new community, attracted big-city citizens who integrated with small town Texans, and added a boost to what had been a depressed economy. Betsy Baker said of her visits to Marfa in the ’80s that Judd hosted nightly dinners that everyone attended. In his living quarters, working studios, and throughout, the simple symmetry of Shaker aesthetics and the Index of American Design are integrated with everyday functionality. Neither nostalgic nor regressive, Judd’s vision was—and is—a heroic attempt to infuse life, beauty, and nature with art, activism, and might.
P.S. This issue is dedicated to our dear, recently deceased friends Dore Ashton and John Berger, whose works had immense impacts on our social, political and intellectual lives. We’d also like to send our best wishes to our other dear friends Thomas Nozkowski, Gerry O’Kane, and Scott Lynn in their steady recoveries to full health.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.