Two friends and I drove from Los Angeles to see the spectacle of Marfa, an isolated epicenter of the alternative art world. The attraction to visit was spurned by artist Donald Judd, who moved there in the 1970s to promote his concept of permanent installation. Judd was a unique type of art collector, as he solely amassed art that exemplified his artistic ethos and installed it to live forever in the spaces he created.
My friends and I arrived in Marfa after many hours of driving through an arid landscape hugged by purple mountains. It was a Sunday evening in late October and many gallery spaces were closed, the streets were empty. We reached town in time to see an outdoor installation that seemed random, yet perfectly curated to fit the chosen environment. Judd’s 15 untitled works in concrete are massive rectangular structures arranged in groups, which seemed to simultaneously frame and block the landscape. The works were scattered for a half mile or so, each one playing with the simple rectangular form in a different way. It was the perfect introduction to Marfa, as the nature of these works seemed to speak to the ethos of Judd himself.
Donald Judd (b.1928 – d.1994) started his career as an art critic and painter, after studying philosophy and art history at Columbia University and Arts Students League. He wrote extensively on the importance of art, land preservation, and later on permanent installation. In 1968, Judd purchased his first space dedicated to permanent installation at 101 Spring Street in New York City. In 1973, he expanded his practice to Marfa, after searching for the perfect isolated southwest town. He spent the rest of his life there, expanding his collection and establishing first the Chinati Foundation and later, the Judd Foundation. The centerpiece of his life in Marfa was“The Block,” Judd’s private compound, which is maintained by the Judd Foundation.
On a rainy Monday morning, we toured the Block, crossing through the tall adobe wall that hides the property containing living quarters, exhibition space, studios, and two libraries. The interior spaces had been left exactly as they were before Judd’s death in 1994: simple, neat, and beautifully crafted.
Judd believed that thinking and feeling are intrinsically connected, which was clearly demonstrated by the presence of beds in every showroom, library, and work space — there was no distinction from where he lived and where he worked. Similarly, the guide explained, Judd liked to surround himself with his own works, as to learn and grow from his previous projects. Judd lived his life with his collection– a Dan Flavin piece hung in the library wall, and on the shelf, a small Yayoi Kusama sculpture.
Permanent installation was a radical approach to the display of artworks, an idea spearheaded by Donald Judd and Philippa de Menil, who together founded the Dia Foundation in 1974. Judd’s interest in permanent installation stemmed from his hatred of American museums, which he described as poorly designed and stingy in their collection of postwar art. In his 1985 essay Marfa, Texas, Judd writes, “the main purpose of the place in Marfa is the serious and permanent installation of art. I insist on this because nothing existing now, despite the growth of activity in museums and so-called public art, is sufficiently close to the interests of the best art.” A cynic and a purist, Judd envisioned and created his own exhibition spaces, natural and inviting, in which his collection stayed forever.
Although Judd wasn’t a typical collector, he was consistent in his approach to collection and curation of the works of his friends and fellow artists. Judd’s art collection will live forever where it currently resides, permanently installed in lonely Marfa.