On a recent trip to Marfa, Texas we took a tour of the Chinati Foundation’s permanent exhibit of Donald Judd’s untitled works in milled aluminum. Judd installed the project in 1978-1979 in what has been called, depending on the source, artillery sheds, airplane hangars, and what our tour guide termed work centers for “Germans.” We later learned that the facility housed German soldiers captured during World War II. We see Judd’s artistic vision was modernist (indeed minimalist) at a couple of levels. First, the permanent installation of milled aluminum pieces and concrete structures do engage universal notions of finding order and symmetry in life and art. Second, the artistic vision derives from an avante-garde notion of the artist and his work standing beyond history, even though inspired by his own artistic impulses.
Indeed, Judd’s motivation was to create permanence in art, and his need to create a “unified aesthetic entity of works and space,” that would be in a place in perpetuity, determined his vision (see http://www.chinati.org/pdf/making2works.pdf). The milled aluminum structures are impressive. The precision of the cubes shatters the roughness of the shed yet seem to frame the landscape through their optical variance.
Our tour of the grounds was both enlightening and frustrating, particularly the elision of the heavy militarization of the Marfa area historically and the site of Judd’s work more specifically. Clearly , the vision of Donald Judd and the Chinati Foundation is not to engage the context of the art in a town, Marfa, and a site, Camp Marfa later Fort D.A. Russell whose primary role was military. In the early twentieth century, Camp Marfa housed a cavalry batallion to guard against the “spread” of the Mexican Revolution into Texas. Later it housed chemical batallions, Women Army Corps, and an army airbase. During WWII, the facility was a large prisoner of war camp for captured Germans.
Modernist art is indeed known for flattening–and even erasing–history. We do not think Judd’s art itself needs to take this history into account. However, during the tours of the facility, in order to fully appreciate the impact of Judd’s work on the landscape and buildings, this history should be taken into fuller account. Indeed, when entering the facility one has to pass a border patrol station and throughout Marfa buses from Wackenhut are evident. (Wackenhut is the bus company that DHS contracted to transport undocumented immigrants to detention centers.) We even had coffee in Marfa with a truck driver transporting pylons for border wall construction. The history of detention in Marfa continues. We can appreciate Judd’s work and understand the history of detaining and transporting “enemy aliens” in West Texas.