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Permanent Space

Donald Judd's Architecture in Marfa

“People tend to think of my father primarily as an artist, but he was also an architect. These two aspects of his practice are part of one whole — they are both about our relationship to space. How we see, and where we stand.” The question of where we stand is political, moral, and personal. But it comes down to the basic fact of the earth under our feet. I am standing with Rainer Judd on the concrete floor of the Judd Foundation’s offices in Marfa, West Texas. And we are standing in the Chihuahuan Desert. And all around us, is space.

Space was what Donald Judd found when he moved from New York City to Marfa in the early 1970s. Space suspended between the wide streets of the small Texan town, with its flat faced stores and wedding cake courthouse. Space, which rolled across the scrub of the desert, and brushed the edge of the bowl blue sky.

“He came here because he wanted his works to be installed as he intended,” explains Rainer. “He felt that the galleries and institutions in New York and elsewhere didn’t pay enough attention to the relationship of an artwork to the surrounding space; he wanted to be able to site his works with a degree of permanence, within buildings calibrated to his sense of proportion. As trustees of the Judd Foundation, it’s the role of my brother Flavin and I to preserve those works, and the architecture which contains them.”

Since her father’s death in 1994, when she was just 23, a part of Rainer’s life has been dedicated to working with her brother, and many others, to manage his legacy and the structure of the Foundation’s operations. This includes the maintenance of 101 Spring Street in New York, and 21 buildings in Marfa. They are currently working on the early stages of the restoration of the Architecture Office — the first in a series of long-term preservation projects for the Foundation. Rainer splits her time between the East Coast and West Texas, and keeps her work for the Judd Foundation strictly separate from her creative life. Here, she is no longer an auteur, but a steward, examining chipped paintwork, and hauling adobe bricks.

“Don was different from most architects. He trained as an engineer, and never felt the need to acquire an architect’s licence — that’s why you’ll see the inscription ‘Clarence Judd Architecture’ above the door of the bank building where he based his architecture practice. Clarence, his grandfather, didn’t have a licence — he was a carpenter who built wooden houses.” Rainer pauses for a moment, casting an eye over the vast interiors of the Foundation’s offices, which formerly served as the town’s mail sorting office. “Don never had the opportunity to construct a building from start to finish. He intended to work with what was here, to ‘make-do’.”

This idea of ‘making do’, Rainer explains, isn’t one of resignation; it’s a matter of making good of what is already good. Judd saw the potential in preexisting structures: the artillery sheds where he displayed his mill aluminium works; and the former military hangars he made as his home; the grocery store which he used as a studio; and the former bank building with its ornate portico and mural of placid cattle.

Rather than staking his claim on pristine land, Judd focussed on making subtle interventions which revealed the space each building contained. “It’s worth remembering that Don grew up during the Depression,” says Rainer. “He was born in Missouri on his grandmother’s farm, and spent most of his summers there. The importance of preserving things, appreciating labour, and not being wasteful are values that stayed with him throughout his life. Somebody spent time building that adobe brick wall — on a sunny day, or a rainy day, or in a snowstorm — so let’s do something with it. Let’s make do.”

That capacity to make do — to activate — is immediately apparent on entering the courtyard of La Mansana de Chinati, also known as The Block, where Judd lived with Rainer and Flavin. Located on a dusty street between the railroad and the feed mill, the former military hangars are unprepossessing, but the attention to proportion is palpable; it vibrates through the air, as though the visitor has hit a taut string. To the right of the courtyard are the buildings which house Judd’s library of over 13,000 books; to the left are buildings for art, and sleeping, and eating. The water of the pool, raised like a drinking trough or a tomb, is stone still.

The Block was an ongoing project. Over the years, Judd gradually cut into the space, adjusting the symmetry between the buildings, and constructing an interior wall as a line for the eye. When I suggest that not everyone would be able to see the potential in a block of military prefabs, Rainer disagrees. “I’m not trying to grant Don a greater level of genius. We can — we should — all know a good building when we see it. Don simply knew that there was greatness in the ordinary. We spent a lot of time in Europe when we were young, and when he took us to Rome, we went to the Pantheon almost every day. But other times we drove around small towns in Missouri, checking out the old barns and hardware stores. He showed us that a cathedral in the south of France wasn’t so different from a Midwest barn in terms of harmonic scale and proportion.”

Judd’s buildings in Marfa can sometimes feel like a museum of ‘specific objects’, frozen in time as a monument to one man. “But galleries and museums are so cold,” Rainer adds, “and the spaces Don created, the spaces we lived in, are warm. I get flashes of it when I go to The Block alone. The warmth returns. He planted a row of plum trees for me — they’re in blossom now. There was always a garden, always kids around, always animals. At least one dog, sometimes three. At one time there was a pig, and an inordinate number of cats. There was a luxury to the rhythm of the place — no starkness, no austerity. But in Texas, of course, the sun has its own luxury.”

I ask her how visitors respond when they tour The Block. “I’m often asked: ‘Where’s the house?’ The answer is: all of it. It’s all living and working space, the library, the courtyard, the studios. In the summer, the windows were always open, there was always a breeze flowing through the kitchen. And in the winter, yes, it was cold, but after dinner we’d sit by the fire, and that was my time to wonder, to ask questions. ‘Why is the word salt so dull, when the same word in Italian — sale — is so beautiful?’.” The question hangs in the air, unanswered. “Don seemed to get a lot out of talking to us. He was very excited by children’s minds, because they had so much logic and curiosity to them.”

Luxury and logic: the words clash, then coalesce, and make a new sort of sense. It’s suddenly clear why Judd’s aesthetic is anything but minimal. “Don disliked being called a minimalist,” Rainer explains. “How could he be a minimalist if he was adding space, shaping it through proportion, light, and colour? Yes, there’s a poetry to his work — those small moments of elevation — but they’re in no way detached from the real world. His work animates, and clarifies, and sharpens our surroundings; he helps us see what already exists.”

On a desk in the Architecture Studio is a neat stack of files documenting prospective projects for spaces that were never brought into being. And on the outskirts of the town, at the Chinati Foundation, are Judd’s unfinished concrete buildings. For Judd, his architectural interventions at The Block indicated principles which could be ‘amplified in planning new neighbourhoods and cities.’ In emphasising proportion, re-use, preservation, and attention to history, he sought an antidote to what he saw as the falsity and pastiche of a ‘fake society’ — though he was, of course, referring to the postmodernism of the 1980s and 1990s, long before the ironies of IRL.

“I think we’re in the last phase of the disposable society mentality,” says Rainer. “One last sprint of wild behaviour, indulgence, and waste.” Reading Judd’s writings, one suspects he would have despaired of the way we live today. But he was also someone who knew that presence is shaped by absence, and that, once again, the two are part of a whole. “There’s respite to be found in the spaces he made in Marfa. Here, you can cry and laugh, and it’s all the same thing. The thing about Don was, he was such a human — he had joy, and humour, and deep grief.” She stands; enough has been said. “So much of creation is responding to a loss we can’t comprehend. Something happens, something you can never make sense of. And, over time, you make something with that loss.”

juddfoundation.org

Permanent Space
Permanent Space
Permanent Space
Permanent Space
Permanent Space
Permanent Space

Further reading