Standing on Art (and Principle)

Standing on Art, Carl Andre
Standing on Carl Andre, copper squares

Located on 340 acres in Marfa, Texas, the Chinati Foundation is a contemporary art museum housed in the buildings of a former military compound. It was founded by artist Donald Judd with the intention of preserving and presenting large-scale installations, with an emphasis on linking art and its surrounding landscape.

The Chinati Foundation is impressive on a number of levels—not the least of which is its ability to draw artists, students, and tourists to this remote West Texas location for a glimpse of its famed collection. Its current accounting of artists includes Carl Andre, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, Richard Long, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley.

Reclining on John Chamberlain
Reclining on John Chamberlain, Marfa Barge.

“Be mindful of the dust,” our tour guide told us as we entered the next exhibit at the Chinati Foundation complex.

The building we were about to enter, called School No. 6, was created by artist Ilya Kabakov to look like an abandoned schoolhouse from the Soviet Union. Everything in the building, we were told, is part of the exhibit—the plaster, the peeling paint, the papers strewn about the floor and, yes, even the dust.

Pieces of stories were scattered everywhere—a child’s art supplies, an old drawing, a forgotten violin. I was fascinated; it felt like walking into a giant Joseph Cornell assemblage, the words and images and found objects presenting a detailed narration of these unknown characters.

“How long did it take the artist to create this?” I asked, in that wide-eyed-curious way one gets when one sees something new and exciting.

“About three or four months, but most of that was by fax and phone,” explained the tour guide.

Fax and phone?” I asked, almost amused.

“Yes, he called down instructions for how to build this and where to put that.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I nodded, with a half-befuddled, half-sarcastic smirk.

It was the same nod I gave later, when he explained that the Carl Andre installation Zinc Ribbon arrived in a wound coil, and was arranged artistically on the floor by the curator.

And it was the same nod I gave while walking through two buildings filled with identical aluminum boxes that were attributed to artist Donald Judd, but fabricated by The Lippincott Company in Connecticut.

It wasn’t until our group of 20 beamed with approving interest at Richard Long’s Sea Lava Circles that I had my ah-ha! moment. These giant circles of rocks were placed here not by the artist, but by Donald Judd himself.

“Oooh, Ahhh,” the group signaled their admiration.

“THE EMPEROR IS NAKED!” I wanted to yell, “…and those are just rocks!”

“Those are just rocks. That’s just a coil of metal. And it’s just dust!”

Apparently, that is exactly the point.

According to a Wikipedia reference, “Judd believed that art should not represent anything, that it should unequivocally stand on its own and simply exist.”

If the art just exists—a circle of rocks, a coil of metal, some decorative dust—then it doesn’t matter WHO puts it there, does it?

“It’s about the thought,” my art historian sister reminded me a few days later.

“Mmm-hmm.” I was nodding again.

“After all,” Judd once said, “the work isn’t the point; the piece is.”

OK, so I tend to be a little smirky about contemporary art in the first place. But now you tell me it’s OK for the artist to not even SHOW UP for the creation part of his own creating? All he has to do is THINK it?

With apologies to Plato and Socrates, thinking is not art.

If thinking was art, with my busy brain…I’d be Picasso!

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for “art for art’s sake,” and out-of-the-box thinking. I don’t mind a red dot painted in the middle of a white canvas, or a reproduction of canned soup posing as a masterpiece. I don’t even mind rows and rows of identical aluminum boxes, but you have to do more than THINK it…don’t you think?

Sleeping on Judd
Sleeping on Judd, furniture.

• • •

The Chinati Foundation
(the unbiased version)


100 untitled works in mill aluminum, Donald Judd



Carl Andre, sculpture

Carl Andre, copper squares

School No. 6, view, Ilya Kabakov

School No. 6, view, Ilya Kabakov

Sea Lava Circles, Richard Long

The Arena, Donald Judd

• • •

Photos ©2010, Jen Payne

4 thoughts on “Standing on Art (and Principle)

Add yours

  1. Your pictures of the art work are absolutely beautiful. Keeping with the theme, did you have DeLinda click the pictures after you thought up the view???? :-)

    1. Actually, these aren’t my photos OR DeLinda’s. Someone else took them. Then another person edited them in Photoshop to make them look better. But I put my name on them because I was there and thinking about photos at the time.

  2. i think i like school no. 6 best – it reminds me of a couple of shows i watched this past year about Chernobyl – the abandoned buildings there tell a sad story about displaced lives and technology gone wrong – that’s what this installation looks like to me, only without the radiation – the animals and flora & fauna are making a comeback there but the people are all gone – nice POV about the implications of modern art and the artist’s responsibility to make it themselves! thanks, jen (there are those little shoes again – they do get around!)

    1. It WAS a fascinating installation, and the detail was incredible. It did have that post-disaster feel to it – and the location added to that sense. Even the building – which rattled and creaked when the wind blew – felt like part of the art. There are some more photos online, here:

      (Oh, the little shoes again. Yes. Yes. My Merrells. LOVE them!!)

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