For all the times I’ve visited Chinati over the last nine years (including three months living beside one of the artillery sheds), I can think of two instances in particular where the work changed me. The first was the first time I visited in March of ’96. I was 26 years old and fresh out of a miserable winter in a miserable apartment in New York’s East Village. A dark, ground-floor railroad on an air shaft, it was a touch wider than my bed. On good days, it felt like a ship’s quarters, and on bad days (and there were a number that winter) it felt like the trash-compactor room in Star Wars, with the walls about to crush me between them.
I mention all this because when I left for far West Texas at the end of March to visit a friend who was a ranger in Big Bend National Park, space and light were very much on my mind. The land and sky did its work though, and after a week of reviving myself in that vast prehistoric landscape—camping, hiking, driving, floating through it—I headed to Marfa on my way back to Midland. I didn’t know Judd or his work then, and while it’s almost impossible to conceive of now (what with the Times running a piece every few months on the place), nobody I knew had heard of Marfa either. But it all sounded interesting and like a possible article, so I wrote ahead and planned to go look around.
I dallied on the way, arriving a day late, because I wondered what art could offer me compared to the land. Driving from the south on Highway 90 in the mid-afternoon, the first thing I saw were the concrete boxes in the field and then the Quonset roofs of the artillery sheds. Interesting, I thought, and wondered if I would respond to the work in more than just an intellectual way. Not long after I found myself entering the first shed and seeing the aluminum boxes—each one the same size but different—and looking up to see the yellowed grasses, the concrete boxes, the hovering purple mountains, the amazing sky with its cumulus clouds. I looked back at the boxes, carefully configured, carefully aligned, and I thought, Wow, now I get it. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it.
All I knew about Judd’s work before I got there was what I’d seen at the Guggenheim’s Minimalist exhibition in February, where somewhere on the lower floors, one of Judd’s verti- cal aluminum stacks was tucked into a corner of a room crammed with other art. In that context, the work struck me as hard-headed and hardhearted, at best mathematical, at worst mean-spirited. It had nothing to do with my experience of the world. But then I saw the aluminum boxes— “in dialogue with the landscape,” as Judd so aptly put it—and I was struck by the generosity of the work. I understood Judd was saying something intelligent and wise, and that that wisdom and intelligence was an entirely nonverbal thing: it can only be experienced visually. Words, Judd’s included, can only illustrate or explicate what his work does; only the work itself conveys its vision fully. Everything else is secondhand knowledge.
For me, for whom words had always been everything, this was a major shift in understanding, and opened up a whole different way of experiencing the physical world around me, not to mention abstract or conceptual art. Prior to this moment, a lack of narrative (and even the thinnest narrative would do) was baffling to me. I liked ideas to hang their hats on characters and plots. I never knew what to do with art that I couldn’t make a story out of. But when I saw the boxes, I didn’t just see them, the objects, I experienced the height of the buildings, the space all through them, and then the land and sky outside. Somehow the repetition of the same-size boxes, slightly altered, had a kind of incantatory quality. And the random order of things outside the sheds seemed clarified by the inspired order within them.
When I returned to New York, architecture, city planning, and large sculptures had a kind of resonance they never had before. Things that I knew of only as buildings, streets, trees, and cars, became forms, and the distance between them space. I had a whole new way of seeing. As I read Judd’s writings, I realized how infuriated he would have been at the exhibiting of his piece (without space) at the Guggenheim.
I returned to Marfa that summer, having convinced the local newspaper’s editor and publisher, Robert Halpern, to take me on as a reporter, and I stayed in the old print studio at Chinati, where my back door opened on to the second artillery shed. I saw the boxes blazing in the early orange light of dawn; melting in the stark, harsh light of midday; softened in the mellow sunset light; and like water in the cool moonlight. Living beside them, my sensitivity to space and light and form couldn’t help but deepen.
Inevitably too, living at Chinati, Judd himself became a kind of character in my mind. He had only died a little over two years before, “at the height of his powers” as Roberta Smith put it, and his absence was palpable in those early days. At group dinners at the Arena, most people around the table had known him as employer or friend (or some combination of the two). The large Mexican earthenware bowls, the glasses, and cutlery we used had all been chosen by him. People told stories of him, his largerthan- life genius and irascibility. Late in the summer, when I was writing a piece for Metropolis magazine on Judd, I visited his private dwellings and was struck by how all-encompassing and wide-ranging his vision was. The bank stands out: He’d removed the drop ceilings, left the existing mural of cattle, installed a Biedermeier desk and chairs, and hung a painting by Albers. I looked at Judd’s early work—his paintings slowly becoming three-dimensional and the plywood pieces. There was a bed in every space, a pair of Japanese slippers beside one. I loved the Japanese bath at La Mansana and the purple-leaved plum trees planted for his daughter along the adobe wall in the gravel, the “Navajo room” and a Yayoi Kusama dress draped over a chair. His love of folk art was evident, as was his deep need for privacy. I was way past the initial impression of austerity, and deep into the gruff humanity.
In 1998, almost two years later, I returned for the Art and Architecture symposium and to report an article on Chinati’s progress for Art in America. During that visit, I asked Rob Weiner, by then a dear friend, to give me a guided tour as if I were new to it all. He knows the collection better than most people, and I wanted to hear again how pieces came to exist at Chinati: how Kabakov was reminded of his childhood on the Ukrainian steppes; how Oldenburg was taken with the story of the last horse at the army base; how Carl Andre wanted his poetry on display. When we left the office heading down the path between the former barracks, it was a typical sunny, West Texas spring day, with a bit of weather off in the Chinati mountains, more than fifty miles away, but by the time we dashed into the small building with Roni Horn’s graduated copper cylinders, the gray clouds were on top of us and had let loose a torrential rain with lightning and thunder cracking all around us. We waited for a break in the weather, but it only got worse, and so we dashed for the temporary exhibitions building through blowing sheets of water, glad we were in rubber-soled shoes. The sky was so dark it was hard to see the key in the lock.
Then we stepped into the building where I saw John Wesley’s work for the first time. I think it must have been the exhilaration of the rainstorm combined with the sheer surprise of the work, but when I looked around and saw Dagwood and the Japanese ladies, the Greek diner women and the frogs and shark, I laughed and laughed. Naughty, playful, beautiful, and filled with the pale blues that were now missing outside, the work filled me with joy.
Here, in Marfa of all places, this work! This vision side by side with Judd’s, not at all randomly, but because Judd and Wesley were good friends. I had experienced levity in Judd’s work, and flickers of humor in his vision. But this kind of whimsy mixed with clean, formal beauty and occasionally a kind of inexplicable melancholy, this was another thing altogether. The work was moving in its own right, but also meaningful in this context, illuminating another aspect of Judd’s sensibility.
Having seen Wesley’s work since then at his retrospective at P.S.1 and at the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery in NYC, I think there’s something deceptively simple about those crisp lines and limited palettes of just two or three colors at a time. Familiar or almost-familiar characters and images are repeated (like the boxes): the three Japanese ladies, all the same face under a floating wave/cloud of black hair, the frogs, and the bare legs in high heels (at the Reykjavik bus stop). And like the boxes, rather than a kind of leaden quality, the repetition seems to simultaneously clarify and make the image more mysterious (the Japanese ladies’ mask of indeterminate emotion). Each repetition looks a shade different than the one beside it and lends some kind of insight, like hearing the same word sung at three different registers. The images that Wesley repeats don’t feel repetitive. This is, I believe, because the space between the images is also important. It was Rob who said to me that Jack and Don shared an interest in the space between things, and that phrase has stayed with me.
In Wesley’s painting, when Jack Frost nips at another man’s nose (a man who looks remarkably like Jack Frost), the mouth curves around the nose, and just a little bit of blue background is visible between nipping mouth and nipped-at nose. The Japanese ladies’ lovely black hair melds into a solid (and ethereal) black entity over their identical faces of black bow lips and pale blue clad shoulders. In the running-man painting and the frogs and shark, the form of space (yes!) between images repeats, and in that repetition of space, it is as vibrant as the objects themselves. Background isn’t the same as foreground but it has equal importance, and this phenomenon of space and form existing in balance and playful tension tweaks your vision while making you laugh. Laugh at what, I always wonder when I find myself smiling at yet another Wesley painting. A wry, wise, silly look at the world combined at times with a tinge of sadness and at other times with an exhilaration. His notice and admiration of things odd and cheerful (as in Aviator’s Daughters with their collection of biplanes around them) and randily mischievous too—exactly where is that lady’s finger going, as the curve of her rump stretches up?
Later, when I met Wesley, he told me one of the things he loved about Marfa was “the stillness of it. I was impressed by the pickups going by so slowly, at 25 or 30 miles an hour, the one-finger wave.” It seemed apt given the dynamic stillness of his paintings, which calmly speak of a million possible moments that might have occurred before and after this moment presented so clearly here.
What do you call work that is forthright and gentle at the same time? There’s a sage kindliness to Wesley’s work. He seems to be saying, Isn’t it silly to be human? Isn’t it lovely and strange and sexy and animalistic? And isn’t it nice that we have art to talk about these things? I love Wesley’s titles, too, which are sometimes straightforward and oftentimes playful, titles where he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously and yet adds another layer to his work: Al Capone Flouting the Law, Slowly Ascending Camel, Dancing Frogs and Waiting Shark, or simply Sorry. That camel tilted at an angle—in sexy stockings and a garter belt, no less—he’s “ascending.” Of course he is! But is he going up a dune, or is he trying to get to a so-called higher state of being now that he’s really dressed for it? Or maybe Wesley is just having a little fun with us the viewer, not laughing at us, so much as offering a light-hearted alternative to what we think is going on. Maybe that camel just looked better at an angle in that space.
It was a revelation to think of these two artists as longtime friends and admirers of one another’s work, to know that Judd got Wesley’s work, that he supported it by writing about it and inviting Wesley to come work for extended periods in Marfa, which he did twice. Judd also hung an exhibition of Wesley’s work in Marfa in 1990. (Wesley told me that the poster for the show in the post office just went missing one day—a line drawing of a naked lady with a brown bear resting his paws on her. “Collected or censored?” he mused good-naturedly.)
I like to think of Judd and Wesley together in Marfa, riding around in Judd’s truck with Judd’s German shepherd, Rifle. Wesley told me that Rifle didn’t like tall strangers, but one day the dog leapt into the passenger side only to end up in Wesley’s lap, where he couldn’t do anything to Wesley. On the ride to Alpine, Wesley pulled foxtail thorns from the dog’s paw and they were friendly from then on. It sounds like a Wesley painting.
The rainstorm that day when I saw Wesley’s work for the first time passed as quickly as it arrived, gone by the time I’d looked at all the paintings, and leaving the landscape shiny and dripping outside—a few felled branches, the fields touched green, the silvery dusk light rippling through the last of the clouds. The West Texas weather once again had had its way with us, drenching us to the skin, and we walked leisurely toward the sheds, usually the first stop on a tour, but last this time. We passed on the way the decrepit building where the Wesley Gallery would one day be, not far from the sheds but with a good space between them, an arrangement that even then seemed so evidently right.
Daphne Beal lives and works in New York. Her writing has been featured in The Believer, Vogue, and McSweeney’s.
Chinati’seducational and public programming is supported with generous grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, The Brown Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, George and Mary Josephine Hamman Foundation, The Hearst Foundations, Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation, City of Marfa, Permian Basin Area Foundation, Rosenthal Family Foundation, Warren Skaaren Charitable Trust, Tillapaugh Public History Fund of Permian Basin Area Foundation, and Susan Vaughan Foundation.