The Ideal Museum

Mikael Levin, Arena, 2006

An art settlement in the Texas Desert

We had already been hearing, in bits and pieces, about Donald Judd’s project and dream to found an “art colony” in Marfa, in the dry, southwestern corner of Texas. One or two people had visited him there in recent years and told of the plains, the mountains, the open sky in which small, block vultures circle, and the dry grass. It was something unbelievable, even though we know that distances and a huge scale mean nothing to Americans, and perhaps that is why it was nonetheless astounding to see there, on October 12th, sculptures by Judd and John Chamberlain, prints by Barnett Newman and Josef Albers, and beautiful, dark drawings by Robert Tiemann, an artist from San Antonio. Other installations which were foreseen, like those of Dan Flavin and Claes Oldenburg, will not be ready until later.
I myself had first heard of the endeavor in 1978, during a long conversation with Judd about a possible exhibition of his work at the Van Abbemuseum.  He reacted with distrust and even aversion to that proposal, a response which I had not expected. But he could explain precisely why he had so little desire to exhibit his work. It was unnatural to the artworks, he said, and certainly unnatural to sculpture, to continually haul them around, to and from exhibitions. At that point he wasn’t even referring yet to the practical problems and circumstances, the stupid damages which come about through the incompetent handling of works (by people other than the ones who made them)—although those things were already bad enough and surely, in themselves, were sufficient reason to not want to take part in the never-ending exhibition circuit.
What was actually much worse was to constantly have to follow your own work around, exhibition after exhibition, to then see it badly placed in often inappropriate spaces, in a cluttered, unclear environment, often in bad light. For an artist this could be on extraordinarily painful experience because, in making a work, you have a kind of ideal space and placement in mind, an optimal installation which, in turn, plays a role in the articulation of the work; that ideal, however, rarely or never corresponded to the reality which the international museum circuit could offer. You couldn’t do everything yourself. Installing art well demands a lot of time, but you couldn’t take so much time away from your work and spend it on an exhibition which would only last six weeks. Nor could you really hand it over to others to do so.


So our conversation in 1978 went on for a while. I refused to accept that these were, once and for all, the conditions of twentieth-century culture, in which works of art had become mobile and that the perfect, stable kinds of places of other centuries, such as the churches, were no longer accessible to avant-garde art because art itself, in fact, had changed, had become experimental and thus had come to possess a movement and nervosity of its own. In the twentieth century, museums became the “place” for art but the question is, of course, whether museums have been able to fulfill this task, or this pretension.
Judd didn’t think so. It didn’t make sense either, he thought, to try to improve museums or to make reforms, because by this time they had formed their own ritualistic practices, their own passionless specialism, and the people who work in them had developed their own form of pigheadedness. Of course as an artist you have something to do with them once in a while, just as you also have something to do with art dealers because you have to sell your work. But the fact that the inflated museum and gallery circuit has now, since the war, become normal does not mean that it is good. Artists, said Judd, cannot continue to permit their work to be put in situations which do harm to it; for this reason they themselves must create the circumstances in which their work can be seen according to their own norms and wishes. In the churches of Rome, you can still see how Bernini pictured the optimal placement of his statues. The artists of today must also, under their own conditions, make their norms visible so that a fixed standard arises—somewhat in the way that the platinum meter in Paris establishes the measure once and for all.
Then he told me about Marfa. He had first seen this area in 1946, as a soldier on the way from Alabama to California where he was to be shipped to Korea, and from that time on was unable to forget it, that hard, clear landscape which in itself is already a sculpture. Later, in the 1960s, when he became an artist he began to come back to the southwest, at first not to Texas but to Baja California and Arizona. He liked the empty, bare land—and in the meantime he began to find New York, where he lived, increasingly offensive. There a kind of fashionable and speculative art industry was beginning to take shape, one in which the stable value of art meant less and less, a situation, thus, which did not agree with him. In 1968 he had bought a large, five-story building in New York where he lived but also began to install his works and those of others according to his own judgments; gradually the wish to also make a settlement in the southwest became stronger.

Big Bend

He studied maps and remembered that the southwest of Texas was still open and unoccupied, much more so than Arizona, for example. In November 1971 he flew to El Paso, along the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico there, and drove to the area which, ecologically and according to natural history, constitutes part of the vast Chihuahuan desert. (Before the conquest this territory, which spans northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, was called Chichimeca.) Big Bend is a triangular point which is formed by an enormous bend in the Rio Grande. The northern part of it is mountainous desertland and toward the western part lie stretches of plateau, overgrown with dry grass and bushes; here the first ranches were set up as recently as the second half of the last century—and later the first towns, along the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad which was built to transport livestock to the slaughterhouses. There are virtually no trees.

Before this time the area had been more or less uninhabited. The Spanish called it the “despoblado,” the depopulated land; after a few disastrous expeditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they had seen enough. In the nineteenth century, when the Americans began to push westward, killing off buffalo and Indians to make room for themselves, it became a hiding place for the Comanches and Apaches, before and after their raids on farms and villages in the north of Mexico. They were the only ones who could survive, among the coyotes and cougars, in this desolate territory. The Mexican army built several forts along the Rio Grande in order to supervise the “Great Comanche War Trail,” but that didn’t help much. When it became evident after the discovery of gold in California in 1849, that the Big Bend was the shortest route from the south of the United States to the new El Dorado, the gold-seekers who passed through there found the area to be just as treacherous as it had always been.

But in the meantime Texas had been declared an independent republic in 1836; in 1845 Texas was incorporated into the Union of American States. This meant that the expansion and colonization could now be undertaken seriously and with better organization. Several major roads were built, and in 1845 the military camp Fort Davis was established along the northern edge of the Big Bend, where the cavalry began to “pacify” the Indians. This went on for quite some time; the last of the legendary chiefs of the apache tribe, Antonio, wasn’t murdered until 1880. A short forty kilometers south of Fort Davis (which is now a National Historic Site), the small town of Marfa was founded in the 1880s, the precise date being a subject of discussion, along the Southern Pacific Railway line. The name is that of a heroine from a Russian novel which made a deep impression on the wife of one of the railway’s executives. When Judd rented a small house, as an initial base, it was still a prosperous cattle town with plenty of open space, situated on an austere plain with purple and brown mountains on the surrounding horizon. Nowadays the town is famed for its golf course, the highest one in West Texas, and for the fact that the celebrated film Giant, with James Dean, was shot in the area. It has approximately 2,500 inhabitants and developed around the intersection of two major roads; the railroad runs parallel to one of the roads. There are a few stores, a courthouse, a jail, an old hotel in the Wild West style, several motels, a water tower, some bars and Mexican restaurants, and a feed-processing plant.

Army Camp

When Judd told me about Marfa in 1978, he was involved with the Dia Art Foundation in purchasing the land and buildings of an army camp, Fort D.A. Russell, which was abandoned by the army in 1946 after it had still served for a while as a camp for German prisoners of war. By that time he himself had already become quite settled in Marfa. In 1975 he had established himself as a resident there. He had acquired a block between Highway 90 and the railroad, along which two large hangers stood, once as a part of the army air corps base, and a smaller house. Around the entire area he built an adobe wall. Inside the hangers a studio and a library were built, as well as spaces where he installed a number of his own works with great care. For these re-buildings, he was his own architect and this is how the spaces came about which, with respect to proportion and light, correlate with the strict form of his work down to the smallest details.

From the standpoint of this situation, Judd had little desire to waste time on an exhibition in Eindhoven (although this did, nevertheless, take place in 1979.) His thoughts and his attention were focused on Marfa, Texas—on Fort Russell and an enormous warehouse in the center of town which was also acquired and would come to house about thirty works by John Chamberlain. In the sheds and barracks of Fort Russell and on the surrounding land where yellow antelopes now graze among the concrete sculptures, Judd would become the regisseur—and that exciting prospect made it difficult for him to become very interested in ten small rooms in a small museum in The Netherlands which, moreover, could only offer him six weeks of shelter due to the fact that afterwards, in accordance with the rhythm of museums, the next exhibition had to be installed.


After the Eindhoven exhibition, Judd left for Marfa where he began to spend more and more time, working on the architecture for the reconstruction of Fort Russell. He designed windows, floors, dividing walls, and, incidentally, beautiful wood furniture. The work proceeded slowly and was interrupted several years ago by a fundamental dispute with the Dia Art Foundation. The happy result of this was that the titles to the land, buildings, and artworks were transferred to a new foundation set up by Judd himself, the Chinati Foundation/La Fundación Chinati. The opening of the art settlement took place October 10, 1987; the objective, which is just as simple as it is clear, was described on the invitation card as follows: “The uniqueness of the Marfa installation lies not only in its size and scale, but more importantly, in the fact that here, art is found ‘in context’ with its surrounding architectural spaces and in a natural setting, rather than isolated in a museum-like anthology. Finally, Chinati represents the tenet that the installation and exhibition of work should, after all, be controlled by the creator—the artist—the practitioner—who otherwise often loses control of his own activity. In addition to the works of Chamberlain, Flavin and Judd, Chinati plans to install major works of other artists, as well as provide a print studio, an art and architecture library, and an overall atmosphere conducive to the creation and exhibition of art as an essential part of life.”

One of the visitors remarked that the installation of the sculptures, in those incredibly clear spaces and in that enormous landscape, had a kind of ruthless quality. Perhaps this is indeed the correct and precise word. He was speaking in particular about a group of 100 aluminum sculptures by Judd himself which, in long rows side by side, were divided between two large storage sheds. The walls of the sheds were replaced on both sides by large, square windows so that the space which enclosed the sculptures would, at the same time, remain open. By ruthless I mean to say that in placing sculpture and in thinking about it, Judd stops at nothing; not a single compromise was permitted by him, of the museological practice of variation and balance, it could be no other way. And because Judd began to work so uncompromisingly, he indisputably and clearly brought a defect of museums to light. I cannot describe this defect as anything other than a lack of courage at the right moment. Maybe one cannot even blame museums, for through the democratic–humanistic education culture they have been dragged in a different direction than the one in which art might have been able to take museums, if that had been possible. Now an artist has created one of these ideal museums himself—far from the inhabited world, as it is called; probably it was only possible there, where land and buildings are still affordable. In any case, while I was there, I was overcome by a feeling of intense longing that defines the absolute quality of the Chinati Foundation: it is the sort of thing which I would also like to be doing, if necessary, for the rest of my life: simply placing works (the best that are now being made) and knowing that they will always remain there. This respect, this concern for permanence has, I believe, something to do with the essence of works of art—that they emerge from a specific time and also display the characteristics of that time, in form and style and use of material, but at the same time pass through it or bring that time along with them in still memory into an endless future.


I am a defender of museums; with the exception of Judd, I don’t have the uncompromising arguments from artists to condemn the museum business as being short-sighted, irrelevant and incompetent; I cannot pass judgment on those arguments, and for that matter, I think that Judd also knows better, that without the concern of museums over the last hundred years, much more would have disappeared than is now already the case. But I was experiencing that terrible longing in Marfa, coupled with a reluctance, which was difficult to repress, toward the museum. This occurred because I was able, in that lonely place, to see and experience that the artworks had freed themselves from the cultural and artistic competition which the art business of the big city has excessively started to control in the last decade. Perhaps the nature of the modern exhibition is the expression of competition.

I am a defender of museums but I am no longer, and after the visit to Marfa even less, a defender of the exhibition business. That is certainly because I have made so many of them, in numerous different places—while I know that I will also have to keep on making them. But everything which I’ve done has already disappeared. That realization intensifies my restlessness. After Marfa I am positive that it is time to rescue museums from their excess of exhibitions—because they will otherwise lose their identity in artistic speculation. Judd is right when he implies that the temporary exhibition is an ephemeral moment which can do no real justice to an artwork’s need for permanence.

The exhibition in a commercial gallery is somewhat different; there the work of art must be shown for as short a time as possible because it then has to be sold. This activity is inseparably bound with the production of art. The museum, however, carries with it the idea of permanence and shelter, the museum is something like a safe harbor, but it is precisely from this point that the work of art is going steadily adrift. It flies back and forth from one exhibition to another where the viewers catch, at best, a glimpse of it—because time is also a factor in looking at art, the actual length of time spent looking. Three years ago I installed a number of works at the Castello di Rivoli near Turin. Many of these have already had to be dismantled; a few, however, have remained in their places, works by Beuys and Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Lothar Baumgarten, and James Lee Byars. I know for certain that I’ve come to know these works better than any others—and that I’ve come to know them in all of their innumerable aspects precisely because they remained fixed in their places. In Rivoli I learned that what I thought before was not true, that you only come to know different aspects of a work when you keep on seeing it in a different environment and under different lighting. This is also what makes Judd react and where his fundamental “disobedience” toward the apparently superficial art system is of inestimable importance.


But dissatisfaction with how his work and that of his colleagues appeared in public, in museum collections and in exhibitions is only a part of Judd’s motivation. The Chinati Foundation is not simply a reaction to a situation but, above all, an act of autonomous will and conviction which ultimately stands apart from his criticism of museums and from what he calls the art bureaucracy. This is actually a result of the choice of location, which not only is a practical one but also an idealistic one, perhaps even a sentimental one.

Two days after the opening in Marfa, Judd took us to his ranch in the mountains, fifty kilometers to the southwest, in the direction of the Rio Grande. Getting there was already an experience in itself. Just outside of Marfa the road began to climb; to the left and right were rolling hills, here and there by a water hole, a small herd of cattle. On the horizon lay a dark blue Mount Chinati. The land was barren and became increasingly more so. After thirty kilometers the paved road ended and a rocky path led us into the mountains. Here the landscape became harder and almost sinister in its desolateness. But the ranch itself, a small house twenty kilometers further on, lay in a small valley, overgrown with thorn bushes and cacti which looked almost charming there.

From the ranch we later drove a few kilometers further to the round, iron water tank situated on the highest point of the rolling plateau and from which we were able to survey the thirty square kilometers of Judd’s land. Further in the distance were the red mountains of Mexico, close to the bare, brown slopes of Mount Chinati, which lay partly on his land. Judd looked around, but not like a landowner or a proprietor. He doesn’t do anything with the land. He rented it to a neighbor who lets cattle graze on it. He considered planting five olive trees. The way in which he looks at the land is rather moving: it is the place where he is on his own, where his dream of individual freedom has come true. Here the state, bureaucracy, and the art world are far away—and anyone who makes art here does it only for the sake of art. This is his own, independent republic—even more so than the block in Marfa, though this resembles a small castle.

A day later we visited Fort Davis, where the cavalry camp is restored and on view. Above the enormous marching field waved the Stars and Stripes. “The wrong flag,” muttered Judd, and he told me that Texas should really secede from the United States and proclaim itself a second republic; and then the southwest should secede from Texas. The world would best be made up of nothing but small countries, he said, like Switzerland and The Netherlands—then all of those stupid power problems wouldn’t exist. The Chinati Foundation is an expression of that invincible American individualism, of the inalienable right to individual freedom; and his disobedience toward the art business in the big city is the civil disobedience which Thoreau wrote about: the right of an individual to refuse to reconcile himself to injustice—or the right, even the duty, of an artist to resist the erosion of art.