ART SEPTEMBER 24, 2001
Donald Judd had his share of staunch supporters. But you are likely to meet with skeptical responses if you announce that you are captivated by his magnum opus, a composition consisting of one hundred aluminum boxes that is the linchpin of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Chinati is where the sculptor made a permanent home for the frequently large-scale work that interested him and some of the contemporary artists whom he admired. It has an eccentric, off-the-beaten-track kind of grandeur that rubs some people the wrong way. The austere forms that Judd (who died in 1994) arranged in and around a former army base in the beautifully hardscrabble landscape of western Texas, three hours southeast of El Paso, can be regarded as a symptom of the man's grumpy megalomania, which was underscored by the stern indictments that he wrote about what he saw as the art world's many sins. And yet I cannot think of a place where megalomania has quite the sparkling artistic logic that it has at Marfa. Arranged in two huge, glass-sided buildings, Judd's aluminum boxes--which repeat the same basic outer dimensions but are each absolutely distinct, with their variously open or closed sides and bisected and divided interiors and floating elements--compose a saga in which formal variations take on a narrative power. You are pulled deep into one man's idea of visual utopia.
Part of the magic of Chinati, as Judd knew, comes straight out of the parched Southwestern landscape, which is probably the only area of the United States where art, architecture, and landscape form an ancient, abiding unity. While Judd was one of those blunt, no-nonsense American aesthetes who would never admit to having a mystical bone in their bodies, he surely saw in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get clarity of the Southwest's light and space and color a place that cut through life's surface nonsense. What drew Judd to Marfa was not entirely different from what had drawn D.H. Lawrence and Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe to Taos, which is some four hundred fifty miles north along the Rio Grande. They were looking for a place to cultivate big ideas--about man's relation to art and nature and culture--that they believed the wide world would not understand, and they saw in the Southwest, where echoes of old civilizations sat so easily amid the deserts and the mesas and the mountains, a place to marshal their forces and set to work. The light of the Southwest animates Judd's mill aluminum surfaces, turning them inky dark in the shadows and sometimes almost transparent-feeling in the light, giving these impassive abstract forms a naturalistic dazzle.
The Southwest was becoming a kind of cliche when Judd arrived in the early 1970s, though it was not yet anything like the sand-and-pumpkin-colored parody of Santa Fe style that would take hold a few years later.Mabel Dodge Luhan's house in Taos, where Lawrence and Hartley and O'Keeffe visited, was owned in the 1970s by Dennis Hopper, and he helped turn Taos into an outpost for Tinseltown's "tune in, turn on, drop out" crowd. But whoever comes to the Southwest becomes a part of its story. The landscape and light and art and architecture of the region still have so strong an impact that when Dave Hickey, the quirky essayist whose takin'-it-all-in-stride style has made him an art school hero, was asked to organize SITE Santa Fe's Fourth International Biennial this summer, he explained that it "would have to be different from a show I would do elsewhere because Santa Fe has the peculiarity of being an extremely cosmopolitan town devoted to fantasies of the local." Hickey, who is probably more in tune with Hopper's Southwest than with Lawrence's, has come up with an interesting if somewhat opaque formulation. And I am reminded that Judd once wrote an essay called "Local History," a rejection of grand, sweeping art historical visions, which leads me to wonder if the Chinati Foundation might not have the character of an extremely local experience devoted to fantasies of the cosmopolitan.
Hickey, a man of proudly eclectic tastes, is in most respects the complete opposite of Judd, who seemed to believe that at the core of art there was always a static singularity. Yet both Judd's Chinati Foundation and Hickey's Santa Fe Biennial--which he has called "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," and which is up until January 2002--are efforts to find an alternative to the bland, corporatized character of the big city museums and the gargantuan international art shows such as Documenta in Germany and the Venice Biennale (the organizers of which, never inclined to think small, have this summer offered as their unifying theme "Plateau of Humankind"). Judd frequently complained that in museums his work--and that of artists whom he admired such as John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Ilya Kabakov--was so jumbled together with other stuff that it lost its singularity, its weight. Hickey, in the many interviews that he has given around the occasion of "Beau Monde," complains of the impoverishment of the international shows. He is certainly not mistaken when he refers to those shows as almost bionic, and describes the Whitney Biennial in one of his essays as an "uncannily lifelike blockbuster."
IN MARFA AND SANTA FE, Judd and Hickey have offered an alternative to art world practices that they found static and counterintuitive. Judd conceived of Chinati as a place where he could not only permanently present his own work, but also act in a curatorial role, providing spaces for work that he admired. A vast installation by Dan Flavin, first discussed in 1979, opened last fall. There is a beautifully designed building devoted to John Chamberlain's sculpture. Ilya Kabakov has contributed an installation called School No. 6. Set up in one of the abandoned barracks at Marfa, Kabakov's work seems a perfectly accurate reconstruction of an abandoned Soviet grammar school, with its dusty books and its faded displays. A visitor experiences not the illusions of art but the accidents of life, and yet the accidents are so deftly sustained that Kabakov achieves a curious art, closer to mimicry than to mimesis. Meanwhile, at "Beau Monde," Hickey acts not quite as an artist but certainly as an auteur, using clever juxtapositions and a mix of known and lesser-known artists in an elaborately designed space to give everything a personal stamp, so that this becomes the Dave Hickey Show.
Judd and Hickey are too widely known to be regarded as marginal figures, but they are certainly dissatisfied with other people's mainstream ideas. At "Beau Monde," where dissent from the mainstream seems to involve bright colors and uproarious patterning, visitors may be reminded of earlier ballyhooed defections from the supposed severity of standard-issue taste, especially some that occurred in the 1970s under the banners of the Pattern and Decoration movement and Bay Area Funk. There are many people who will question Judd's dissident credentials, remembering that he and many of the artists whom he admired in the 1970s were already going into the history books, where they were described as the gang that had broken with Abstract Expressionist emotionalism. But Judd, who never cared for the Minimalist label, had a more complex and personal idea about what had happened to art in the early 1960s, when he was beginning to exhibit.
Judd saw the principles of wholeness and specificity and repetition that interested him as reflected not only in his own pared-down imagery, but also in the almost baroquely complex canvas reliefs of Lee Bontecou and in the comic figurative paintings of John Wesley, for which a permanent gallery is planned at Chinati. The art that Judd liked can seem quirkier and more eccentric than you might at first expect. He had a sense of humor, which is reflected in the inclusion at Chinati of Wesley's paintings, with their pneumatic showgirls, and in the giant sculpture of a horseshoe by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. As for Hickey, despite his fondness for funky more-is-more imagery, he also has a taste for pared-down images, including paintings by Ellsworth Kelly and Jo Baer and sculpture by James Lee Byars.
HELL-BENT INDEPENDENCE has been a part of the mythology of the West for so long that by now the very idea can have a waxworks artificiality. Judd and Hickey, in their very different ways, put some sparks under the Marlboro Man idea, and while each of them brings a cosmopolitan person's tough-mindedness to Western myths, they are both to some degree native sons and proud of it. These men are deft, appealing writers, and they weave their early Western adventures into their writing. Judd's criticism, which is mostly out of print, has a bracing clarity, but in his laconic way he is a true romantic. In an essay about how he came to move to Marfa, Judd recalled that he "lived in Dallas for two years as a child and knew, as everyone did, that the West, which is the Southwest there, began beyond Fort Worth. The land was pretty empty, defined only by the names in the stories about Texas by J. Frank Dobie, as the names in the Icelandic sagas substitute in that country for the monuments that don't exist." That metaphor is certainly designed to give Texas a wild grandeur. From Hickey we learn that his father was a jazz musician and that the family lived and had some happy, wayward times in Texas and California. Hickey remembers dressing like his dad, in "jazz-dude apparel:penny loafers, khakis, and Hawaiian shirts with the tails out," and going off to a jam session in a suburban house, where blacks and whites mixed and where the piano player, a woman, was a German-Jewish refugee.
Both Hickey, who is sixty-two, and Judd, who was sixty-five when he died, came of age in the late 1950s and seem to be animated by the same take-it-as-it-comes spirit as Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Robert Frank's photographs in The Americans (which included an introduction by Kerouac). "My dad was cool and poetic," Hickey writes. "And my mom was … serious, high-strung, and fiercely ironic, like Joan Crawford, always bustling around: painting bad paintings in the back bedroom and reading books while she cooked dinner (setting the occasional paperback aflame)." In Hickey's account, this is all part of the life that is lived outside the big northern cities, and it turns out to have a strange improvisational richness, as Hickey spent his "childhood in the cacophonous, postwar milieu that gave birth to bebop." Judd has a quieter way of recalling the thrill of being on the road. He remembers, in his essay on Marfa, a bus trip with three army buddies in 1946, from Fort McClellan, Alabama to Los Angeles, and how they passed pretty near Marfa, and how he wrote to his mother from Van Horn, Texas of the "NICE TOWN BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY MOUNTAINS." Later, in 1963, when he was already showing in New York, Judd took a Greyhound bus to Tucson, and he recalled that the "first night at three o'clock somewhere in Pennsylvania a man came aboard and collected my pillow and charged me fifty cents for another."
JUDD AND HICKEY do not believe that big cities are the only places for artistic spirits. These men are dudes, in the dictionary sense of sophisticated people with a complex relationship to rural style. They are part of the big world even as they refuse to play by its rules. They like to tell stories about their not-New York experiences, about their experiences in the Southwest and the West, which sometimes seem to form a not-New York unity.By the early 1970s Judd was spending time in Mexico, but "the new and old pottery I had bought in the Southwest was spoiling in the humidity of New York, and the cacti I had collected were dying." So he began to search for a permanent spot in the Southwest. New Mexico was too cold and too high for him, and he may have found Santa Fe and Taos too full of the ghosts of Southwestern dreamers past. (Real estate was probably also too expensive.) What he eventually found in west Texas was "fine, mostly high rangeland dropping to desert along the river, with mountains over the edge in every direction. There were few people and the land was undamaged."
Hickey, who is a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, describes his adopted hometown as "that ardent explosion of lights in the heart of the pitch-black desert," and "the only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent, a town bereft of dead white walls, gray wool carpets, ficus plants, and Barcelona chairs--where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object demanding to be scrutinized." Judd's West is a long way from Vegas, but he admires Mies's furniture, commenting that it "should not be considered as only a worn status symbol." Judd saw the stripped-down quality of the Southwestern landscape as connected with the stripped-down quality of his work. "I loved the land around Tucson," he wrote, "chiefly because you could see it. In regard to vegetation, temperate means immoderate." Judd found something interestingly intemperate--and thus paradoxically moderate--in the Southwest. Hickey finds something ardent and explosive there. In both cases the West has something that is missing in the East, in the places where art is supposed to be happening.
Hickey has a likable way of unfolding little anecdotes and stories; a reader is not surprised to learn that he has published fiction as well as criticism. But one of the problems with his criticism is that he brings much more energy and focus to those little scenes-from-the-life vignettes than he does to any work of art. True, he has produced essays, often in exhibition catalogs, that zero in on works by specific artists. But the writing for which he is best known consists of the pieces in two collections, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty and Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, and in these books works of art are swept into a kind of ever-expanding riff by this man who cherishes the memory of growing up when bebop was king, a riff in which the work of art often seems to be sidelined, if not eclipsed, by Hickey's descriptions of all the interesting thoughts he had while lecturing at this or that university or playing the slot machines in Vegas or watching basketball or Perry Mason reruns.
"Beau Monde" is the fullest answer that Hickey has yet given to the question of what he likes in contemporary art, and if the show tells us anything it tells us that Hickey likes art to be gosh darn pretty. For the most part the works are not regarded individually; they are juxtaposed and sometimes even layered to create a fetching ensemble--a kind of eye candy. This is not an especially large exhibition, but it has been cannily plotted, with rooms of highly varied shapes and sizes that hold works large and small, so that a visitor has a pleasurably meandering experience. What with all the brightly colored walls and images that are heavy with patterns and design materials that evoke the decorative arts styles of the 1950s and 1960s, the experience can be rather like turning the pages of some edgy home-style magazine such as Nest or Wallpaper, where kitschiness is a form of elegance and the editors want to keep you wondering.
There is an Op Art leitmotif to "Beau Monde," which begins with Jennifer Steinkamp's video marquee that sends moirée patterns spinning around above your head. Nearby is a big Bridget Riley painting, which continues the 1960s mod-funk mood. Flowers are very big at "Beau Monde." The Los Angeles design team Graft Design, which helped Hickey to organize the space, has lined the entrance with fake blue and yellow flowers, which may remind some of Koons's topiary Puppy guarding the entrance to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. There are have-a-nice-day flower faces all over the idiotically upbeat installation by Takashi Murakami, the artist who has some people convinced that Hello Kitty can have a spiritual dimension. There is flowered wallpaper on Jessica Stockholder's installation and some flowers on the graffiti-style painting by Gajin Fujita. An installation by Marine Hugonnier is--literally--a bouquet. There are flowers stitched into the feathered Mardi Gras costumes of Darryl Montana. And there are even flowers in Jeff Burton's lush photographs of blurry sex scenes; some of the furniture, which is not as blurry as the buff bodies, includes floral-patterned upholstery.
The show has a kind of decorative stream-of-consciousness. Maybe Hickey thinks this is what art is all about.He does give you stuff to look at. The show suggests an individual's visual appetite, which is more than I can say about any Whitney Biennial that I have seen in recent years. Hickey's studied eclecticism--with minimalist works by Jo Baer near some dull but weird symbolist paintings (which also include flowers) by Kermit Oliver--reflects an active mind. But this is the visual equivalent of hip mood music: something to let your thoughts surf over. Stockholder's installations always meander, but here her electrical cords and casually nailed-together wallboard and thrift-shop finds flow straight into Montana's feathered costumes, behind which are some blobby shapes by Jorge Pardo, next to which is a kind of Op Art black-and-white job by Jesuacute;s Rafael Soto that reminds me of Agam. For the most part, Hickey does not seem to be asking us to take on the works in "Beau Monde" one by one. They have been collaged and assemblaged to create a charmingly animated atmosphere.
THERE IS ONE remarkable room in "Beau Monde" in which Hickey creates a punchy, careening elegance with work by only two artists, the painter Ellsworth Kelly and the ceramicist Ken Price. Here is Kelly's Blue Black Red Green, a composition of four panels in the colors of the title, each four-sided but with the sides unpredictably angled to create a sense of dancing, slouching animation; and there, across the room, on four separate pedestals, are four ceramics by Price, biomorphic forms, one a single, almost cartoonish tongue or phallus shape, others as rumpled as Chinese scholars' rocks. Kelly's singular colors have the exuberance of kindergarten basics: you feel as if you are being presented with life's fundamentals. Price's glazes, in a range of deep, almost metallic hues that include orange, purple, pink, and yellow-green, are complicated with curious flecks and specks, so that the surfaces have the weird fascination of the skin of some mythological monster. Facing off across the room, Kelly and Price seem to be saying how simple and how complex an effect of color can be.
Their shapes have an attraction-of-opposites appeal, too. Both artists use asymmetry to suggest underlying forces; each curve or angle in their work suggests the afterimage of a kinetic process. The Price pieces, with their comic undulations, offer an extreme and maybe even parodic view of the biomorphism of a classic modern artist such as Arp, who took a witty delight in the growth and transformation of simple forms. There has never been any question about Kelly's relationship with Arp, whom he met in France after World War II and whose experiments with compositions controlled by chance Kelly echoed in his work. But in recent years Kelly's eye-filling paintings have had a way of becoming a little too calculated in their abbreviated effects. By pairing Kelly with Price, Hickey italicizes the comic strain that is always lurking in Kelly's swank simplicity.
As for Price, I am left feeling that there is a gravitas somewhere at the heart of his giddily ambiguous anthropomorphizations. At "Beau Monde" he becomes a more complex artistic personality than I had imagined him to be. Interestingly, Price and Kelly have both saluted Gaude, Kelly in a series of photographs of the mosaics of Park Güell, Price in certain ceramic pieces. Gaudí, who embodied the spirit of Barcelona, is a legendary instance of an artist who embraced local values-- of craft, of decoration--and turned out to be a central figure in the destiny of modern art far beyond Catalonia, where he lived his whole life. Price, who divides his time between Taos and Venice, California, has for decades been discussed as a not-enough-sung hero of Southwestern art; but in an odd way Kelly, for all the generalizing elegance of his work, is also an artist who has stood against an American version of bland international values. The time that Kelly spent in France after World War II gave him an appreciation for the very specific weight and drama of mid-century Constructivist ideas. To this day, his work has an exactitude of scale and delicacy of spirit that says: Left Bank, circa 1952.
Paris was one of the places where local values became transcendent values, but at "Beau Monde," despite the teasing French title, local often remains local, a series of riffs on the idea of Southwestern or Western style.Darryl Montana's Mardi Gras costumes, constructed and worn for generations by his family, an African American New Orleans dynasty whose work has been featured in museum shows, are a sort of high-kitsch commentary on Southwestern Indian traditions; they have more beads and feathers per square inch than Cher has piled onto many an outfit. Alexis Smith's installation, with its New Mexico sunset and faux Indian rug, not only looks like a J.C. Penney version of the Southwest--that's what it is. The electronic gadgetry in Stockholder's assemblage comes from Los Alamos, which perhaps makes her contribution a kind of antiwar statement with a Southwestern tilt. Hickey also includes some artists whose work does not seem to have a Southwestern orientation but who happen to live in the area, such as Frederick Hammersley, a rather mild abstract artist who was first known as an Abstract Classicist in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and has been in Albuquerque for many years.
The group of movies that are an integral part of "Beau Monde" contains one happy surprise, Sarah Morris's AM/PM. Morris, who focuses on the sights of Las Vegas, has an instinct for the beauties of a chaotic urban scene. She brings an original sense of abstract pattern to displays of neon lights in the night city that could easily be cliched, and she zeroes in on little interactions of people in the street with an eye for witty miniature narratives that brings Rudy Burckhardt to mind. The focus moves to California in Kenneth Anger's three-minute Camp classic, Kustom Kar Kommandos, in which a Troy Donahue kinda guy is taking a powdery feather duster to his gleaming vintage car. And the Anger movie is immediately followed by Ed Ruscha's Miracle, another spin on L.A. car culture.
TO THE EXTENT that Dave Hickey himself is the real subject of "Beau Monde," visitors who want to understand exactly what he has in mind may turn to his small book The Invisible Dragon, which has become one of the art world's most popular texts. This treatise on what Hickey regards as a revival of interest in beauty has a deftly worked verbal surface that might be viewed as a kind of intellectual analogue to the flashy prettiness of the galleries at "Beau Monde." What I find most striking in Hickey's book is its opening gambit, in which he describes how, while "drifting, daydreaming really" at the end of a panel discussion on "What's Happening Now," he found himself responding to a question from "a lanky graduate student" by announcing that "the issue of the nineties will be beauty." Hickey writes that this was "a totally improvisatory goof--an off-the-wall, jump-start, free-association that rose unbidden to my lips from God knows where." But he decides to go with it. The Invisible Dragon is a riff, but it is a riff that grows increasingly shrill. And now, a decade later, we have "Beau Monde."
Hickey uses a good deal of academic jargon, but he uses it in an almost playful way, as if it were being spouted with a slightly ironic twist in a late-night bull session after the day's serious work had been done.There is a bravura to his phraseology, as when he speaks of the "prevailing rhetoric of spontaneity" or of the "rituals of `aesthetic' submission." Hickey is obviously interested in demonstrating his knowledge; he wants us to know that he can speak with ease and authority about the iconographical background of, say, Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary. He also wants us to know that he has seen it all, which I guess is why he opens a discussion of Mapplethorpe by explaining that he "saw Robert's X images for the first time scattered across a Pace coffee table at a coke dealer's penthouse on Hudson Street."
A quartet of essays, The Invisible Dragon meanders here and there, and perhaps many people who express a fondness for Hickey have never made it to the end, where he finally gets around to blaming our alienation from beauty on an art establishment that he characterizes as a "therapeutic institution" full of people who "validate, essentialize, and detoxify our images--to glorify their battles … --and, of course, to neutralize their power." If you are confused about what the "their"s refer to, that is typical of Hickey, who has a real fondness for vague antecedents. Hickey is also a bit vague about what this therapeutic institution consists of, except that it involves museum people, arts education people, and grant-giving bureaucrats. Perhaps he is too canny a self-promoter to draw up an enemies list, which might interfere with his ability to obtain teaching gigs and speaking engagements. But he does like to speak ill of the dead, and he seems to reserve a special hatred for Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art.
Hickey relates Barr to Goebbels and to "Stalin's cultural commissars." What, pray tell, is the connection? It is that they all "consolidated and activated the powers of patronage to neutralize the rhetorical force of contemporary images--to minimize the slippage, as it were, between how it looks and what it means, because, as long as nothing but `the beautiful' is rendered `beautifully,' there is no friction--and things do not change." What exactly this means it is impossible to say, but the reader gets the general point. Barr "proclaimed the absolute subordination of content to form." This is patently false, as I would imagine would be clear to anybody who has read Barr's writings, from his primer for museumgoers, What is Modern Painting?, to his beautifully subtle delineation of the social forces out of which art emerges in Matisse: His Art and His Public.For decades one of the complaints that American avant-garde artists made against Barr and the Modern was that they supported too much sentimental contemporary American realist painting. And the importance that Barr ascribed to Guernica, which for many years could be regarded as the key work at the Modern, had everything to do with the mural's content.
But even if Barr had been the pure formalist that Hickey mistakenly imagines him to have been, how would that control our experience of art, at least in any way analogous to the tyranny of Goebbels? Pairing Barr and Goebbels--and Hickey insists on it--is as cheap a shot as I can imagine. Hickey published The Invisible Dragon eight years ago, when there were still fashionable academic circles where liberal taste was regarded as a kind of fascist taste, and maybe he would say something different today. But if Hickey means all of this only in some vague metaphorical way, it is for that very reason all the more symptomatic of his thinking in general. What he offers is not thoughts about art, but rather a chic mental atmosphere in which art experiences and pop infatuations float around with scraps of historical and iconographical information and approving glances at any number of intellectual fads.
Hickey's writing is not about looking at art, it is about living in the vicinity of art. He is one of Warhol's children. All the shiny surfaces at "Beau Monde" recall the tinfoil walls of Warhol's Factory, of which Hickey describes being "a step-child." (Hickey is an aging dude.) Warhol and his gang liked pretty things: the man did have taste. I imagine that Warhol understood Fragonard's giddy fun; he might have imagined his Marilyns and Flowers as a contemporary equivalent. But he wanted art to be almost exclusively a celebration of a zeitgeisty mood, without any independent weight. The Warholians will never let art be art; it has to be made a part of the huge feel-good art party that is life. Thus Hickey explains at one point that he has never "had any experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture--and that did not, to some extent, reform and redeem that."
Hickey writes about the beautiful exhilaration of art, but he does not see the beauty of art as emerging from our experience of life so much as he sees art in a kind of dependent relationship with life. He wonders whether "the art of Pollock or Brakhage [could] exist without the imprimatur of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker? Could I have understood it without its being informed by the cultural context of American jazz? Without the free-form exuberance of bebop? My answer: No way, José. And, conversely, could bebop exist without Jackson Pollock and Stan Brakhage? You betcha." At the core of Hickey's thinking is an attack on the free-standing value of the work of art. In this sense his writing is consistent with most of the ideas about art that have a wide currency today. To be sure, there were times in the twentieth century when the idea of the autonomy of the work of art was made to seem unnecessarily chilly. The extent to which art absorbs and comments on life was not something about which Clement Greenberg, say, was always as open as he might have been; but when Hickey sets art in a kind of dependent relationship with "ordinary culture" (whatever that is), he robs art of its freedom.
There is a strong polemical undertow to "Beau Monde," and perhaps the success or the failure of the work will strike some as less important than the fact that Hickey has taken a stand. There may be a sense at "Beau Monde," as in Hickey's thinking in general, that local or regional values have a kind of personal vitality that will "redeem" the "cosmopolitanism" of art. Yet what vitality there is in Hickey's show is too often stagy rather than dramatic. The artists are all for beauty and loveliness and poetry and lyricism; but when it comes to shaping a particular kind of beauty they are largely helpless, because they know nothing about giving a powerfully interesting shape to the inherently disinterested formal material out of which all art is constructed. At "Beau Monde," art is impersonated. Art appears in drag. Hickey's show teases with dramatic possibilities, but they generally remain unfulfilled.
Many of the artists in "Beau Monde" would seem to understand that the past is a good place to look when you are stymied in the present. There is a sense at the Santa Fe Biennial that a usable part of the past can be found right in your own backyard, which just might be the Southwest. Ken Price's glazes make use of that regional past, but he is a lot further from the essential attitudes of "Beau Monde" than Alexis Smith, for whom the Southwest is all pose and attitude, a touristy joke in which she reveals her complicity even as she may be trying to suggest her superiority. She is just a coarse ironist.
I WOULD BET that many highly ambitious artists are reluctant to admit to being all that absorbed by the spirit of a place, since they quite naturally want to transcend the place where they happen to be. Clearly "Beau Monde," despite its regional coloration, wants to keep anti-regional options open. Yet all artists who do something worthwhile will ultimately respond to their surroundings, however elusively. And whatever you may think of Southwestern art old and new, this is a part of the world where art has for so long been so much a matter of rhythm and pattern and abstraction that it cannot but touch a chord in modern sensibilities. There is something in the improvisatory rhythms of the Indians' buildings and weavings and pottery, and in the rough-hewn Baroque Hispanic styles of architecture and decorative carving, that seems to grow almost organically out of the deserts and the mesas and the mountains.
I found myself thinking about these questions of place more often at the Chinati Foundation than at "Beau Monde." Donald Judd had a grandly Platonic kind of artistic ambition, which can seem to sit uneasily with the very idea of a spirit of place. And yet there is something in the taciturn surfaces of his work and in the gradual way that his sculpture yields its surprises that is very much of the Southwest. Judd's work owes something to the adobe architecture and the patterns of ceramics and rugs, all of which take simple ideas and complicate them. He was a serious collector of such objects. He understood a good deal about the covert formal drama of Southwestern visual culture.
In one essay, Judd regretted the "lost chance … to restore the adobe church in Ruidosa, near Sierra Chinati," for which he had thought of asking "Ken Price to make work for the interior." When, at Chinati in 1991, Judd exhibited work by another lover of the Southwest, he chose Josef Albers, who with his wife Anni had traveled extensively in Mexico and Peru, collecting artifacts and photographing the ruins, and who was perhaps, like Judd, too astringent a figure to embrace Taos-style mysticism and mythology. Judd included in that show a number of photographs that Albers took in Mexico and Peru, pictures that focus on ruins, on their general forms and their rich decorative details. Although Judd's catalog essay, a detailed attack on what he perceived as the New York critics' misunderstanding of Albers, does not go very far into Albers's Southwestern connection, it was just like the laconic Judd to present the Albers photographs without too much comment.And what we see in these photographs is Albers responding to the abstractness of ancient American art.
What Judd grasped better than any artist who has settled in the Southwest in the last fifty years is that you personalize influences by expanding the context in which you understand them. I do not doubt Judd's interest in Albers as a painter, but his inclusion of the photographs reminds us of the interest that both Josef Albers and Anni Albers took in Mexican and Peruvian textiles and sculpture and ceramics in the 1940s, and how that was connected through them to Bauhaus ideas about the unity of art and design. In his essay on Albers, Judd remarks that "at the least it cannot be said of the Bauhaus that it was reductionist." This is an important statement, coming as it does from an artist who was part of a generation that tended to dismiss the Bauhaus as rigidly pedagogical. Judd, who designed a good deal of furniture, was obviously interested in the idea of re-imagining all the formal possibilities that existed in the world, from the practical formalism of furniture and architecture and graphic design to the other-than-practical formalism of painting and sculpture. Just such an enterprise animated the Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus masters would surely have agreed with Judd when he insisted that furniture is not sculpture. They would probably have also agreed that there are certain fundamental generative principles--symmetry, rhythm--that can give different forms an underlying unity. Judd must have felt that it was only by designing both sculpture and furniture that he could convincingly clarify the differences. At Marfa, he designed beautiful courtyards using adobe. He was interested in the indigenous furniture of the Southwest, which may have had an impact on his own ultra-simple furniture of the 1970s. The absoluteness of his immense sculpture projects at Marfa--the hundred aluminum boxes and the series of fifteen concrete structures that lies beyond them, visible in the fields--raises questions about the power of abstract form to provoke emotion that have preoccupied architects and builders since ancient times, and certainly in the Southwest.
Judd's work is a daring re-imagining of the idea of structure as distilled feeling that powered the thought of several generations of Europeans, including Mondrian, Rietveld, El Lissitzky, Malevich, Mies, and Aalto.Although they are not open to the public, some of the most fascinating areas at Marfa are Judd's private spaces: the house that he designed out of several old buildings, developing sleeping and eating areas and a wonderful library; the suite of rooms where he worked on architecture designs and kept his collection of furniture by Rietveld and Aalto and others. Judd--an American of left-liberal views who was involved in community activism in New York in the early 1970s but had no illusions about what leftist regimes had generally meant for art-- did something surprising with the visionary simplicity of early-twentieth-century Europe.
STANDING IN THE ROOMS in which Judd worked at Marfa, looking at the shipshape arrangement of his furniture and writing implements and tools, I was reminded of the salutes to early-twentieth-century Dutch modern taste that you find in Guy Davenport's stories. In one story, Davenport describes his protagonist's "books accurately aligned on my new wealth of bookshelves, floor to ceiling, around two walls and part of the third. Rietveld table in place. Paintings. My spartan bed with its Shaker quilt." I have no idea what Judd would have thought of Davenport's writing, with its Scandinavian health-magazine homoeroticism, but they do both partake of the utopian spirit of modernism. These two men give us an Americanization--which amounts to a secularization--of the grandiose, social-idealist dimension of European constructivism. Austere structures often have a beautiful Platonic fascination. That such structures, although so alluring, may also ultimately prove unlivable is a great perplexity that circulated around the architecture of Mies and the proposals for interiors and entire cities in Mondrian's essay "Home-Street-City." The work that Judd created at Marfa is a wonderful, disabused, but somehow still optimistic continuation of the achievements of those formidable dreamers.
The scale on which Judd worked at Marfa--with a hundred aluminum boxes, each 41 by 51 by 72 inches, or in the cycle of fifteen concrete structures in the fields--has nothing to do with megalomania. He was simply doing what was necessary to express a certain sense of rhythm and interval and expansiveness. The quality of the detail--the delicacy with which sheets of metal meet or are juxtaposed--is Miesian in the very best sense of the word. But in Judd's work the Platonism of architecture has at long last been released from the dilemma of functionality. What Judd has given us is an abstraction of the idea of utopian architecture.
Much of the Chinati Foundation is dedicated to this abstracted utopianism. Dan Flavin's light sculpture is arranged in six buildings, each a U-shaped former barracks, with colored lights at their far ends, in a series of patterns that unfold as you go from building to building. It is elegant but static; an equation without an imaginative dimension. The miracle of Judd's work is that his variations push a visitor's mind; you are experiencing, in visual terms, a symphonic tone poem. Ultimately the superficial regularity of Judd's hundred aluminum boxes can begin to seem like a kind of Olympian joke, because the closer you look, the less regular they are. The boxes, each with its own unique internal divisions, are not even divided evenly between the two buildings: one grouping is of fifty-two, one of forty-eight. All the subtle asymmetries and variations--which become almost overwhelming as one moves from box to box--give the work its intoxicating charm. The effect is of a quietly exhilarating delirium, with variations and divisions, box to box, echoing in one's memory all at once.
At a symposium on "Art and Architecture" held at Marfa in 1998, the architectural historian James Ackerman pointed out that Bernini was "one of the few pre-modern sculptors whom Judd respected." I think that Judd's aluminum boxes have some of the aura of a Bernini fountain: the quality of being a serious sort of folly. And the relationships between Judd's big works at Marfa and their surroundings are as complex as the relationships between Bernini's fountains and the ancient Roman piazzas in which they are so deftly located, and which Bernini so subtly altered in order to carry these spaces to another level of meaning. Judd's alterations of the buildings of the old Fort Russell at Marfa--moving a doorway, removing a later addition, repairing a floor--are about catching and underscoring the essence of older American building types. And his sculpture, with its complicated simplicities that urge us to poke around, to look and to look some more, are tuned to the kinds of careful exploration of pattern that we bring to an Indian bowl or rug, or to watching the adobe structures of Taos Pueblo emerge out of the surrounding hills.
In a sense Marfa is the "Beau Monde," though Judd would have shaken his head at the French version of this ideal. He would have said it in Spanish, the language of the place, as he was always careful that the Chinati Foundation be known, simultaneously, as La Fundacion Chinati. To turn from the hard, clear forms of mill aluminum to the shapes of cacti growing in the earth a few yards away is to see equations between the local and the more-than-local, to know at once that you are in the Southwest and in a place that is more than the Southwest, a South by Southwest that may exist only in an artist's imagination.
This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.