Judd and Jury

Martha Schwendener at a symposium on Donald Judd's writings


Left: A view of the Am Vets Building. Right: Chinati Foundation director Marianne Stockebrand. (All photos: Andrea Claire)

Before his death in 1994, Donald Judd spent two decades buying up land in West Texas and installing his work in the buildings of the old Fort D. A. Russell, now home to the Chinati Foundation. The Am Vets Building in the center of Marfa, site of last weekend’s symposium on Judd’s writings, felt like an installation of an entirely different sort. Handpainted panels with US military insignia hung in the entryway. Metal folding chairs with the names of dead soldiers painted in white letters on their backrests stood in front of a painting at the back of the room that resembled a Neo Rauch rendition of Joe Rosenthal’s famous Iwo Jima photograph.

On Saturday morning, I installed myself on a metal chair as Chinati director Marianne Stockebrand began outlining Judd’s beginnings as a writer. He was, she recounted, hired by Hilton Kramer in 1959 as a reviewer for Arts magazine and wrote for various editors for nearly six years. (“Hard to believe, but Hilton Kramer was easy to work for,” Judd says in his introduction to the Complete Writings 1959–1975.) Mel Bochner, who wrote for the magazine after Judd, was the first of eleven presenters scheduled over two days. He offered an overview of Judd’s writing—and tossed a few rhetorical grenades into the audience. “So much of what’s being done now lacks passion and purpose,” he said, unlike the early ’60s, when “something was at stake.” Bochner cited Judd’s criticism as an antidote to the “bad and bland” writing of the era—save Greenberg and Rosenberg, of course—and compared him to Truffaut, whose writing for Cahiers du Cinema essentially “created the climate for his own work.”

David Raskin, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed with a discussion of Judd’s scale, then Richard Ford, a Texas professor emeritus who translates Judd’s writings into Spanish for Chinati, analyzed Judd’s style, noting the short sentences, borrowed from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and his fondness for funky word constructions like isolable, presageful, and awesomely.

We were then released, blinking, into the Texas sunlight. Lunch could be purchased from trucks parked nearby and eaten on tables set up like a church picnic. It felt like a picnic, too, with attendees eating alongside presenters like New York Times critic Roberta Smith, art historian and symposium moderator Richard Shiff, and Rainer Judd, who’d screened her biopic short starring Martin Donovan as her father the day before at the first Marfa Film Festival.

Left: Rainer Judd. Right: Artist Mel Bochner with Thomas Kellein, director and curator of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld.

After lunch, Smith took the mic and offered the symposium’s most personal account of Judd’s critical thinking and influence. Smith worked as his assistant in the mid-’60s and penned the featured essay for the artist’s 1975 catalogue raisonné (which she dismissed during the Q&A as “juvenilia”). She talked about how “everything in his vicinity had been considered and criticized,” then homed in on “Specific Objects,” Judd’s influential 1965 treatise on postwar art—an essay “not about Minimalism”—and likened his approach to “language as a specific object” in that you have to consider what’s left out as much as what’s left in.

More presentations followed; audience members came and went. Among them were local(ish) artists Jeff Elrod and Michael Phelan; Miles Bellamy, owner of the Spoonbill and Sugartown bookstore in Brooklyn and his wife, architect Leah Kreger; affiliates of Ballroom Marfa, whose delirious Christoph Büchel/Mike Nelson–ish “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun,” by Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe, and Alexandre Singh, is perhaps the most talked-about show in town at the moment; and a variety of Texan academics, architects, and art tourists.

After the presentations, I walked over to the Judd Foundation to check out the presentation of handwritten and typed drafts of “Specific Objects” organized by archives manager Valerie Breuvart—a kind of drawings show for writers, accompanied by a Shiff essay. Then it was on to Chinati, where we wandered at dusk through the former artillery sheds and adjacent buildings gazing at the Judd and Dan Flavin installations, and into the Arena, a gymnasium restored by Judd, for a buffet dinner of upscale paisano fare surrounded by the same people we’d seen all day—and a wave of dressed-up folks we didn’t recognize.

After dinner, we headed over to the lounge at the Thunderbird Hotel—actually a renovated midcentury motel—for drinks and talked with Phelan, who, with his wife Meghan Gerety, runs United Artists, Ltd., when they’re in town. Two weeks earlier, UAL’s opening for their current exhibition featuring Nate Lowman, Aaron Young, and Agathe Snow drew the kind of art-world merrymakers that would have made for a, well, slightly different evening. This was an assignment, however, with a nine o’clock morning call.

Left: Critic Roberta Smith. Right: Art historian Richard Shiff and artist David Rabinowitch.

I was up early enough the next morning to stumble into a power breakfast behind the Brown Recluse, where Smith and Bochner were rehashing some of the previous day’s arguments. Fellow presenter Nicola von Velsen showed up in time for Bochner to offer his assessment of German art history (“Nothing’s happened since Durer”), and then art historians Molly Nesbit and Ann Reynolds appeared. Apparently, they’d moseyed into town for something other than the symposium, but we didn’t see them again.

Back in our seats at Am Vets, we were treated to presentations by Kunsthalle Bielefeld director and curator Thomas Kellein and a discussion about anarchist lit (with some Judd thrown in) by Canadian art historian Allan Antliff. MoMA’s Ann Temkin was forced to cancel and dispatched a curatorial assistant to read her paper. The finale was a room-clearing presentation-cum–endurance artwork by artist David Rabinowitch (whose “Fluid Sheet Constructions” from the mid-’60s are currently installed at Chinati), in which he read fragments culled from Judd’s writings with copious decontextualized references to Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Wittgenstein, Leibniz, and others. “He just pulled all the sentences that have the word object in them,” one of my seatmates pointed out.

Another al fresco lunch, then the symposium wrapped up with a panel discussion that wandered into strange territory around the question “What can we do?” in a world that is falling apart. Then it shifted to Judd’s legacy—Shiff suggested that he “killed” AbEx—and feelings about nature and land preservation (the artist was critical of Earthworks that marred what he called “new land”), a subject that would make a great starting point for a future gathering.

Left: Book dealer Miles Bellamy, Delilah Bellamy, and architect Leah Kreger. Right: Briar Bear Phelan with artists Michael Phelan and Meghan Gerety.

Left: Craig Rember with the Judd Foundation's Valerie Breuvart. Right: Art historian Allan Antliff with Marianne Stockebrand.

Left: A view of the panel. Right: Rainer Judd.