PRINT Summer 1994

John Wesley and Hannah Green

IF DON WERE ALIVE I wouldn’t dare write about him, and I can’t be sure that merely outliving him allows writing about him now. I’ve asked my wife, the author Hannah Green, to help me put some memories together. I’ve known Don a long time, almost 35 years. Hannah has known him almost 25 years, ever since she took up with me.

There was a certain thin sweet sad quality in Don’s soft voice that was very beautiful (these are Hannah’s words), like his smile, and that carried in it his sense of wonder, the innocence somehow shining out of his enthusiasms, the innocence of the artist—for he was a genius, and the purity of his work, the mathematical proportions worked out in it, had a strength and esthetic power that approached the mystical, the sublime. The rapture one feels walking among the milled aluminum pieces in the old artillery sheds that he redesigned at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa is akin to what one feels in a great cathedral. And he knew it. He liked telling the story of the Jesuit priest who was in Marfa for a time and came to call, and after he had seen Don’s work said, “You and I are in the same business.”

In 1970, Don and I camped in the desert in Baja California near the ruin of San Juan de Dios de las Yagas, which had been the jumping-off place for Father Junipero Serra before he founded all those missions in California. Don was thinking of leasing a place in Mexico; this was before he settled on West Texas. We squatted there for a week in two little tents, cooking on burning cactus and exploring each day. It was remote and lovely, a stream with pools of good water you could drink or bathe in, even no planes flying over. One night we heard a commotion of jeeps and men. It was a group of American-army junior officers who had permission from the Mexican governor to come down and hunt bighorn sheep. The next dawn we could hear them in their camp up the arroyo trying out their rifles—bang, bang, bang—before they headed up into the hills. Later Don said to me, “It’s a shame to kill something that’s learned to live by itself.” To Whom do I repeat that complaint?

We will never see him again or hear him or spend an evening talking with him, which was like talking with no one else on earth. It breaks the heart. He went so swiftly and too soon. It breaks the heart.