I 🟥 Judd

I 🟥 Judd

I saw bumper stickers like the title of this post for years and wondered, in the pre-internet era, what they meant. I believed it when I was told, “Oh, it’s a band. It’s an inside joke among the fans.” WTF?

It wasn’t until my second trip to the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa, Texas, that it dawned on me. What these bumper stickers mean. I won’t spell it out here, as an exercise for the reader, and a chance for you to share in my experience of wondering.

I know I’m not alone in this, but I’ve always been the kind of person who enjoys going to art galleries, but often watches other people really appreciating the art and wonders, “What exactly is going on, there?” Some people make it look like there’s work involved, in a good way, to my eyes.

I like going to a good art gallery or museum. I have enjoyed art works in lots of different media, from lots of different periods, schools, etc. I’m particularly fond of graphic art/pop art and surrealism. The Menil Collection, in Houston, is one of my favorite museums, in part because they have plenty of surrealist pieces (and was, for a time, home to “The Treachery of Images”—aka “This is not a pipe”).

Dance, too, has always been hard for me to grok. I’ve been to ballets. Not many, I’ll admit, but I try to open myself up to things I don’t quite get, yet.

I think it’s finally dawning on me why it’s been so difficult to engage with so much art. I was shut off to my own emotional state. I don’t think I had low emotional intelligence—I was hyper-aware of, observant of others’ emotions. I just had mine stored way back there in a freezer bag labeled “hamdingers.”

Art couldn’t move me because I was nearly immovable. Music was one of the few art forms that could break through, but that’s a topic for another day.

I enjoyed architecture, graphic design, and surrealist art works because it was easy to appreciate them with my left-brain (yes, yes, I know that these days the science tells us it’s nowhere near as simple as right/left division). What wasn’t happening to me, but maybe was happening to those people standing back in the galleries having these complex reactions was a rich, emotional interaction.

Today, dear reader, I had one of those!

I’m writing you from beautiful Alpine, Texas, where I’m staying in a terrible-but-very-affordable hotel for the last bit of a week in west Texas in which I’ve been camping in the high desert, working from coffee shops, taking a break from the busy-ness of my normal life. I started this new tradition just last year in which I bid my very giving wife and children goodbye for a week and chill the fuck out in Marfa, Texas. This time my camping was cut short by a wedding that bought out the whole campground (I’m just now realizing how little sense that probably made if you haven’t been to El Cosmico, but let’s not get distracted), thus my short stay in Alpine. This morning, the last day of my trip, I went again to the Chinati Foundation. I’ve been several times at this point, so I opted for the self-guided option, and decided to focus on the “15 untitled works in concrete,” by Donald Judd, which line the west edge of the compound.

A cropped snapshot of the walking tour map, depicting the layout of the structures in “15 untitled works in concrete”

The 15 works in concrete are variations on a theme of a concrete box. The boxes—tubes, really—are each 2.5 meters by 2.5 meters by 5 meters. Each has a top and bottom, and each has at least to side walls. The variations play with which two side walls exist, whether there is a third side wall that closes one end of the tube, how many of the boxes there are, and their placement with respect to one another. The image to the left shows you a top-down view of the 15 works, showing the number and placement of the structures.

I started, as is most natural, given the placement of the entrance to the foundation and its “front desk,” at the bottom of this map and walked north to the top.

I was told by a docent one of the other times I did this tour that Judd insisted that the location of these structures (and, if I recall, everything on display at the Chinati Foundation) is as much a part of the work as the materials used to construct it. Each piece was meant to be seen in its context in Marfa, Texas.

As I started the walk from the entrance out to the first work—a good 10 minute walk itself among desert plants, snakes, lizards, huge Texas skies, and the musical accompaniment of a nearby highway’s sounds—I took in the scenery, remembering that it was part of the exhibit.


This got complicated fast.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Texas. I was raised by a mother who couldn’t believe she lived in Texas. She moved here from New Jersey in the 70s, after her second divorce, hoping in part to find opportunity in Houston, where she had a job offer, and in part to lure her father out here to stay with her and help take care of me (it worked, in that he—always a real cowboy and forever in love with Texas’ mystique—did follow her to Texas, but didn’t work in that he very quickly fell into dementia and couldn’t really help with childcare). It was meant to be a stop on the way to some place she wanted to live. She was a Jersey girl, a proud yankee, and was not a fan of nearly anything Texas had on offer (except queso…). I grew up hearing about how backward Texans were, how awful the weather here is, how stupid our accents. I grew up being taught that this was not my home. Since it was the only place I’d ever lived, that left me without a great place to hang my identity.

To be fair, Texas didn’t help. Texas history is similar to the national history—white man steals land from indigenous peoples, but with the horrific twist that it’s taught as a point of pride. I have only very recently, finally heard this addressed in Texas history museums, which, in my experience, until some time in the last 10 years still called the white men that died at The Alamo and in various battles against Mexico and the Native Americans “heroes.”

When I traveled to other countries in the 90s and mentioned I was from Texas, I was frequently, seriously, asked “do you own any cattle?” and “why don’t you sound like a Texan?”

Our state politics have been a growing frustration, to the point that we’re planning to leave. My wife and I plan to uproot our family and move to Toronto, Canada next year to escape the political nightmare that is Texas, as well as the United States. That decision process is another topic for another day, but suffice it to say that my love for Texas has never come easily, now less than ever.

And yet, as I walked to the first structure, there it was. Sadness. I am going to miss this place.

I don’t know when this happened… maybe it’s still happening, but I’m rewriting my origin story. I am a Texan. My mom’s hangups about what that meant were her problem. This is my home. I’m making the very difficult decision to leave it, in search of a better life for my family, but I recognized this morning that I will miss this place. It is part of me.

As I walked up to the first structure I had a flash of a sense memory. Suddenly it was 1996, and I was in Waco, Texas, at a convenience store across the street from my dorm. Seeing the intersection of concrete and grass, with the big sky behind it, I was back there, going for a soft drink after class. Not a particularly emotionally charged memory, but a weirdly visceral one. I thought of concrete structures, and how long they can last (thousands of years if you are/aren’t careful) and how they can be beautiful, brutalist, both. It occurred to me that 1996 is very nearly 30 years ago. I felt the weight of age. This is not to say I felt old—I didn’t—but that I felt as though I had lived a very long time, that it was strange to have memories from so long ago that were not childhood memories. I felt ancient on the one hand, and insignificant in the potential timeline of the structure I approached.

This all happened within the first 15 minutes.

I tried to stay with these feelings as I walked from structure to structure. I let myself mourn leaving Texas. I let myself wonder what else I’ve believed about myself that someone else made up. I tried to let the land, the wildlife, and the works speak to me. And for the first time I felt like I could hear something.

What I noticed this time, that I’ve never noticed before, is that these structures, viewed in the order I viewed them, can tell a story. The story I heard today was about society. As I walked up to the structures, the choice of which walls existed very dramatically changed the emotional valance of the structures for me. I was seeing them as homes. Some of them felt like austere, but beautiful modern homes that could be minimalist havens with the addition of a bit of glass and some furniture. Some of them felt more like caves—respite from the elements, but not a home… Some of them felt cozy and some felt like a prison cell.

As I worked my way north the relationship of the structures to one another in each cluster took on its own charge. This one, with its prison cells with their “backs” turned to one another, felt like a distrustful group of survivors. This one, a set of somehow cozy-ish caves with their apertures facing one another felt like an extended family who had “circled the wagons.” Other structures reminded me of neighborhoods and invited concepts of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The structures got more complex and numerous, and it felt like the development of the city. Where do we put our schools? Our businesses? Our factories? Our rich? Our poor?

The final cluster felt like an institution—a university or a large public library or courthouse. I felt the two-way participation that society embodies: “you do your part—you obey the law, you pay your taxes, you love your neighbor, you give as much as or more than you take—and you get all of this—laws, education, safety.” I see this in the structure in the way that it’s the only one in which all the concrete boxes are united… the structure, the resources, the community, the space… all shared. It’s the big, solid, red rectangle at the top in the map above and the fourth photo in the gallery below.

I felt grateful for so many things I take for granted on a daily basis, and I was reminded of the many reasons I feel The U.S. is failing on these fronts more and more. At the end of the trail is a hill from which you can view the progression. There is no structure on the hill, though visitors have started a cairn.

This was a story told to me across decades, through the media of concrete, dirt, grass, and life. The story of the evolution of culture. Architecture as a world view. Surely not the only story written on those grounds, but the one I heard today.

Texas, hell, America, what are you building? Who is it for? How long do you want it to last? What do you want it to facilitate? What do you want it to say about who you are and what you want? What kind of society are you in the business of building?

P.S. I ended up, a couple days after writing this, getting into a pretty deep conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop. He was a man of 75, who had ridden a bicycle many miles to get to the coffee shop that day with several of his friends, all looking a bit like superheroes in their spandex gear. He was intense, curious, and not shy about asking deep questions, and we were quickly discussing my family’s move to Canada next year and what inspires and informs that decision. Being in small-town Texas at the time I was a bit nervous to answer these questions honestly, but I did, sensing, I think, an empathetic, wise listener. He agreed that Texas and largely the U.S. are a scary place to send children to school, that especially Texas is a scary place to raise young people whose identity and reproductive rights are in question, and even agreed that the general feeling of being a Texan right now is one of helplessness. He told me how impressed he was that we were willing to make such a dramatic move, to another country, in order to provide a better life for our kids. He said he thought Toronto was a beautiful choice, and wished me well.

As I was leaving, I overheard him being introduced to someone. “He was the mayor of Marfa.”

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