Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Chinati Foundation

The main reason Susie and I traveled to Marfa was to visit the Chinati Foundation, the museum of large-scale modern art installations, founded by sculptor Donald Judd (1928-1994) in 1979. The foundation, named after the nearby Chinati Mountains, is housed on the site of the U.S. Army's former Fort D. A. Russell, which last saw military use in World War II as a camp for German prisoners of war. Judd, with help from the Dia Foundation, began buying the abandoned base, with its dilapidated buildings, in the late 1970s. Today the Foundation uses pretty much all the base's buildings for its permanent collection of modern art installations, with a couple of buildings for temporary exhibitions.
Extensive works by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin form the cornerstones of the collection. We viewed these works, and more by other artists, during an all-day pair of tours. The morning tour covered Judd, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, David Rabinowitch, John Chamberlain, and the Arena. The afternoon tour covered Flavin, John Wesley, Ingólfer Arnarsson, Roni Horn, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and Carl Andre.

Visitors see a major work by Judd as they arrive in Marfa from the south. This installation, "15 untitled works in concrete," 1980-1984, consists of groupings of large concrete boxes, around and between which visitors can walk.
The main attraction is Judd's "100 untitled works in mill aluminum," 1982-1986, which are installed in two large former artillery sheds that had served as housing for the German POWs. These aluminum boxes, all of the same exterior dimensions but each uniquely constructed with different variations of set-ins, angles and lengths, represent, to me anyway, an incredibly great work, the best-realized abstract theme-and-variation expression in abstract sculpture.
The installation for Flavin's works represents a serious commitment to making his artistic and aesthetic vision real. These works combine subtleties of light, color, and space with the vividness of contrasting colors of fluorescent lights. It took six buildings to house Flavin's works, each with a pair of views that form, in all, a complete set of variations on his theme.
Flavin designed these works over a number of years, culminating in 1996. Unfortunately, he died later that year and thus never saw the completed installation, inaugurated in 2000.
Other works, either at the main site or in the renovated Marfa Wool and Mohair Building in downtown Marfa, run the gamut from John Chamberlain's crushed automobile panels to Ilya Kabakov's bleak ruminescences on Soviet elementary schools. One gallery, in a former stable, is devoted to the art of John Wesley; this exhibition has a multimedia piece from 1965, called "Flavin's Official," built around a photograph of Dan Flavin.
Outside the buildings stands a monumental sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Brugge, which commemorates Fort D. A. Russell's last horse. This work is, appropriately enough, entitled "Monument to the last horse."
The morning tour took us to the Arena, the post's former gymnasium, which later served as a horse arena, and which Judd reworked as a commons space. The building includes Judd's signature square doors and windows, along with large-scale patterns on the floor. We were lucky to be there as the sun's rays lined up perfectly with this pattern.

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