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Commentary: Discovering Donald Judd – and Minimalist Art

by Joan Davidow 1 Dec 2011 7:42 AM

Commentator Joan Davidow remembers how Donald Judd inspired her attraction to minimalist art and shares early interviews with the artist.


Joan Davidow is Director Emerita of the Dallas Contemporary.

Listen to the commentary that aired on KERA FM

There are people we meet who leave an indelible mark.  My interview with Donald Judd 23 years ago sparked an attraction to minimal art.

With a contemporary arts group organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, I visited the newly opened Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. As a nascent reporter still wet behind the ears with tape recorder in hand, I most wanted to interview the creator of this hidden jewel.  Surprisingly, Judd finally agreed, sitting outdoors under a wispy shade tree.

I’d seen Judd’s work; those stacked, repeated boxes at the Dallas Museum of Art and The Modern in Fort Worth.  I knew he was an art hero, but I really didn’t get it. What made it so great?  And why did Judd choose this abandoned army cavalry post as the site for his life’s work?

Here we were in far west Texas – this wide, dry horizon surrounded by the Chinati Mountains, 200 miles south of El Paso.  He found this place in the 1960s and liked its broad, uninterrupted space.  By the 1980s, Judd had an active worldwide career, showing in Germany and Switzerland and living in New York. Who’ll see his work in this isolated place I asked?

Donald Judd:   There’s no sign that if you did such a thing in New York, you’d have anymore people than here & it’s not the primary thing to have lots of people come; it happens to be in Marfa, Texas, and that’s that!

What a surprise to me and surely unlike everyone else’s vision of art savvy Manhattan.

The singular most impactful installation presents a stunning stand of 100 mill aluminum, waist-high boxes lined in straight rows in a renovated hangar sided by two broad window walls catching the wide pink horizon. It became a surreal experience to stand in the midst of these alike, yet dissimilar cubes, seeing the reflected landscape and feeling the elegance of refined repetition.

His work had such a commitment to the grid.  Why the rectangle? I asked.

Donald Judd: Circles are just as geometric, non referential, just as useful as a rectangle or square.  They were always way beyond my finances.”

Clearly, it was geometric form that captured his imagination; he didn’t want to do naturalistic things.

What mattered to Judd was that he would control how the art was placed in the space, in its most perfect setting.

Donald Judd: Anyway, I want it to be well done, way far better done than most places doing something now, and within that, it could be smaller or larger.”

Artists usually don’t decide how their work is displayed; they work really hard making art that gets placed in museums by someone else.  Most artists don’t care about such things; Donald Judd cared deeply ~ enough so that he convinced the de Menil family of Houston’s arts patrons to purchase the army post and develop the barracks for the placement of his art. After their initial burst of support, when the de Menils deserted the project, Judd continued his drive to make it his art home.

He died just six years after our interview. A small band of dedicated supporters kept the dream going, including retired foundation presidents Bill Jordan and Arlene Dayton, both of Dallas.  Donald Judd would probably be amazed. 25-years since his dream began, people travel from all over the world to Chinati weekend in Marfa to see his work in situ. It deserves celebration.

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  • Ashley K

    I really enjoyed this segment! I didn’t recognize the name Donald Judd, but I immediately remembered the installation at the Ft. Worth Modern when Joan mentioned the rectangles and geometric shapes. Now I’ll have to plan a trip to Marfa! I would love to hear more stories about local or Texas-based artists. Keep it up KERA!

  • joan davidow

    dear ashley k,

    how great you could connect the commentary with what you remembered seeing at the modern. it sure deserves a trip to marfa! thanks for sharing.