May 5, 2010  |  Intern Chronicles
Intern Chronicles: Outside the Box in the American West

As Dedalus Fellow in the Museum Archives, I received a travel grant to broaden my understanding of modern art. Last summer, I chose to journey to the American Southwest to view Earth art, Minimalism, and other forms of post-war abstraction in Texas and New Mexico. My goal was to examine the “art pilgrimage” from a critical perspective, while trying to achieve that spiritual experience associated with it: to turn myself into a pilgrim, while remaining grounded in art history.

My first destination was Lightning Field, Walter de Maria’s 1977 work near Quemado, New Mexico. The artwork, which comprises a grid of four hundred stainless steel poles, is located miles from civilization in a flat basin surrounded by mountains. Off to one edge is a cabin where visitors stay overnight. No photographs are allowed; de Maria insists on the primacy of one’s own, subjective experience of the work. Walking among the poles, my feet sank into soft clay. I watched the gleaming metal poles grow brilliant in the sunset, then fade. I listened to birds’ wings. I was rained upon. At night, I walked outside to deafening quiet and a Milky Way sky of exquisite clarity. It became clear why de Maria forbids photography: photographs would document only the New Mexico landscape, not the actual sensation of being here.

Nonetheless, I was acutely aware of how the artist had structured my experience, regulating the landscape through the Minimalist grid. As much as this is meant to be a self-directed experience of the land—and it is—it is also a carefully manipulated one, down to the removal of labels on the bathroom soap.

After Lightning Field, it was a seven-hour drive to Marfa, Texas, population 2,121. This little western Texas town was transformed in the 1970s by Donald Judd into a center for Minimalist and contemporary art. In addition to the main organizations founded by Judd—the Chinati Foundation, which exhibits art curated by Judd, and the Judd Foundation, which maintains his home and studio spaces—a crop of art galleries, artists’ workshops, and, recently, a public radio station, have sprung up in the town.

Judd founded Chinati because he wanted a permanent home for art he admired, and he believed that visitors should be able to “commune” directly with art without having their experience mediated by docents, audio guides, and wall text. I spoke with Rob Weiner, acting director, and Anne-Marie Nafziger, coordinator of education and public programs. Rob explained that he feels his mission is to preserve the purity of Judd’s vision. Anne-Marie agrees; at Chinati, education is focused not on external information but on how and what we see.

Viewing Judd’s boxes in aluminum and concrete out here in the landscape was dramatically different from encountering them in the white cube of MoMA’s galleries. Despite this freedom, I once again remained aware of how the artist had shaped my experience. The boxes are like picture windows: they create specific views of the landscape. In this they seem to function almost classically, as they regulate the wild tundra—just like Lightning Field.

Bettina Landgrebe, Chinati’s sole conservator, explained that though Judd’s works have a tough, industrial quality to them, the artist was more interested in the aesthetics of his materials than their physical characteristics. Mill aluminum, for example, is particularly sensitive to damage from fingerprints. As a conservator, Bettina is charged with helping Minimalist works maintain their aesthetic.

From the dry deserts of west Texas, I drove clear across the state to lush, humid Houston, where I visited the Rothko Chapel—a perennial favorite of art pilgrims—along with a number of other art sites. The chapel is a non-denominational religious space designed initially by Philip Johnson, then completed by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, hung with large, late works by Mark Rothko. Suna Umari, the chapel services coordinator, expounded upon the spiritual possibilities of abstract art. Her perspective was fascinating and studied. Unfortunately, the Rothko paintings themselves, once dark purple and maroon, have faded. Art pilgrims are well advised to cross the street and enter the Menil Collection’s Cy Twombly gallery, an elegant building designed by Renzo Piano with Twombly’s input. The gallery is reminiscent of a Greek temple, with pale stone and wide, squared doorways. The works here span Twombly’s career, from early chalkboard-like scribbles to vibrant, sensuously painted canvases from recent years. Piano’s ceiling, which allows light to filter into the gallery through a series of pierced textile sheets, provides a glow that changes dramatically as the sun travels across the sky—the out-of-doors brought within. Piano’s gallery is a traditional art space, yet in its understated embrace of its environment, it incorporated some of the lessons on freedom and control I had learned from Walter de Maria and Donald Judd: a fitting conclusion to my art pilgrimage.