Roni Horn. Things That Happen Again, Pair Object VII (For a Here and a There). 1986–88. On long-term loan from Judd Foundation. The Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo: Florian Holzherr. Courtesy the Chinati Foundation. ©️ 2020 Roni Horn, New York

Pair Object: Roni Horn and Donald Judd

MoMA curator Ann Temkin talks with the artist Roni Horn about Donald Judd and the precarious poetics of installing sculpture.
Ann Temkin Apr 23, 2020

Roni Horn first met Donald Judd after she received a call from him in the mid-1980s requesting she come from New York to Marfa, Texas, to assist in the installation of her work Pair Object VII: (For a Here and a There). Judd had recently acquired the work for the Chinati Foundation, his newly opened artist-run contemporary art museum. Against the backdrop of what Horn calls an “ultra-simplified” desert, the two bonded over the complexities of form and space as they decided on the perfect placement for Horn’s work.

In conjunction with the exhibition Judd, Ann Temkin, MoMA’s Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis
Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, sat down with Horn in February to discuss through lines in the two artists’ work, and how that early meeting with Judd still resonates with Horn today.

Roni Horn: For me, one of the central issues that comes to mind with Donald Judd is his commitment to developing a setting for his work in which he would control the experience. As an artist, I know how terribly difficult it is to have your work presented properly.

When I was coming into maturity, I watched Judd developing the public aspect of his Chinati work. He was intent on having a place where one could go and have the experience of his work as he wanted it, even once he was long gone. He’s been very successful with this. It’s a unique setting in the art world, where somebody has taken control in this manner. You may not like what you see, but it’s what he wants it to be. And that is a fact.

Donald Judd. 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. 1982–86

Donald Judd. 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. 1982–86

Ann Temkin: It’s an issue that’s particular to sculptors mainly, right? Because the damage you can do by the bad hanging of a painting is far less.

This is what I was also thinking. I do a lot of drawing and I never really worry about the drawings being seen poorly because they are framed. The frame becomes the smallest divisible unit. Unless you lean something up against the frame, you’re not really going to damage the view. Whereas, with sculpture, you can completely undermine its value. In particular, my work is very vulnerable to that mishandling; the experience can be compromised by a poor installation quite radically. This is why Judd’s aggressive control made a big impression on me.

Did you get to know him in New York and then follow what he was doing at Chinati, or were you in Marfa for some reason?

This is a weird story, and like a lot of things in my life, I can’t believe that was me. I was doing a show, back in ’85 or ’86. And there was a work called Things That Happen Again. It was a pair object that could be installed in four different ways, and the variation in identity is based on the way the work is installed. So the relationship between these two objects becomes the essence of it. Don actually saw the show and bought the work and brought it down to Marfa. I didn’t know him personally but I got a request to come down and install it there.

Roni Horn. Things That Happen Again, Pair Object VII (For a Here and a There). 1986–88

Roni Horn. Things That Happen Again, Pair Object VII (For a Here and a There). 1986–88

We had a really nice time trying to figure out where I could install it. When I develop all of my works, I am always thinking about the architectural settings that they will eventually be installed in so they’re scaled and sensitive to that. I’m interested in how they are organized in terms of their relationship to the audience. So all of that is part of the form right from the beginning.

Now, Don had seen it as a piece for two rooms with basically identical objects installed in each room. So we sought to install the piece in that way in Marfa, but given the existing buildings, there was no easy way to do that. Don’s fantasy was to build a new space for this work, but we decided on a temporary installation in a building used to store armaments. It was in a pretty organic state, which was quite beautiful, and the high desert is a perfect complement for a lot of my work: you see everything because there’s nothing there. I love that.

We placed these objects using a forklift and that gave me the opportunity to really get the positioning correct. I was happy with the installation and I thought, even if he doesn’t build a building, this is fun. You can leave it here. If Don had lived, maybe those buildings would have been built for the entire series of Things That Happen Again. But I was really fine with the way it was, and left it at that.

As time went on, even after Don passed, the people who oversaw the foundation did such an incredible job of keeping that work in the original condition. I really have felt very, very, pleased with that installation.

You’ve said that you don’t think of yourself in any particular category as an artist.

That has been a big part of my identity since I was a child and it’s actually quite personal. It started with my name, like so many things do. R-O-N-I, which is not short for anything. That name brought me a lot of mail addressed to Mr. Roni Horn, which tipped me off that I had more options than I thought, so I went with it. It was partly a political choice in the sense that my gender was nobody else’s business. The androgyny that I identified with and that formed my whole character reflected my feeling that I did not identify strongly with either gender. I felt I had strong qualities from both genders in me, in spite of being told, you’re a girl, you’re this, you’re that.

That idea of androgyny—which is not so much a position of sexual identity at all, androgyny allows you to integrate differences rather than exclude them, and that is really the thing that was so meaningful to me—bled directly into the work. It enabled me to disregard categories and boundaries in the arts which I felt were unnecessary or did not identify with any one form: sculpture, painting, drawing. If there was one thing that I could say is the most important act, it’s drawing because drawing occurs in all my work. Whether it’s photography, installation, or my writings.

In the last few years I’ve been doing a lot more writing, and that’s what I’m focused on right now. I’ve always found writing to be very close to drawing because it involves a lot of discovery. I go places in writing that I didn’t know existed. That act of extracting from an unknown to me is drawing. It’s a trigger. It’s a catalyst. It’s a dialectic between me and what’s out there. It’s a form of survival. It’s a way to identify yourself.

Roni Horn. Untitled. 1985

Roni Horn. Untitled. 1985

That, of course, has me ask, were Judd’s writings something you knew about then?

What I loved about his writings was the simple clarity. There was absolutely no nonsense in them and he was highly opinionated. The other artist who has this kind of clarity, but not so much the dogmatism, is Barbara Kruger. She also has a very direct way of writing and saying things as they are, and there’s no sentiment. She goes right to the heart of the thing and says what it is.

One of the things that’s been interesting to me lately is thinking about how the moment of the ’60s resonates right now in terms of this cultural change. It’s almost like a little time warp to 50 years ago, when the country was just in complete turmoil. I wonder if you have had thoughts about the pertinence of art that doesn’t have a political narrative or any clear reference to current events, because it would apply to you and Judd despite both of you having a tremendous consciousness of current events and politics.

I think the politics in this type of work are much more highly integrated. It’s not illustrative. It’s not descriptive. So it’s not specific or topical. When you’re talking about political art, whether it’s Russian realism, social realism, whatever it is, it often makes a hierarchical relationship to the experience. So that first you get the content, which is whatever the author is trying to say about the political moment, and then you get whatever is there experientially, if anything. The whole point of the work is that political content.

So it’s a very, very different way of dealing with politics. By and large, most art contains political and social elements, but they’re reflective of the author’s instincts.

Contemporary political art is more about telling and showing. With artists like Judd, when you experience his work, where do you go with that? There’s politics in there, whether it leaves you isolated and alone, or whatever it does, but whatever that is is integrated in the form and the relationship that work sets to the world.

Roni Horn. Untitled (Aretha). 2002–04

Roni Horn. Untitled (Aretha). 2002–04

It’s something I try to articulate a lot to people who look at a brass box and say, “Why is this somehow a work of conviction?”

Particularly that period of art from the ’50s and ’60s, everything needs to be contextualized historically. At that postwar time, you’re coming out of a kind of utopic moment of production and consumption, and industrialization and mechanical fabrication had become essential to American success. The incorporation of these techniques in art was inevitable. But it was obviously a radical break with what was being done prior, which was very handmade and more overtly personal, more overtly subjective. I'm not saying that the work of the ’60s was not subjective, but its appearance led us into a new idea or a new possibility for an understanding of what subjective could be.

So the thing that speaks most strongly for the work is its very acute relationship to the moment it was coming out of. If you look across the waters to Arte Povera, you see Italy doing this incredible range of work which is so much about architecture. In that case, the architecture wasn’t industrial. It was this extraordinary geology: beautiful craft and stonework. This influenced the quality of what was being produced there. So in both of these instances, what the viewer walks away with is just this empirical, experiential piece of life.

That’s one of the paradoxes isn’t it? Because so much of the time, art like Judd’s has been spoken about as elitist. And yet, for me, it’s the most un-elite thing to say everything you need to know about this work is here. There’s nowhere else to go. There’s nothing you need to have read.

I agree. It’s like you go out for a walk in the landscape and you don’t need to know where that stone came from to appreciate or enjoy it or have a real profound moment. I’m not sure that these works are present to catalyze more than that. But that can be a life-changing experience right there. I think elitism is an interesting word now because you hear it used a lot in the context of a more populist zeitgeist.

Donald Judd. 15 untitled works in concrete. 1980–84

Donald Judd. 15 untitled works in concrete. 1980–84

It’s an accusation.

Yeah. I find that problematic because you also see conservative politicians use it to castigate people who have rarefied knowledge, as though that is the source of the problem, because not everybody can share it or wants to.

I love these old stories about the autodidacts: people who taught themselves everything they knew and were truly unique individuals. I have a lot of respect for that. I love that kind of knowledge. What’s wrong with that? If that’s elitism, bring it on. As opposed to being in a situation where everybody more or less has the same position on everything and they all have about the same level of understanding or knowledge. Maybe that is the way we’re going because of the technologies that we’re using to learn about the world.

And if you carry that through, where is individuality?

Well, I think individuality is clearly less important now than it ever was in Western society. Primarily because they have deleted our solitude. Well, solitude got deleted after privacy was deleted because you can’t have solitude without privacy. Individuality is on its way out with those deletions.

All of these technology companies are trying to herd the populations in certain directions so they can sift from their behavior and find financial value. So many people seem to meld well with this herding, but what’s going to happen is that the autodidacts and so-called oddities—those are the ones that will suffer.

One of the values that comes through in Judd’s work is the importance of individuality. One of my little theories is that he made so many things that seemed alike but were, in fact, different from one another to bring that point home and make you realize that even 10 stacks that look the same are not. It’s Judd pushing for the value of paying attention to individualities. Does that seem far-fetched?

I have two angles on it. I agree and I don’t agree. The part I don’t agree with is those stacks, which are really wonderful work. I think of them all as one work, in the sense that conceptually they’re the same. He did them with different materials and, yes, it does qualify the experience a little differently, but the concept remains the same. Now sometimes, these stacks are more brash and some are more quiet and I have my preferences.

This is a time in the ’60s when these relatively subtle differences, as you point out, they make a difference. That reality is coming to the fore, but it’s making demands on the audience. And now, really, since the ’80s, those demands have been rejected. That you have a demand is not acceptable.

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1967

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1967

But your work makes a lot of demands.

My work has demands, but I don’t think it’s acceptable. I feel like I have whatever I’ve managed to accrue as an artist, or whatever, has been just through sheer need on my part, not the audience’s interest. I have to say that quite blatantly. I can’t say I’m unsuccessful, I’m not a fool, but I do feel that whatever it is I’m doing is definitely not for everybody. Let’s face it, if you’re demanding something, you’re going to lose a lot of audience.

One of the things that has also been really hard in talking with each other and staff about the show is that everything is untitled!

I don’t think that Judd thought titles were necessary. He had a very unembellished way of doing things and the way he lived his life, the way he spoke. He just had no interest.

I’m not saying I have no idea what he thought of other people’s titles, but I think it was an unnecessary thing. Titles mostly become necessary when you have an audience who’s trying to distinguish things. He didn’t have that problem. He knew what was what and he was very much a self-oriented person. My titles are definitely an interest in connecting with the audience.

You’re connecting.

Yes. Certainly.