Home > Article > Nothing Always Happens > Marfa Weekend, part 2

A
few more thoughts about the Marfa weekend…

I
was able to see for the first time Judd’s studio in town, in the old Safeway,
as well as the Marfa Bank building spaces, and his house – I like the early
abstractions he painted that are hung in the latter. While I can see how they
were a dead end for him, they work better than some of those terrible
transitional things he made on the way to leaving painting altogether. They also
looked surprisingly contemporary, which is a sign of how retrogressive things
go sometimes.

pileofrocks.jpg

I’ve seen a couple of his outlying ranches
previously, and have now been to the Chinati Foundation a dozen times. I still
don’t feel as if I’ve fully grasped it all. It keeps opening up, and the whole
thing is satisfying some personal aesthetic need – in part it feels like it is
counteracting the more noxious aspects of art, and American culture, in our
time. No fast food restaurants there (save a lone DQ) or strip malls, no art
referencing Kurt Cobain…

I’ve
been reading some of Judd’s writings. I’m sympathetic to his frustrations, as he
found himself battling commercial interests, museum/gallery incompetence, and
triumphant mediocrity. I’m somewhat envious of the clarity of his convictions, but
skeptical, as at the same time I know that personally I feel more naturally
ambivalent and multifarious. I’ve also been reading some interviews with
Gerhard Richter, and have felt heartened by and attuned to his admitted sense
of fundamental doubt, about life and certainly art. Alan Watts nailed it, in a
book title that forgoes the need to read past it: “The Wisdom of Insecurity.” Studying
Zen, I once worked long and hard on a particular koan (not for the first, or
last, time.) I went in for the standard daily encounter with the Zen master,
when one is expected to try out one’s latest response to this ritualized,
1000+ year-old heart/mind puzzle. The teacher is supposed to be able to
recognize if you have really gotten to the heart of it, to the bones. Finally giving
up, after trying and trying but feeling totally defeated, all I could do was moan, “I don’t know!” “Excellent! Keep
that mind!” the teacher happily exclaimed, poking me in the chest with his
yew-wood staff.

John
Cage famously proclaimed “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” Making art is
a direct confrontation with this paradox; nothing could be more
intrinsically useless than art today. And thank goodness for that. Maybe that’s
why Andrea Zittel’s work has always bugged me a little. When she spoke in
Marfa, bravely self-critical, she touched on this very thing, saying that she felt like her attempts
to compartmentalize and organize her life was in the end sort of distancing her
from it, rather than drawing her in toward it (her presumed goal.) I simply
balk at any art that seems to have an agenda, any kind of didactic plan. Even
(especially) if that plan is cosmetic: to look cool, funny, clever, sensitive,
whathaveyou (not talking about Zittel here, necessarily) – any of the rookie maneuvers that dominate art out here in the
hinterlands, or anywhere maybe. I do think art should aspire toward something –
for me, I’d call it a “rigorous expression of basic sanity.” That feels open enough to include just about anything, I hope.

Art’s
fundamental uselessness is its greatest use, especially in a supposedly utility-driven land that is often just so utterly senseless. Zittel’s work pretends to be useful, but it
isn’t really. Which could theoretically make for something conceptually compelling,
but that isn’t her intent. She ostensibly believes in what she is making: her
systems of life organization, her dehydrated food mixtures, her trailer homes,
her studio apartment pods, her smocks, her bed pans. Her popularity testifies to
others hunger for such drive. I understand what compels her. I spent years
trying to turn lived life into art – my work finally dissolved into nothing,
until one of my last pre-monastic exhibitions was a roadtrip to Canada that
lasted the length of the show, but with no word of where I’d gone, or any videos
or missives back. Invisible performance art. My leap into the void, I guess. I
was increasingly drawn into Zen because it was a readymade system. I didn’t
have to make it all up, and it promised actual transformation or gnosis,
independent of my ego’s products. 2000 years had constructed something better,
purer, and significantly freer from me than I could conjure in my little
studio.

Dogen
Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, ritualized every single
aspect of daily life for his monks, from shitting to brushing teeth to cooking
rice. Every thing had a method, a prayer, a time, a Way. The point of all this
order (which is unsurprisingly very popular in Germany, but isn’t nearly as extreme in some other Zen traditions) is simply to
free up the mind from extraneous decisions, so that one can witness the
profundity of the mundane surrounding us; Blake’s ‘universe in a grain of sand.’

Judd’s
work in a way does this too, I think. His, and his contemporaries. It points
toward you, the viewer, and your experiential interface with the universe. One
of them, David Rabinowitch, said all the right things in his discussion with
critic Kenneth Baker (even if he could have been slightly more accommodating.)
He resisted any theoretical baggage being tied to his work, or attempts to tie
his personality to it. The work is the work, he said basically. You don’t need
to know my history, or what process resulted in this product. It doesn’t matter
that this 40 year old work is being seen now for the first time, he said – it shouldn’t
be that dependent on fashion or such a puny amount of time. He is a serious
guy, a committed maker of things, and the work looks serious, without being
pretentious. It has that aura.

I
like that word, aura, but for reasons
other than the New Age connotation. Some discounted critics used to use it a
lot back in the day. But I think we can mostly agree that good work has a sort
of aura about it. Robert Pirsig called it Quality
in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I don’t know what it is. But we
seem to know it when we see it – sometimes, anyway.

Of
the non-Judd/Chinati things I saw, I was particularly impressed with the work
at Arber & Son, the printmaking shop and gallery. I love printmaking –
something about those steps of remove from the initial gesture, the accrual of
unintentional effects, the collaborative effort, the antiquated technical craft.
Their “30 x 30 cm Project” series deserves wide exposure and acclaim. Which reminds
me, too, about Barnett Newman’s etchings at Chinati Foundation. They are
amazing. Great to see them in conjunction with “Declaring Space” at the Modern.

On
the other hand, the work of Leslie Wilkes and Martha Hughes (on view in a space
near the Thunderbird motel) was a good counterpoint, demonstrating how the
formalist urge so often goes wrong. Wilkes paints pleasant little color theory exercises,
that don’t seem to reflect a process any deeper than the urge to make pretty
patterns. They are very…nice. The resulting tedium doesn’t come from the
simplicity – in fact, I wished they were even simpler. This is art that
pretends to be inspired by Albers or Riley or Martin, but is really just rectilinearly
noodling around in the miasma of our style-less era. A big one, a small one, a
bright one, a muted one, a primary one, a tertiary one, a green one, a yellow
one – obvious moves. Geometric and pretty – is that really enough right now?

On
the other side of the partition, Martha Hughes’ well-crafted paintings were of
discreet un-peopled interiors, populated only by Ikea-esque furniture, all
depicted in flat areas of stylish pastel. Very…tasteful. My attention never
snagged on anything; art like visual Teflon. Welcome to Dwell magazine. They make
you want to go shopping – like for an iPod, or a Zittel pod home. I could feel
my soul draining out through my feet.

They
suited as backdrop for the tastefully tattooed, shaggy hipsters who crowded the
streets, the coffee shop, the venues (what is this, a Dead show – in the
Bauhaus?) Wake up and smell the patchouli, and clove cigarettes (which I did,
more than once.) There’s a new grocery, called the Get Go (clever,) that is
also very discreet and tasteful. Don’t get me wrong- if I lived there I’d be
thrilled. They had a big basket full of my all-time favorite snack food, Barbara’s
All Natural Cheese Puffs, and sodas without refined sugar, and decent wine, and
organic pasta sauce. I’m as bourgeois as the next guy. It’s simply symptomatic
of the dis-ease that is an intrinsic part of visiting Marfa, at least until the
next drought when everyone blows away again. I have a feeling things will continue
to get a lot more expensive and populous before that happens – if it could
happen in Phoenix…
We stayed in Fort
Davis, in a fabulous rental
cottage. I like it better up there, just 20 miles north – there are the
mountains, the quaint downtown, the smaller population. It feels more like New Mexico. It would be
nice to live in proximity to Marfa, maybe just not in it anymore.

The
whole thing is just so strange, to have all these buildings preserved as time
capsules, monuments to the man/legend Judd. His books and pencils and chisels
and booze bottles all left right where he put them, forever, as a town builds back
up, pivoting around them. Ghost town becomes a ghost’s town. I appreciate it all
enormously in any case, even the rueful conundrums of it. It’s changing things. I know it, because I
feel changed from my encounters with it. I am certainly not the only one.

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