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Genius loci

Ayala de Chinati

Chihuahuan Desert, Texas, 2014. Photo: Bob Plotkin

Finding our way through the scrub and down the hillside at Las Casas, Donald Judd’s ranch in southwest Texas, our project team followed the rock bed as it bent first left, then right. The handprint was easy to overlook, but once found, its delicate improbability was breathtaking. Several hundred years old, it was outlined by ochre powder blown onto the underside of a rock ledge at the edge of the arroyo. Steps away, a smaller hand. Father-son? Husband-wife? A short climb back up and out of the arroyo, there was an equally improbable sight: the cool, quiet, cerebral elegance of Judd’s “progression” sculptures hanging on a wall in a simple cabin in the heart of the high Chihuahuan Desert. The handprint and the sculpture. Two very different objects made with the same intention — an affirmation that someone once stood within this vast, timeless landscape.

A complicated man of simple, declarative works, Judd’s influence has been acknowledged by everyone from Apple Computer to Álvaro Siza. To describe him as an artist is to dismiss the scope and scale of his interests. He was a prolific writer, known for his criticism before he became known for his art; a political activist; and one of the earliest advocates of preservation and adaptive reuse, first through his purchase and renovation of 101 Spring Street in New York City and then in a series of buildings and structures in Marfa, Texas. He was also keenly interested in preserving the land. At the time of his death in 1994, he owned more than 40,000 acres south of Marfa, and it was here, in the swath of property Judd called Ayala de Chinati, that he inhabited a series of cabins and spent as much time as he could in the remote forbiddingness of the high Chihuahuan Desert. His son, Flavin Judd, said that although people connect his father to Marfa, toward the end of his life the town was merely a stopover on his way to the remote desert: “If you really want to understand my father, you have to go to Las Casas.”

The road from Marfa to the Las Casas ranch begins as a two-lane blacktop and soon diminishes in quality, the ruts at the sides becoming the road itself until finally giving up any pretense of a road hard up against the Mexican border. Arriving at the ranch, the experience is of the endless view and the scrub at your feet. The near and the far, the vast and the intimate, are all enveloped in an otherworldly silence — a ridiculous, all-encompassing silence completely at odds with the scale of the land. This vastness should be defined by a deafening noise, but then again, is this vastness a solid or a void? At the center of the compound there is a corral, enclosed by a stone wall whose craftsmanship and precision rivals anything at Machu Picchu — its author an unknown ranch hand from long ago. Stepping inside the cabin, one leaves the uncontainable landscape and enters an intimate, carefully curated landscape. The interiors reveal a defiant, obstinate, inquisitive homeowner making a stand against the vastness just outside the door: the carefully arranged kitchen utensils, the meticulously aligned furniture, the precisely ordered library, and the carefully hung “progression” sculptures. In his cabin as in his work, Donald Judd was seeking order in a seemingly disordered world.

He is buried in an unmarked grave on a small rise just beyond the cabin, his life arcing from his childhood in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, to the epicenter of the New York City art scene to the small West Texas town of Marfa and then up into the high desert. A progression of its own, from the measurable to the immeasurable.