For Judd, the sublime was a collaborative condition between an object-reality and our own perceptual desires. (See the trim, dense lyricism of a 1972 shelf, made from anodized aluminum and galvanized iron, that’s hanging in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.) The gunsheds in their entirety — buildings, windows, landscape, light, boxes — comprise an art in which each aspect exists in a calibrated but changing relation to every other. Judd once said to a group of students: “Everything happens together and exists together.” The boxes change. Their surfaces and spaces are washed or scoured or befogged by whatever quality of light is falling on them, and that same light strikes and shines the stone floor, and light bounced off one box ghosts over other boxes. And because of the desert’s ambient temperature, which from noon to midnight can vary more than 30 degrees (there’s as yet no temperature control in the sheds), the aluminum expands and contracts. A former Judd assistant who showed me around said that when the extreme heat cools, the restless molecules can sound like rain falling on the roof. There’s visual evidence, too: some of the boxes have walked a little — you can see where one corner over the course of time has crept six inches.
Until I experienced 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, Judd’s work felt remote to me and I felt indifferent to it. No more. The act of the form-finding mind to create more complex and harmonious and complete fields of relatedness, fields that are also overwhelming pleasure-givers — that act is passionately human and immediate. The sheds are such fields: the mind centers itself on the unity and the continuity of landscape, industrial fabrication (of buildings and boxes both), and Judd’s ratio-driven imagination. Look at the boxes and you see, beyond and upon them, the greasewood, goathead, sagebrush, prickly pear, and desiccated terrain stretching beyond the walls. All these actions and relations stir up a terrific unworldliness totally in and of the world.
Judd first thought to install his aluminum blocks in the empty Marfa Wool & Mohair Building in the center of town, but that space became instead a site — the best I’ve ever seen — for John Chamberlain’s sculptures. Chamberlain (who died last December) is best known for his work constructed of automobile scrap metal. He scavenged fenders, tail-light assemblies, radiators, bumpers, dashboards, and other stuff, put the pieces in a compactor, crunched them to an appropriate dimension (he could control the pressure) then cut or used them whole, tack-welding while he explored the composition. His raucous, industrial flora shouldn’t be as lyrical as they most certainly are. They have Walt Whitman’s rousing energy (as Judd has Emily Dickinson’s rhapsodic severity), and they are magically light, partly because of the way he worked the surfaces: he left the original paint job intact, or scraped and sanded it, or painted over it with a runny, splashy enthusiasm.
Considering their congested volume, the 22 pieces, made between 1972 and 1975, have incredible speed and brevity. They’re built on a human-ish scale, even the regal reliefs on the walls, and they look vaguely “of use,” like the original machines their materials derive from. Consistent with Judd’s aspirations regarding everything, Chamberlain’s works are positioned and spaced in the hangar-like interior at measured intervals, and their forms are modulated by the actions of available light. Nearly every piece — restlessness and physicality never looked so desirable — stand on dainty feet where scrap corners touch the floor.
Chamblerlain was literary and loved giving his work crazy titles. The Marfa installation contains two “gondolas” (as he called them), low-built, long-framed, constructions that stretch Chamberlain’s more usual spheroid bunchings. One gondola, William Carlos Williams, looks seaworthy and anxious to be splashed. It’s a visual equivalent of idiomatic speech turned into a poetic vernacular. The other gondola, Ezra Pound, reminds you of Pound’s poetry: it looks like something broken — a toboggan, maybe, or bed-frame — with messy, sharp edges and barely coherent relations of part to part. Williams believed all poetry could be reduced somehow to sex. Chamberlain, too, had his own ideas about that. In Marfa, you see realized what he said about his work, that it all came out of “sexual and intuitive thinking,” and that “the sexual decisions come with the fitting of the parts.” The sexuality is muscular, liberated, jaunty, and nonstop. The ten-year-old tourist I chatted with, however, had none of that in mind. When I asked what he liked about Chamberlain, he said: “I like how you know how old the car is by its color.” ■
For information about Donald Judd and John Chamberlain: chinati.org; for information on Marfa: marfacc.com.