Book Review: Setting the Table

Oversized books

Setting the Table

Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd

by Marianne Stockebrand
Yale University Press, 328 pp., $65

Donald Judd

by David Raskin
Yale University Press, 220 pp., $55

"White guys doing their thing in the desert" is how I once described the work of Donald Judd and friends at Chinati, the art compound Judd founded in Marfa, Texas. It was a flippant statement – one part dismissive, two parts defensive – meant to shorthand the precision-driven, isolationist, and sometimes colonizing (here I imagine my sunburned German ancestors tromping around New Mexico) severity associated with the Minimalism and land art of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly that work imbued with the kind of masculine subjectivity that never seems to go away completely.

Setting the Table

It is difficult not to note that Marfa is a product of American expansionism. It is also difficult to ignore that Judd's work there – buying, reworking, and installing art in area buildings and ranches, first via the oil-moneyed Dia Art Foundation and later through the Chinati Foundation – is somewhat an extension of that colonial project. On the other hand, Judd did hand-deliver the dying town a 21st century tourist economy, way ahead of schedule.

But whatever. A version of this preamble runs through my head every time I set the cruise control for Far West Texas, which only makes my experience of Judd's Marfa work as pure pleasure more surprising. Invariably, I feel a start upon first glance, particularly of the rows of aluminium cubes in former artillery sheds, but also at the former Locker Plant (now a studio), or the bank building, almost completely untouched on the outside.

I felt the same start upon seeing Marianne Stockebrand's Chinati. It is, unbelievably, the first monograph on the project, and Judd's longtime collaborator and longtime Chinati Foundation director has captured the lush austerity of the artist's Marfa project with detailed narrative and subtle, gorgeous photographs that reveal the elements at play in the artwork. There are chapters devoted to each of the artworks at Chinati, as well as to Judd's other local work, with civic and geographic elements presented with such care and attention that they are inseparable from the art – just as Judd intended. You won't find a sentimental, community-minded Judd here – or probably anywhere – but there is ample documentation that, as completely practical and aesthetic matters, the artist strove to preserve the town's character, in addition to being a proto-xeriscaper and land preservationist.

For those discomfited by Judd's seeming contradictions – he created highly conceptual, formal, and repetitive pieces that somehow elicit strong feelings – David Raskin's Donald Judd offers a comforting thesis: He meant to do that. Raskin, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, pulls from Judd's work, his philosophical influences, and his essays the theory that underlies his art – essentially, that "art adds to our world by producing transitions rather than meanings," that art must be "interesting," and that "interest is biopsychological." If the news that, as Raskin writes of one of the artist's "horizontal progressions for the wall ... it is easier to understand and unique in terms of its math" comes as a letdown, the book also explores Judd's history, politics, and biography in a way that is both fascinating and dense, approachable and abstract – echoing the strangely affecting nature of the work itself.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More coffeetable books
Gift Guide 2016: Coffeetable Books
Gift Guide 2016: Coffeetable Books
Big books give heft to big success stories about women in business, Flatbed Press, UT's collections, Pan Am, and the Spurs

Robert Faires, Dec. 16, 2016

Epic Feats
Epic Feats
Coffeetable books that track monumental achievements on the silver screen and on the road

Robert Faires, Dec. 19, 2014

More Chinati Foundation
Day Trips
Day Trips
The Chinati Foundation's museum in Marfa offers world-class art in the middle of nowhere

Gerald E. McLeod, May 9, 2008

To Marfa, on a Tuesday in December
To Marfa, on a Tuesday in December
When high art and hipness move in, what happens to a tiny Texas town?

Dan Keane, Dec. 23, 2005

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Cindy Widner
Protect and Preserve
Protect and Preserve
Now that we've freaked out about Austin's unrelenting boom, can we figure out how to keep what's best about the city alive?

July 24, 2015

The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas
The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas
The Chronicle talks to Ann Armstrong of map project Austin's Atlas about the local preservation tool

July 24, 2015


coffeetable books, Marfa, Donald Judd, Chinati Foundation, Marianne Stockebrand

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle