Building Interest

"Art and Architecture" was held in the desert, but the subject was hardly dry

The little red lapel pin that got me into the "Art and Architecture" symposium in Marfa, Texas, two weekends ago turned out to be a very hot item. The Chinati Foundation, which organized the symposium, was deluged with requests from Los Angeles and New York, with many people offering to pay several times the original $80 amount to get in. The waiting list swelled to 150 people, and in the end, 600 lucky ones wearing linen and strappy sandals picked their way through the Marfan dust to sit in a windowless, un-air-conditioned former ice plant for two days with their eyes trained on a podium.

It sounds like torture -- at one point I nearly fainted from heat and the smell of my own road-fare farts -- but actually, it was a chance to see the world's most luminous artists and architects: Among the panelists were light-and-space master Robert Irwin, pop art monumentalist Claes Oldenburg and his collaborator Coosje van Bruggen, and Frank Gehry, whose recently completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was dubbed "the greatest building of our time" by architect Philip Johnson.

Marfa is possibly the world's most appropriate location for such a symposium, since minimalist sculptor Donald Judd dedicated a fair portion of the town's buildings to the proposition that art and architecture are interdependent. Judd moved to Marfa in 1974, and spent the next 20 years (until his death in 1994) transforming buildings into permanent environments for art. Two glassed-in airplane hangars hold 100 shimmery mill-aluminum Judd boxes in various permutations. Other buildings house permanent installations by John Chamberlain, Ilya Kabokov and others, and soon a Dan Flavin light installation will be completed in the army barracks of the former Fort D.A. Russell, which New York's Dia Foundation purchased for Judd's project, and which now serves as home to the Chinati Foundation.

Over the weekend, Judd's private living space (known as the Block) was open to the public for the second time. With its gravel yard and its big, horizontal, light-filled buildings -- part gallery, part home -- the Block was all fetishized industrialism, a perfect place to witness the cult of Judd. Through locked glass doors, it was possible to view Judd's record collection neatly arranged in the den, his arrowhead collection strewn artfully on the kitchen table, his leather hat on the table in the vast library. Judd intended to create an environment where he could comfortably live and work around art -- he put beds or tables in many of the galleries, for example.

But the Block, which would be an ideal place to continue that tradition with a residency program or some other project involving real live people, is now an eerily frozen tableau, and according to Marianne Stocke-brand, director of both Chinati and the Judd Foundation, it will stay that way. It seems there is some anal retentiveness in the wild, wild west after all. Chinati's square, minimalist logo doesn't just say pure. It says purist.

Marfa, where Judd's quest for aesthetic perfection was given loose rein (he even wanted to close the town's ice-manufacturing plant because it was noisy), is hardly the real world, where, as van Bruggen put it during the symposium, "our vision must live with other visions." If art and architecture fused seamlessly under the watchful eye of Donald Judd, the two disciplines have not historically gone along and gotten along. James Ackerman, a Harvard art and architecture critic, laid the groundwork for the symposium with a brief history of their uneasy coexistence (due to the subject of the symposium, it should be noted at the outset, the "art" part of "Art and Architecture" mostly referred to public, permanent art). Ackerman led off with a slide of a work by artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who used to cut buildings in half with a chain saw.

Ackerman then went back to the 17th century, pointing out quite neatly the theme -- or, perhaps, the fiction -- that was to underscore the rest of the weekend: Artists cannot compete with the height, size and necessity of architecture, and architects will never be given the freedom of the artist. Around this point revolved many lively discussions, particularly when it came to one of the world's most famous examples of public art, Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. Designed for a plaza in New York, Serra's giant wall of curved steel caused such a ruckus (it blocked pedestrian traffic routes) that it was eventually removed. In Serra's ensuing lawsuit, van Bruggen recalled, her testimony made the primacy of architecture in society perfectly clear. Instead of taking away the sculpture, she said, "I asked them to please take away the building. And everybody was shocked."

Both artists and architects talked about an increasing focus on context and relationship. Robert Irwin's charming talk about his design for the garden of the new Getty Center in Los Angeles brimmed with pithy statements and Big Ideas. He called postmodernism a "red herring," saying that modernism's not yet finished.

"It's not about things and objects," he said, thrilled to have identified new territory. "It's about things and objects in context." Throughout the lecture, Irwin repeatedly proved his constitutional inability to accept the conventional wisdom on anything, from how the Getty garden's metal stream bed should be welded together to what kind of trees he should plant. However, he noted that he's not an expert on either gardening or welding. "The one thing I do bring to [a project] is intimacy," Irwin said. "It's the one thing that I really have that's special." Irwin added that his constant and well-documented struggle with architect Richard Meier, who is notorious for using only pale, monochromatic materials, actually improved the end result, then giggled when he added that the garden in bloom would bring a riot of color to the hill.

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