Thursday, January 27, 2011

The quiet clarity of aiming high

“The question of whether excellent old art is preferable to inferior contemporary art or the latter to the first is pretty complicated and painful. I am sure, at least, that excellent old art is not enough.” Donald Judd wrote those words in 1964, and I read them a few weeks ago in Marfa. I have never been to a place that more completely vindicated the sense of possibility about the present—for this reason, a more American place—than Judd’s town in an austere corner of West Texas. His industrial cubes had never spoken to me before; they seemed cold and hard and obvious, and too pared down. In his great renunciation, I thought, he renounced too much. But when I walked into the artillery sheds at the Chinati Foundation, with their long rows of glistening boxes in mill aluminum, I melted. The serenity was startling. In size each box was the same, but each was internally different, and the sensation of unity in diversity was overwhelming. The light cascading through the wall of windows upon the silver containers seemed almost to liquefy them, as their surfaces became mottled with the reflected color of the golden winter grasses whipped by the high winds outside. The high concrete pillars formed the vast interior into naves, and along with the barrel vaults that Judd appended to the roof they intensified the impression that one was standing in a new kind of cathedral. It occurred to me that Judd had come out the other end. He had made geometry rapturous, or rapture geometrical. This was not “minimalism,” it was classicism—the transformation of matter, space, and environment according to rules of proportion and variation that are not subjective but are nonetheless deeply expressive. Like all of Judd’s works, which do nothing to promote themselves, this one had no name, and offered no external assistance or distraction. The reference game was impossible—but not because Judd was uninfluenced. The day before, touring his extraordinary working spaces, I visited his huge library, and was struck by all the art history on his shelves that was missing from his works. That was my mistake. Only a man who had traversed “excellent old art” could have distilled it into excellent new art. In Marfa I saw the now and the always, the concrete and the ideal, the overcoming of urbanity, the quiet clarity of aiming high. - Leon Wieseltier

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