January 17th, 2011 | Published in Texas
What Would Donald Judd Do?
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photos by Laura Wilson and Jason Schmidt
Each page is shown with the original layout (text is below each image for ease in reading).
Seven years after Donald Judd’s death, the residents of a cow town in far west Texas-caught in the middle of an estate war between the renowned artist’s former lover and his children-are plastering this question on every store window and car bumper they can find.
“It is my hope that my works of art will be preserved where they are installed.” – Donald Judd
Images: “It’s his version of cathedrals.” Judd’s permanent installations at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. And: Donald Judd, 1994.
"It’s not a healthy thing, to inherit someone’s life,” Laments Rainer Judd, the 30-year-old daughter of artist Donald Judd, after settling into a folding chair in the conference room of her father’s Print Building, formerly the old Crews Hotel in Marfa, Texas. A long rifle in a hand-tooled leather rifle holder with the initials DJ is propped in the corner, within arm’s reach.
A small town in the high Chihuahua Desert, Marfa is smack-dab in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, 200 miles from the nearest airport with scheduled service. It’s so isolated and lightly settled (population 2,121) that the vistas go on forever-mountains 80 miles distant are clearly visible on most days-and the nighttime skies are among the darkest in North America.
It’s an unlikely setting for a bitter, soap opera-like dispute over a renowned artist’s multimillion-dollar empire, a dispute that began as a tug-of-war between Judd’s two grown children and Marianne Stockebrand, the striking German woman with whom Judd, who died in 1994, spent the last seven years of his life, and that has escalated into an epic battle engaging the whole community. Should Marfa be frozen in time as a monument to what Judd accomplished there, or should it evolve into a creative mecca with galleries and shops? Indeed, what should art be: a thing in itself-pure and inviolable, static and unchanging, as Judd posited in his writings – or a cultural catalyst, as the town’s most recent newcomers would have it?
Image: A bedroom at the Marfa compound.
It’s not necessarily a healthy thing for a town to try to sort out Donald Judd’s legacy, either. But that’s what Maria has been doing, especially since last October, when art pilgrims began finding their way to this remote place in growing numbers to behold the Dan Flavin “Marfa Project,” an untitled permanent installation of 360 fluorescent tubes in the barracks of an army camp that Judd turned into the Chinati Foundation (named for the mountain range between the site and the Rio Grande, with Mexico beyond).
After the pilgrims see the Flavin, and after they see Judd’s 100 aluminum cubes housed in two airplane hangar-size artillery sheds, Judd’s giant concrete cubes scattered across half a mile of grassland, the Claes Oldenburg horseshoe that perfectly frames Cathedral Mountain, Ilya Kabakov’s too-close-for-comfort recreation of a Russian schoolhouse abandoned upon the fall of the Soviet Union, and the works of Roni Horn, Carl Andre, and John Wesley, they eventually find their way into town, where no matter where they go they’re confronted with a cryptic question, posited on the rear bumpers of SUVs and crew cabs, across the fronts of T-shirts, and in the windows of stores: WWDJD? (What Would Donald Judd Do?, a takeoff of the teen Christian slogan What Would Jesus Do?).
The question goes a long way toward explaining the unusual connection between a cow town and a prominent artist who hated galleries and museums so much that he created his own art universe in far west Texas. It also speaks of the shadow Judd continues to cast, seven years after his death at the age of 65, and the endless rounds of second-guessing over what he had in mind when he stipulated in his will that a trust be created to protect his private holdings and collections, and then in a deathbed codicil named Marianne Stockebrand (whom he tapped before his death to succeed him as director of the Chinati Foundation) as an additional executor of his estate-along with his daughter Rainer, his now 33-year-old son Flavin, and his longtime attorney John J. Jerome and declared that Stockebrand “shall be in charge of the operation of any museum facility conducted by the trust.”
Images clockwise from top left: Flavin and Rainer Judd, April 2001; the Ayala de Chinati ranch; Dan Flavin’s "Marfa Project"; Marianne Stockebrand, April 2001.
These latter instructions, which led to Stockebrand’s appointment as director of the trust, called the Judd Foundation, in addition to her duties at the Chinati, are what ignited the debate over his legacy.
Jerome declined his executorship, and Stockebrand gave hers up in 1996 in exchange for certain Judd artworks and payment of legal fees she incurred. But Rainer and Flavin Judd are now feuding with Stockebrand over what portions of Judd’s estate qualify as museums and thus fall under Stockebrand’s jurisdiction, even as the estate is in the process of transferring Judd’s assets to the Judd Foundation.
Unlike Rainer, Marianne Stockebrand has no problem inheriting someone’s life, since it’s Donald Judd’s. She feels it’s her professional responsibility. Indeed, she seems to have been practically predestined for the job. Stockebrand came from an upper-class family in Cologne and earned a Ph.D. in art history from Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich. She had a successful career as a curator at the Krefelder Kunstmuseen and as director of the Westf’Šlischer Kunstverein in MŸnster and the Kšlnischer Kunstverein in Cologne, where she met Judd, who was a high-profile celebrity in Germany.
In the years before he died Stockebrand was his Boswell-helping him write catalogs and prepare exhibitions-as well as his lover. Since his passing there’s been no other man in the 55-year-old Stockebrand’s life. The Chinati is her convent.
Rainer and Elavin Judd are the supplicants in this passion play, ostracized by much of Marfa for adhering strictly to the tenets laid down by their father, at least as they understood them. After leaving each child $300,000, Donald Judd requested that they oversee disposition of his estate, worth somewhere between $30 million and $60 million but saddled with more than $5.5 million in debt when lymphoma finally took him down. The still unresolved settlement has run up legal and accounting bills exceeding $2 million and has been so time-consuming that both of Judd’s offspring had to put their budding film careers on hold. Aspiring actress /screenwriter Rainer lives in Los Angeles, while aspiring director Flavin still lives in Marfa, having used his inheritance to buy the Porter House, one of Judd’s residences.
What Would Donald Judd Do? continued
Rainer and Flavin contend that Judd’s extensive holdings should be preserved as they are-a testament to the vision of one of the art giants of the 20th century-and they have Judd’s own words to back them up: “Too often, I believe, the meaning of a work of art is lost as a result of a thoughtless or unsuitable placement of the work for display,” his will reads. “The installation of my own work, for example, as well as that of others, is contemporary with its creation, and the space surrounding the work is crucial to it. Frequently as much thought has gone into the placement of a piece as into the piece itself. It is my hope that such of my works of art which I own at the time of my death will be preserved where they are installed.”
Rainer echoes her father’s sentiments: “The art and architecture are related just as much as frescoes in cathedrals are. It’s his version of cathedrals. It’s about creating something more sacred than museums.” The Chinati Foundation has advanced Judd’s concept of the permanent installation to a point where other institutions are using it as a blueprint. But the foundation differs with the Judd kids when it comes to determining what to keep and what to sell. Stockebrand is willing to consider disposing of some of Judd’s property-in particular the Print Building in Marfa and, in the heart of New York’s Soho neighborhood, 10 1 Spring Street (the five-story building Judd purchased in 1968 where the seeds of this new art movement first bore fruit)to advance his better-known public works. The kids say this is tantamount to blasphemy.
Newcomers to Marfa-painters, printmakers, potters, gallery people also have a stake in the dispute, since it speaks so directly to what Marfa will become. They’re championing the community as a rising colony of creativity, not to mention a pleasant weekend getaway-if you have a private jet. Many even say it’s the next Santa Fe-not too far-fetched a comparison, since Marfa has the same dry climate, the same sharp light, and the same blend of desert and mountains. But a large percentage of Marfa residents think Santa Fe is horrible and that the kinds of people it attracts would reduce Marfa to a pop imitation of its former self Which moves the old guard, which remembers it as a ranching town landlocked by cattle kingdoms the size of small states, to wonder what the hell is going on.
"I’m the optimist in the family,” maintains Rainer Judd, who offers her early recollections of Marfa-which were formed by a contentious custody fight-as evidence that she has a different perspective from most of the art crowd. Donald Judd and Rainer’s mother, Julie Finch, a dancer, were still married when he rented a summer house here in 197 1. They divorced in 1976, shortly after Judd took up permanent residence. Then, in May 1977, he practically kidnapped his children, picking them up at school in New York City as if they were going on a weekend outing and flying them to Marfa. Rainer was six; Flavin was nine. The legal battle ultimately wound up at the Presidio County Court House. Judd was awarded custody. “I knew he’d won,” Rainer says, “by the way he was driving his pickup so fast up the road.
“We had a house on a hill with a windmill, and we all had horses,” she remembers fondly. “It was very western. I dressed like a cowboy until a sweet little lady showed me cowgirl clothes.” Rainer and Flavin attended Marfa schools through the end of junior high, but their lives were hardly typical of small-town kids. Judd pulled them out of school a month early so they could spend summers traveling in Europe. “We were one-fourth European, really” Rainer says. Weekends during the rest of the year were reserved for the Ayala de Chinati ranch, the property Judd valued most of all his holdings. “I’d always want to take a friend, because there was no electricity, no hot water,” says Rainer. “We read by candlelight.” And Judd treated her and her friends like adults. “We’d sit by the fire and talk. It developed in me a wondering type of thinking, free to ask questions. Some parents take their kids hunting or to Disneyland. Driving to the land, making fires, and talking was his gift.
“That seems so long ago,” Rainer says,sighing, as she returns to reality What this 5 all about now is numbers. It’s not the kids wanting to have a good time.”
DEAR MOM. VAN HORN TEXAS. 1260 POPULATION. NICE TOWN. BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY. MOUNTAINS. LOVE DON.
Donald Judd first laid eyes on these bare mountains in 1946, an Army soldier on the way to Korea via Fort McClellan, Alabama, and Los Angeles. The scenery inspired him to send a telegram to his mother back home in Missouri.
Twenty-five years later-after helping to usher in the cool school of minimalism in the early 1960s, scoring a retrospective at the Whitney when he was still under 40, and creating an art presence in Soho before it became Soho-Judd ran out of patience with what he described as “the harsh and glib situation within art in New York” and decided to move west.
He honed in on Marfa, an Anglo-Mexican community that had lost about half its population over the previous 30 years, where property was cheap and abundant. Judd began buying land (three ranches totaling more than 40,000 acres) and restoring vacant houses and buildings, including a bank, a supermarket, and a locker plant, which he turned into, among other things, a writing house, a library, an architect’s office, and a studio. He employed as many as 60 people more workers than any other single company in Marfa-to create what would amount to Juddville. He even bought the Kingston Hot Springs near the Rio Grande, which had been used by locals for more than 200 years, and closed it to the public.
In the mid-’70s the Dia Foundation, underwritten by Houston oil heiress Philippa de Menil Friedrich and her husband Heiner Friedrich, a former art dealer from Germany, began funding artists working outside conventional gallery settings (Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field near Pie Town, New Mexico, is one of their better-known projects) and purchased the 340-acre Fort D.A. Russell, which is south of town, to permanently exhibit works by Judd and his friends. But in the mid-’80s Dia cut off funding due to slumping oil prices. Judd threatened to sue for breach of contract, eventually settling out of court. He got the fort and the artwork, and reorganized them as the Chinati Foundation, which officially opened in 1986.
Marianne Stockebrand too was struck by the landscapes and all the space when she first laid eyes on Marfa, in 1989; she was in the company of Donald Judd. “Coming from Europe, I was surprised by how far you could drive without seeing another car. The distances were startling.” She was putting together a show of Judd’s furniture and architecture projects for the Kšlnischer Kunstverein and was editing previously published essays for a book on his architecture when their relationship became more than professional. Judd was as drawn to the brown-eyed woman with the prominent, finely sculpted cheekbones as she was to him.
“He had a place in Cologne and opened a studio there,” recalls Stockebrand. “And he asked me to come here and work at Chinati. When he was diagnosed, that didn’t happen. “The two did, however, talk of marriage as Judd lay dying in a New York hospital.
When Stockebrand became its director, the Chinati Foundation had less than $500 in the bank. Since then, she has built a $2 million endowment, with a long-term target of $14 million to finish what Judd intended: preparing his concrete buildings to exhibit a large amount of his artwork currently in storage, creating a permanent installation for John Wesley’s paintings, and documenting the site’s military history.
But Stockebrand didn’t just have to learn how to run a struggling foundation; she had to learn Marfa. “When she first came here, English was clearly her second language,” one acquaintance recalls. “She was frosty in a Germanic way-very, very rigid. You’d never see her out in the community But the years have softened her. She shows up at parties. She attends events. She’s much more integrated. Don Judd was a daunting figure. She can be that too. I wouldn’t want to cross her.”
Stockebrand lives in the heart of Juddville, between the old bank and old Safeway buildings Judd bought, and across the street from the Marfa Wool and Mohair building, where John Chamberlain’s car wreck metal sculptures are exhibited. “She’s the only person I’ve encountered who can live that minimalist lifestyle,” a friend says, describing the small, Spartan residence, a block from the main drag, that Stockebrand shares with her two cats. No art or sentimental photographs adorn the walls, and furnishings are sparse, dominated by a Donald Judd desk.
She’s a regular at the bookstore, she lunches at the coffee shop, and sometimes she shows up at art functions, but otherwise Stockebrand sticks to Chinati affairs, in Marfa and around the world. She clearly enjoys living in a place where she can be left alone. And yet she’s also palpably happy about the way the Chinati has revitalized the community: “I wouldn’t want to see this as an artists’ colony in a kitschy sort of way-one souvenir shop next to another-but I think it’s very nice to be able to buy olive oil here and have it on a salad with lettuce that wasn’t wilted last week, as it used to be.”
But while she has acclimated herself to Marfa, and the financial situation at the Chinati has improved, Stockebrand remains embroiled in the wrapping up of the estate, which has pitted her against the Judd kids. She believes the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation should be managed as a single entity. “From the artistic point of view, they should be done together,” she contends. “It’s all Judd’s work. It’s this tiny town in Texas. Cohesion in planning and fund-raising makes sense.” Such a merger, of course, would also bolster the Chinati’s financial footing by eliminating competition for funding and allowing the combined foundation to sell off portions of the Judd estate when and if the public works project is threatened.
“Everything doesn’t have to merge together like some great corporation,” counters Rainer Judd. “Marianne doesn’t want this [print] building here to exist. She believes it’s not a permanent installation, and therefore isn’t valid. It’s a permanent exhibit. What’s wrong with that? That’s what he wanted. They’ve tried to get us to sell Spring Street before it’s transferred to the Judd Foundation. But we can’t bend [on that]. We’re Judd’s kids. We’re the spine.”
Richard Schlagman, owner of the art book publishing company Phaidon Press and president of the Judd Foundation, backs the kids up. “We absolutely don’t want to sell Spring Street,” Schlagman says. “Not at all. Ever. In my view it wasn’t an actual desire to sell it on Marianne’s part but a lack of seeing that it could be saved. I’m sure we can have both Maria and Spring Street.”
Flavin Judd lays his cards on the table over breakfast burritos and green chile huevos rancheros at Carmen’s Cafe (TIE YOUR HORSE AND COME ON IN, reads the sign out front), while his wife Michele nurses and fusses with their one-year-old son, Pascal. Flavin makes it clear that neither he nor his sister asked for the job of executor, and they sure as hell didn’t know they’d have all the debt to clear up. “It’s a lousy situation: all these vultures hovering, all these people pretending to care about the art and about Don.”
Flavin has put the Porter House up for sale again. He’s tired of Maria and Marfa art and Maria art politics, of the pressure to either settle the estate or resign as executor. “They’ve used figures of authority to scare us,” he says. “They want us out. But we’re not going anywhere. They don’t understand. We didn’t grow up with authority figures. We were always told that figures of authority don’t know a fucking thing about art. Turns out it was true.”
While the foundations duke it out and the Texas attorney general’s office attempts to stop the continued bleeding of the estate and make sure Judd’s assets are properly dispersed in accordance with the state’s charitable trust laws, the town-art synergy has shifted to Lynn and Tim Crowley, the post-Judd “Judds” in Maria. Lynn ran Lynn Goode Gallery in Houston, one of that city’s finer contemporary spaces; Tim is an attorney and sits on the Chinati board. Five years ago, after Lynn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they bought a place in Marfa as a retreat. Now it’s almost a full-time residence. Their Marfa Book Co. has become the social center for the art crowd and much of the rest of the community. And they’ve gone on a buying spree-snatching up property in town and surrounding ranchland-that has inspired comparisons to Judd. With one major difference: Judd closed his houses and buildings to the public; the Crowleys want to open the spaces up, fill them with artists and art, and make them accessible.
Already Marfa is hopping in a way it hasn’t since the movie production of Edna Ferber’s Giant came to town, in 1955. El Paisano Hotel, the Spanish Baroque inn where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and the rest of the cast hung out, is coming back to life as a luxury lodge. Tourists can buy art to take home at Hecho en Marfa, a shop of locally made arts and handicrafts run by the nonprofit Marfa Studio of Arts. And one of the Crowleys’ former bookstore employees has opened up a health food store.
But Tim Crowley says it’s too early to call Marfa the next Santa Fe. ‘Most of our friends from Houston are bewildered,” he says, laughing. “They say, ‘We heard about art, but all we saw were these huge blocks of concrete.’ There’s not much going on. The logistics are daunting. Marfa lacks health care, goods, and services. We don’t have a drug store. We just got an ATM-I don’t think anyone’s used it yet. It’s a tough-love, challenging type place. You have to want to be here. We just got a restaurant to stay open on Sunday. Before then, all you had was microwave chicken nuggets at the convenience store.”
So what would Donald Judd have made of the new Marfa?
Rainer and Flavin Judd think he wouldn’t have embraced it. “He didn’t come here for Marfa,” Flavin says. “He came for the mountains south of here, where the ranches were. If not for my sister and me going to school, he wouldn’t have had much to do with Marfa. He was fed up with the town in 1993. He wanted to move his library down to the ranch.”
By then Judd had achieved a degree of notoriety from some very public run-ins over noise from the local feed mill and ice plant. And odds are he wouldn’t have liked the WWDJD? bumper sticker any more than his daughter does.
“That sticker was created by people who probably never met him,” Rainer notes shortly before leaving town again. “People who think he must have been a megalomaniac to create all this.”
Not a megalomaniac, perhaps, but a serious collector with very specific ideas about the way things should be. Both Stockebrand and the Judd kids are guided by what they think Donald Judd wanted, but getting an honest assessment from anyone else about who is or isn’t on the right track is almost impossible, since so much is riding on what will be done with Judd’s properties and extensive collections. The Crowleys, for example, have offered to buy the Print Building in Marfa; Tim Crowley says that the old Crews Hotel could be a nice hotel once again and that soon-to-be Marfa resident Liz Lambert, who owns the Hotel San Jose in Austin, a vintage motor court made over into a hip boutique lodging, could be the hotelier to do it. And John Vinson, an assistant attorney general involved in the case, has a residence in Marfa, too.
Ayala De Chinati, where Judd is buried, is on a south-facing promontory between the Chinati and Sierra Vieja mountain ranges, overlooking the valley of the Rio Grande a majestic landscape of canyons, peaks, and cliffs wholly devoid of humanity. To see it requires numerous formal requests, several telephone calls to landowners to secure permission to drive across their property without being shot at, signatures on forms on which one promises not to stray from the path, an all-terrain vehicle, and a pair of bolt cutters, since some “asshole landowner,” as an estate employee puts it, has been putting new locks on gates, cutting off access to the place.
It’s 60 miles of bad road from the rim of the Chinatis into Pinto Canyon and down onto the vast slope draining into the Rio Grande-three hours minimum. But when a thunderstorm parks over the Chinatis as darkness falls, dropping buckets of rain (the first rain in almost a year), and the road disappears altogether into a swift-moving stream, it’s flat impossible. So I back up and turn around. Near Marfa there are car lights. (I haven’t seen a car or person since I left town seven hours ago.) It’s the US. Border Patrol. Motion sensors planted in the pavement must have tipped them off. They tail me all the way back into town.
WWDJD? I think he’d say it was worth every bit of the effort.