No.7 / Top 10 lighting experiences: The Chinati Foundation, Texas

April 06 2011 — by Jonathan Speirs
Set up by the artist Donald Judd (1928–1994) as a repository for site-specific and permanent art, the Chinati Foundation was a reaction to his pieces being sold and relocated to venues and displayed in manners he was not happy with.

Untitled, Dan Flavin, The Chinati Foundation, 1996

Untitled, Dan Flavin, The Chinati Foundation, 1996

Untitled, Dan Flavin, The Chinati Foundation, 1996

The following extract is a statement made by Judd in the Foundation’s catalogue: “It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.

Located on a site he procured from the US Army in Marfa, Texas it covers 340 acres comprising old barrack buildings and two converted artillery sheds. It houses tremendous works by Judd and among several other artists it also has six of the barrack buildings set aside for a site specific Dan Flavin (1933-1996) installation which was inaugurated in October 2000, supposedly his last work before his death.

In April 2001 Paul Gregory and I made the pilgrimage to Marfa. We were both the guests of Fred Oberkircher at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth spending a week teaching and mentoring students. It didn’t seem too far a jump from there to Marfa but then America is a big place! We flew from Dallas/Fort Worth to El Paso International Airport and then drove the 200 miles southeast to Marfa along some of the straightest and most boring roads. Staying overnight at a lodge just outside of town (as a result of the success of Chinati there are now several new hotels in the town) we arrived bright and breezy at 10am. All visits are guided and there were about eight people in our group. Our guide quickly realised we were very interested in getting to see the Flavin exhibit which was scheduled for after lunch. We toured the Judd spaces including some impressive concrete constructions in the landscape. I was captivated by the interplay of light and shade caused by the sun on his milled aluminium cubes allowed by the large expanses of glass on all sides.

After lunch badgering our guide resulted in her entrusting us with the keys to the six Flavin buildings and Paul and I headed straight off. Each barrack block is a large U-shaped building where Flavin constructed two parallel tilted corridors at the bottom of the “U”. He then inserted fluorescent light barriers either in the centre or at the end of each corridor using eight foot coloured fluorescent tubes filling the full height and width of the opening. He spaced the tubes apart so you can view past to see the space beyond. The fluorescents are installed back to back with two differently coloured phosphor lamps. So by example if you are looking at blue you see yellow beyond. There are only four colours used – blue, yellow, pink and green. The first two buildings use pink and green, the next two use yellow and blue with all four colours together in the final two buildings. Flavin maintained only two windows at the top of the “U” to allow some daylight penetration. This obviously added a new “colour” to the spatial experience illuminating the white walls. I was intrigued at the difference the spaces would have if the daylight was excluded. Our guide informed me that she had never seen the pieces in the dark as the Foundation was only open in the daylight hours. I cannot help thinking that motorised blinds that slowly opened and closed would add a fascinating extra dimension in terms of appreciating Flavin’s use of colour and form. Interestingly some of the official photographs on the official website were obviously taken at night.

Visually the experience is powerful yet so simple in execution. The interplay of contrasting colours, the mixing of light as it permeates into the main space, the vistas past the tubes are all delightful. We were alone for almost the entire time allowing us to sit and look and contemplate as well as discuss what we were seeing. Marvellous.

Jonathan Speirs