Interview: Thomas Kellein
by Richard Shiff
Thomas Kellein began his tenure as the new Director of the Chinati Foundation in January. The accomplished writer and curator comes to Marfa from the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, where he was director and organized many successful exhibitions, including Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968 in 2002 (which also traveled to the Menil Collection). He succeeds founding Chinati Director Marianne Stockebrand. For this issue of …mbg, we invited Richard Shiff, noted scholar on Donald Judd, to talk with Kellein about his past experiences with Judd’s work and his plans in Marfa.
Richard Shiff [RS]: Thomas, you’ve had many years of experience with the art of Donald Judd, as well as having had considerable contact with the artist himself during his later years. What has this meant to you? And how is it affecting you now, given your new position at Chinati?
Thomas Kellein [TK]: My first deep impression was the way the objects and furniture in Marfa—even the papers, fabric, and cutlery—were arranged by Judd. I found them on a scale and in an order that suggested physical contact and intimate personal use, as if they were existential items. If Donald Judd had not been a personal guide for me in the early 1990s in Marfa as well as in Eichholteren, Switzerland, where he also had a studio and home, I would have taken this primary visual message perhaps as an installation strategy. It is to me, however, something far beyond: it suggests that culture and nature could ideally become one and the same (although his work extending into the environment cannot be called land art). With this in mind, for the programs at Chinati, we won’t merely install art, but first observe the power and, let’s say, the very necessity of it.
My first experience with Judd’s objects at a museum was at the Kunsthalle Basel where I had to mount an untitled wall piece from 1962, the earliest from the group of Judd’s works belonging to the Basel Kunstmuseum. That work is rather large, with horizontal elements that project outward at the top and bottom. During installation, Judd was just entering the gallery when it was still sitting on the floor. He said, while we held it up, that we should lower it, which we did. That instruction was crucial because it changed the piece from being simply a work to appreciate with the eyes into something to experience with the whole body and the space.
RS: Yes, that piece in Basel, it’s a bit like a shallow channel. When it’s lower on the wall, it gets closer to the viewer’s position and interacts at the scale of the body. But if it were higher, it might look too much like relief sculpture in pictorial space, precisely the effect Judd would avoid. He really knew where he was going with this new art of his, which was quite strange to see back in the 1960s when he made these things. To me, those early pieces still look strange. The other side of strange, however, is fresh. I’m always amazed at how fresh his early pieces continue to look, even though I’ve seen them many times. They make other sculptural works look like imitations of each other. Judd knew he was on to something.
But you’re certainly the expert on the early work—you curated a beautiful show of it for the Kunsthalle Bielefeld and for the Menil Collection in Houston in 2002. What do you think you learned from that experience?
TK: An art historian has usually two key interests in the art: one is the definition of meaning, the other an authentic experience of how things developed. These points of view are both important, of course, but I was always more keen to know how and why an artist would move from one project or procedure to another.
Judd began making beautiful drawings in the late 1940s. On the other hand, the so-called “true” examples of Judd’s work should be dated from 1962, or even 1963 and later. What did he do in the meantime, or, to put it differently, why did it take so long for him to reach the level he was aiming for? This question fascinated me even more after he showed me his paintings from the mid-1950s at the Cobb House in Marfa. I couldn’t believe how different they seemed to be from everything I knew. I asked him whether he would ever show these works in Europe, and a bit to my surprise he quickly said “sure.” Then it took me about ten years to come up with this show.
The experience was still not an easy one, as Judd was much more than just a painter who then became a maker of objects. I found a very complex inquiry into all kinds of intellectual fields. What certainly interested him during that time was space and architecture, and I think that was the key to the later work and his longing for a holistic point of view.
RS: So, at Chinati, we’re dealing not only with an artist making art, but also with an artist collecting the work of other artists and then installing it in buildings of his own design or rehabilitation. Are there parallels with institutions for which you’ve worked in the past, whether at Bielefeld or elsewhere—or is Chinati rather unique, and a place where the usual issues don’t necessarily apply?
TK: Chinati should be regarded as the paradigm of spaces for contemporary art installation. I see it as the origin of so many other institutions, even of private collections that try so seriously to do an ideal job of display. After Mondrian, Judd was clearly the most serious artist in the 20th century regarding the issue of aesthetic integrity. A lot of museums don’t even try to maintain integrity. They put other concerns first and think of the art’s presentation as almost an afterthought.
It sounds mean-spirited, but this is, in a way, good for us in Marfa. Chinati still gives people a holistic experience. A visit combines history, nature, architecture and very different kinds of art, mostly three-dimensional, all of which will fill your eyes for hours. There is not much else around, but you want to see it again and again. The town of Marfa has a long, exciting history, and maintains unique architectural features such as a very beautiful courthouse building from 1886. The Chinati Foundation invites visitors to see about twenty buildings filled with unique installations, not only by Judd but by a variety of artists. The Judd Foundation has also opened the more private places the artist has left us—his residence, library, and studio. That is a complementary experience. To me this is a major part of the world’s cultural heritage, located here within the United States, in this small Texas town.
RS: Judd brought his radical art to a relatively isolated location and changed the character of Marfa, and yet we might feel that he did no more than apply sound design principles to what was already there. There’s nothing blatant about the changes. He restored existing buildings and modified them to make them function more specifically for his purposes. But you might believe when you see the reconditioned buildings that they were much like this before Judd came to Marfa. He had a way of realizing the potential of existing spaces and architectural volumes just as he cultivated the qualities of his various, almost commonplace materials—the industrial metals he used in his sculptures, or the plywood and the Plexiglas. He made what was familiar—adobe, for example—seem new. He found an appropriate beauty in this and other local building materials. And yet his sense of proportion reminds me of many classically modern Viennese buildings, and I also think of the quality he brought to light in the cast iron building he purchased in 1968 for a studio and living space in New York.
He makes us see what we’ve always seen, but in a new way. I know that he thought that the serious members of every artistic generation develop a collective distinction; and this is why he believed so strongly that the achievement of his own generation should be represented permanently in one location. Do you see something of Judd in the artists of his own time who most interested him and are featured at Chinati—a group that includes Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, David Rabinowitch, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, John Wesley? Many people would think that it’s not a coherent group.
TK: There is both coherence and variety, and this is one of the most interesting aspects of a visit to the collection at Marfa. Those who expect Minimal Art and nothing else will be surprised, as will those who think of the art of just one generation. Chinati is many things at once. What I find very stunning is the aspect of humor. Judd knew how to laugh, how to tease people, and even poke fun at himself.
“We all live and die,” Francis Bacon once said. From my point of view, the secret of the Judd spaces, as well as those occupied by the other artists, is their capability to grow older, and at the same time, stay young with us.
Richard Shiff is the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of several essays on Donald Judd.