Issue #196
Hearty Welcomes and Humble Pleas September 14, 2012

Long Read: Letter to Donald Judd

by Josh Franco

To Donald Judd:

You never knew during your life that you were a part of mine. Frankly, neither did I for the first twenty odd years. My grandfather, Hipolito Hernandez, spent his childhood in Marfa, where your permanent collection and the foundations you began are thriving. When not traveling west as a farmworker, Hipolito grew up in the small house that shares the traffic circle with the entrance to the Chinati Foundation you renovated from a US Army base. He has memories of the German POW’s housed there taunting him and his childhood friends from over the walls. (These are the same POW’s whose wall drawings you have conscientiously preserved behind plexiglass.) In his adult life, he moved to Odessa, a town you are also familiar with. I know this from interviewing “Pepper” Parsons at Metal Fab Products in Odessa just last month. He now owns the shop, but when he was an employee there in the 1980s, it was he who convinced the then-owner to take on your odd commissions. He was involved in developing the esoteric techniques for producing your particular designs in Core-Ten and aluminum using machinery usually reserved for fabricating parts for the oil industry. (His nephew is also my oldest friend; we seem connected in quite a few odd, little ways.)

My name is Joshua T Franco. I am writing to you because I am participating in a summer course in Middelburg, Netherlands with professor Walter Mignolo. The course is titled “The New World (Dis)Order and the Challenge of Social Justice: Ethics and the Decolonial Option.” Phrases like “new world (dis)order” and “social justice” may ring as paranoid and conspiratorial or dated and overly-idealistic, but I cannot help how they land on your ears; I only know from experience how they often sound to others when I describe my research. My own work is particularly invested in one field in the network of those exploring the decolonial option, the possibility of a “decolonial aesthetics.” I will discuss this concept further, but first, I will explain why I am writing to you in particular following some additional background.

Though my grandfather moved, we still had (and have) family members, both living and dead, to visit in Marfa. My childhood was punctuated with these visits. I remember waking up early in the morning, stopping for pre-made burritos at any of the combo gas station/cafecitos scattered throughout West Texas, and setting off on the two and a half hour drive to Marfa. You’ve likely had your own fair share of chile verde, asado and frijoles tightly wrapped in warm tortillas. If it was summer, we might stop at the natural springs in Balmorhea. I was born in 1985. By that time, you were an established presence in town, in the midst of work on the fifteen works in concrete, I would later learn. But through all of those trips, I never heard your name. My family never spoke it; not by choice, nor ignorance, but something like a benign indifference. When we were in Marfa, it was in Spanish, with family and on a budget—quite a different way to inhabit Marfa than that practiced by the ten thousand plus pilgrims who visit your collections every year. Despite Marfa’s isolated smallness, where nothing in town is more than a ten-minute walk away, including your works, our inhabitation rarely acknowledged your own. After four years of focused dwelling on our multiple Marfa’s, I still am given pause by this fact.

I began to see and move in your Marfa as a result of my ongoing training as an art historian. By the time I entered college, your work had become canonical to the discipline, and as young, art-conscious Texans, it was nearly compulsory for my classmates and I to visit your Marfa. This is when it began to be mine also. How odd it was to go there not with my family, but with mostly white, mostly affluent friends from exclusively English-speaking homes. Their identities over-coded mine, as did my shifting stylized embodiment, and suddenly waiters, people in the streets and others in Marfa were reading me as another art-goer from elsewhere, and no longer a Chicano West Texana local. Now I am working on my dissertation, and the vibration resulting from having multiple Marfas beneath my feet provides both the energy and subject of that work.

What does it have to do with words like “decolonial option,” “decolonial aesthetics” and others from Mignolo and his peers I have yet to introduce but are related, like “colonial difference,” “border gnosis” and “de-linking”? Let’s imagine taking a walk through town together, and I will explain along the way.

As we leave the Chinati Foundation, my grandfather’s house is on the left at the traffic circle. Completing the circle are the public housing complex and the US Border Patrol office. The Border Patrol tower shines its light down on the area. Behind Hipolito’s former home there is an altar housing a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The main structure of the altar is a discarded bathtub turned on its end and partially buried in largest tree in the yard. I tell you how the altar is there to mark an apparition of Guadalupe in 1994, coincidentally, the year of your passing. The apparition appeared at night for two weeks as a white shadow in the tree trunk. There is film footage of this phenomenon on a single decaying VHS tape. She appeared to Hector Sanchez, whose family lives in the house now. He passed shortly after completing the altar in 1997. He is survived by his wife, Ester, who has no difficulty maintaining both her belief in the auspiciousness of the apparition as well as her hypothesis that it was “caused” by the light from the Border Patrol tower coming through the tree’s leaves. I put “caused” in quotations because causality per se falters if one attempts to make a certain sense of her simultaneous faith and observation of the event’s phenomenological conditions of possibility. Perhaps you have never noticed the altar before. It has also drawn pilgrims for years, from Mexico, New Mexico and the local area, but these pilgrims are different from those who visit your works, and likely they have never taken notice of one another either.

We continue walking north and east. A few blocks and we are at the Blackwell School. Now a mostly inactive landmark, the school was historically where students of color in the area gained their education. Small and isolated as it is, Marfa experienced the same racial segregation in public education as did the rest of the country in the last century. Now it is a quasi-museum, and in large letters across the east facing exterior wall we see a quote in black florid script: “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.” Beneath that a name: Gloria E. Anzaldúa. You know enough Spanish to understand the idea. Addressing the walker, the author tells us there are no bridges, but that we make them in our moving. And who is Anzaldúa? I inform you there are conferences built around her work that take place in San Antonio. There is a society dedicated to the study of her work and legacies as a theorist, artist and an altogether new kind of protean being, the “new mestiza,” to use her term. Furthermore, she is a Tejana, from the border near the Gulf of Mexico. You wonder why you have never heard of her and why her words are writ large on a Marfa institution. I explain that you do not know for the same reasons I grew up not knowing your work, despite our proximity, that is, because of the “colonial difference.” This is a term I take from Walter Mignolo and the Modernity/Coloniality Collective, a group that has been in conversation for some years now developing a body of work committed to understanding our current global conditions as marked at every level by what they call the coloniality of race, gender, nature and power. Decoloniality observes that people still live lives affected by the religious and scientific formations of race and human/non-human distinctions deployed during the fifteenth century explorations of the new world and the Renaissance as part of the inception of a universalized system of capitalism. The “colonial difference” is how I understand that we are in different fields of vision and knowing even when we stand together in the same physical space. But perhaps this is too heavy for our pleasant walk through Marfa, and I recommend a couple of books you might check out. You’re an avid reader. I have seen your library, and am particularly jealous of your collection of books on indigenous North Americans.

Anzaldúa is also a part of the Modernity/Coloniality conversation. She was not part of the group directly—though Chicano/a thought and Decolonial thought lie near one another in many ways, there are key differences and different genealogies—but has been brought in as an important source of thinking for at least two participants, Walter Mignolo and María Lugones. Mignolo has taken her up in his articulation of “border gnosis” or “border thinking.” For him, this way of thinking is requisite in negotiating the colonial difference, if we are to do so in a way that is not nostalgic for a pre-colonized past, nor ignorant of the conditions of colonization that impact our lives daily at multiple registers. Rather than rehearse the examples from her work that Mignolo uses to illustrate border thinking however, let me attempt an example that might be more meaningful for you and me, as artists, philosophers, Texans.

Within Anzaldúa’s writing, there are passages that, as an art historian, I have identified as part of what might be called her aesthetic philosophy. In her book Borderlands/La Frontera, there is a subsection titled ‘Invoking Art.’ In it she distinguishes the dominant “Western aesthetic” by its operations of setting up rigorous systematicities, then demonstrating a virtuosic mastery of those systems. I understand this as aptly describing most work canonized in the discipline of art history, from geometrically driven Renaissance painting to your own impulse toward seriality, con-structed ratio-systems and pristine materiality. The most powerful experience through which I can recall my own sensation of the “virtuous Western aesthetic” is walking amongst your 100 works in milled aluminum. It is newly engaging every time I visit. The prisms capture the light and produce the space in their forceful way, and it is all I can do to push back with my walking in and around, taking them in one by one attempting to understand their simultaneous wholeness and singularities.

Against this, Anzaldúa poses the work of her “people, the shamans” for whom art is inseparable from everyday life. This work is immediately spiritual and political, in that spirituality is a source for political (read communal) action for them and for her. Here, an example we both now know might be the altar to Guadalupe’s apparition in Marfa. The motivations behind its construction are wholly different from your own. They come from a Mexican American Catholicism that carries traces of pre-Colombian figuration manifest in colonially imposed forms and mythologies. It was constructed to mark a site not by meticulously manipulating light and physical space but by alluding to the supernatural, the sacred that is invisible most of the time but markedly auspicious when present. There is nothing invisible about your work. It defies allusion. The binary Anzaldúa constructed is not satisfactory for me, and I understand border thinking as a method by which to address my dissatisfaction. Speaking solely from the example of your work, the first half of the binary allows no space for understanding the political, philosophical work moving through the manipulation of metal, concrete and plexiglass. It makes no space for investigating the large body of writing and activism you left behind. You have thought importantly and much about the conditions of the country where we live, and been critical even of its critics. As your own writing and the work of scholars like David Raskin have demonstrated, you rigorously investigated anarchism, the politics of space and the problems of centralized government, and investigation is inextricable from the ratios and systems that guided your pen and hand in designing the works and spaces you have left us in Marfa and elsewhere.

The latter part of the binary leaves no room for investigating the form of an object like the altar. Giving primacy to its allusiveness to the supernatural beyond disallows, or makes difficult, a reading of the object as congealed labor. How are we to discuss the Mexican factory from which the statue was sourced and its complicity with racist capitalism? Or the local Marfa hands who painted it as imbricated in the discourse of scarcity, labor and resources in West Texas?

These are just the questions. The process of border thinking would be a rigorous attempt to form more in the blind spots of Anzaldúa’s binary, for me, and an attempt to think through them together, reaching across the colonial difference, making a bridge as we walk, where one has not been provided for us. Each step of this process might then be identified as a “de-linking,” another term central for the Modernity/Coloniality group. De-linking is not abandonment, but precisely this inhabitation of spaces produced by the inhabitation of them. It’s difficult, but worthwhile work, or so I believe. I wonder what you would say.

“Decolonial aesthetics” then would be a way to name, say, a project you and I might take on in the studio as a result of these conversations. Or better, a project we might take on not isolated in the studio, but with other Marfans. I wonder, for instance, if we might identify a decolonial aesthetic in your daughter’s film work. In Rainer’s still roughly edited film, or so she herself notes—which she has generously shared anyway—Marfa Voices, there is a serious attempt to pay equal attention to voices from the contradictory sites that feed Marfa’s production, from Paula Cooper, ensconced well within the New York ‘arterati,’ to the assistants and groundskeepers who were your company in Marfa, locals who still speak highly of you, following their reticence at your first appearance in our small, West Texas town. But there I go, perhaps setting up another binary against my own critique of such a construction…de-linking requires a new vocabulary, or perhaps we might start from materials first and worry about the words later. I think that is our privilege as artists. At least we have a few words, which I hope I have convincingly presented to you here. I wonder what you might have thought of all of this…

From the Netherlands where I sit, from West Texas where we think,
Josh T Franco

Josh T Franco is currently in the PhD program in Art History at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. He is a researcher in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture. A native Texan, he returns as often as possible.

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Recommended Readings:

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2012.

Judd, Donald. Complete Writings 1959-1975. Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975.

Lugones, María. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Raskin, David. Donald Judd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Stockebrand, Marianne. Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

+ 1 Comment
David A Ross
Sep 14, 2012 | 8:26am

A remarkable text from an artist and student of art history.  Well worth reading and re-reading.

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