Donald Judd’s one-hundred large aluminum boxes live inside an old army building, under the auspices of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, miles from nowhere. On first seeing row upon row of Judd’s boxes, I had to ask myself, what’s the point? How did we get here—the hot, unending desert, another world not my own, all these boxes.
My daughter Claire, who had just graduated from high school, requested this trip sometime in late winter as my gift to her. We had planned the trip for late May—before she shattered her ankle, trying to jump across a concrete culvert, chasing her boyfriend’s dog. After a surgery to pin and cast her ankle, she had hobbled across the stadium field of her small high school to receive her diploma. I was amazed that she still wanted to explore the desert areas of southwest Texas after the accident, but she did. We packed up and headed for Fort Davis and Marfa one hot day after Memorial Day.
So there we were, Claire in pain, leaning on crutches, willingly looking at the boxes, and me, worrying about her. The scene is so absurd, ironic—here we are, in the hot, godforsaken desert, inside an old, slightly remodeled World War II prisoner-of-war barracks, with warnings like Verboten! and Gefahr! still stenciled on the walls. And sidestepping the question of art for a moment, I looked from one end of the room to the other, beginning to think about how the artist put the boxes together. What processes did he use? What tools did he need?—just as I had wondered, after Claire’s accident, how the surgeons would fix her ankle. I had asked the doctors questions about what they would do, the steps they would take, what to expect after the surgery, how long it would take for Claire’s ankle to heal. For a long time, in the waiting room, I looked out the full-length front windows, imagining the surgery, imagining afterwards and the bones beginning to knit themselves back together, becoming integral and whole.
Inside Judd’s desert army barracks, full-length glass panes have replaced the long side walls. The large, cool boxes look out and reflect the high desert plains, the distant lost mountains. Throughout the day, the boxes’ reflect the landscape as the light changes. The variations would be most notable at sunrise and sunset. Yet in the brief time we were at the installation, I noticed the changing reflections as several high clouds briefly covered the sun. Then I saw. I saw. The boxes were no longer boxes but cubic mirrors, fluid canvases. The art—oh, this was the art of it—was grounded in the stark scenery and in the daily cycles of sun and moon and weather. The brief changes we saw had a marvelous effect on us; we were attentive to the present, in the rhythm of the earth’s turning. Claire’s face transformed, as if there was no pain for her at that moment, any nagging thoughts I’d had about the “rightness” of this trip dissolved, all was right with the world. Even now, several years after we made that trip, the moment endures. It lives with me. It remains perfect, eternal, abiding.