2. Unit

A unit stands alone, but for something: it’s one part of an independent system or network that incorporates but does not depend on that unit, nor does the unit depend on any system. It’s also the title given to a plywood structure by artist and former Drop City resident Richard Kallweit which greets me every morning from a corner of Rule Gallery’s project space in Marfa, TX. In a moment of intense naïveté, I told one young visitor about how Cantordust, a neighbouring sculpture also Kallweit’s, is made of lightweight wood; he proceeded to pick it up in one smooth movement as I silently screamed inside. These sculptures are not only beautiful and light but also important emblems of Criss-Cross: an artistic movement that emerged from the fall-out of Drop City.

The droppers didn’t abandon their city-sized creation, nor forsake the words of Buckminster Fuller. Cantordust references Kallweit’s involvement in and continued engagement with Drop City history as it resembles honeycomb, reflecting the bee-like stature of the sunken empire. Criss-Cross was more calculated than Drop City as the droppers used their experience to organise regular meetings and ‘brainstorming session[s]’ to discuss their collective direction (1). They were a group dedicated to ‘speculating about synergy’, or ‘the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’, something that Fuller had written about in his Operating Manual for a Spaceship Earth (1968) (2). The group published Criss Cross Communications magazine as a platform for artists and workshops operating in the Denver-Boulder area during the mid to late seventies.

Unit, or a sculptural sibling of Unit, was printed on the cover of ‘Criss Cross Art Communications Number 10: The Criss Cross Pattern Project’ in the Winter of 1979, ten years after the demise of Drop City. In a section called ‘The Common Ground for All This Work’, Kallweit explains that ‘a large number of units are necessary in order to describe the system – too few and other interpretations are made available’ and goes on, ‘this work is not about something, it is something, and yet it is still not about itself’ (3). His work explores and tests structured forms: the artist considers the ratio between the time it takes to make the work, and ‘the time needed to perceive the work’, as equally weighted (4).

As resident to this space, I am fascinated by the size difference and physical separation between Unit and Cantordust. One sits on a shelf, small and compact, while the other is largely on the floor, punching outwards, failing to deter young children from testing their muscular strength. Kallweit’s work is ‘not about itself’ but cannot deny the space it occupies: currently, Marfa, TX, the home of Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, where significant precedent is set by a longstanding attention to where and how artists choose to situate their work.

As well as artist, designer and architect, Judd was, amongst other things besides, a prolific writer and compulsive reader (his bookshelf in Le Mansana de Chinati, where he lived and worked, contains over thirteen thousand books). Toward the end of his life, Judd wrote that works of art may be ‘harmed or helped’ by their position in space, or relation to other things (5). Reflecting on his installations in Marfa, he wrote:

[…] if I had placed a work on a wall or on the ground, I wondered where it was. I found that if I placed a work on a wall in relation to a corner or to both corners, or similarly on the floor, or outdoors near a change in surface of the ground, that by adjusting the distance the space in between became much more clear than before, definite, like the work. If the space in one or two directions can become clear, it’s logical to desire the space in all directions to become clear. This usually requires more than a unit or it requires a space built around a unit or it requires the amplification of a unit to an enclosure containing a great deal of space (6).

Judd is talking about space, public and private, and its interaction with art. This artist was a notoriously direct, astute and above all, clear writer; yet, this passage trips over itself in the same way that Kallweit’s Criss-Cross explanation seems to retract and negate its own words. Judd’s prose mimics the act of taking measurements, or traces the adjustments he makes throughout a quest for clarity. His writing makes contact with the mentioned unit in three ways: it multiplies, adds to its surrounding space and makes allowances to the space in which the unit sits. The work of art is a ‘unit’, he says, or foundation layer just as Kallweit’s Unit is a reduction of Cantordust, a much larger and more complex structure.

Unit is different though, because Kallweit’s work is not considered minimalist art, nor is Rule Gallery a minimalist space. When the gallery doors open, I explain to visitors about how Rule pays homage to Judd’s philosophy concerning gallery setting. He believed that artwork should be placed in habitable spaces, and not ignored nor segregated from life. Rule acknowledges excellence in Judd’s work and writing, as well as work by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Robert Irwin, the artwork and architecture attached to the Chinati Foundation; even so, minimalism is not reflected in the artwork it selects for its walls. Instead, it is honoured through a shared desire for permanent installation in a habitable space.

I live, sleep, eat, drink, think inside the Rule House; it is my lovely, but temporary, home.  Oftentimes, gallery-goers slam their curious foreheads against an invisible glass door that leads into my bedroom from the gallery’s project space. They’re nervous about their perceived intrusion. Once this barrier is broken, however, they will approach artwork in a comfortable manner as they occupy a space noticeably less threatening than the conventional white cube stage. Rule is a house-sized installation; excepting the project space, paintings and sculptures live here permanently. Indeed, Judd thought permanent installation was a type of defence from pretentious and badly installed exhibitions (7). Whilst most of the artwork in Rule gallery is for sale, and therefore only here until further notice, the furniture, fabric and foundation of 204 E San Antonio Street permanently enhance gallery experience.

Judd’s domestic life was comparatively less pronounced. He and his family lived in La Mansana de Chinati, or,The Block” in downtown Marfa. He built a yard complete with several plum trees for his daughter Rainer who requested them and later inherited Judd’s legacy as Co-President of the Foundation board alongside her brother, Flavin. La Mansana was their family home, but also an art museum and institution initially endowed by the Dia Foundation based in NY, where Judd sprung from. Everything in the Mansana, up to the books that Judd left out like cairn sculptures on his desk, have been preserved the way the foundation found it at the time of his untimely death. It’s as though Judd has just popped out to the Dollar General (as I often do..) and should be back in a matter of moments.

The artist floats in and out of the empty space between the Chinati buildings and its artwork; yet, is noticeably less present in annexes such as the Flavin and Irwin building, only erected after his death. The outline of a body is formed in each enclosure since the viewer is invited to envision a hierarchy of scale: where do I fit between these concrete slabs, and would my knees fit in that tight spot between chair and table? Judd considered the human body, as much as the vast landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert, in relation to the permanent position of his work. He acknowledged the finality of each decision as he cast his sculptures in concrete, and built metal ones in too-small Wonderland houses. Once built, the power of the work is transferred to the movement and positional decisions of each viewer.

Likewise, there are shapes within Kallweit’s Unit: triangles, circles, squares and oblongs that can only seen from angular shifts. Shapes are formed by voids inside the sculpture that converge with edges to produce outlines. A unit is both about and a part of something like a limb or satellite state: it frames the space that surrounds it, and this may harm or help.

Notes

  1. ‘Criss-Cross Brainstorming Session Fall/72 — Blackhawk’ Criss-Cross Communications: Number One (Criss-Cross Foundation, 1974: Boulder, Colorado).
  2. ‘Introduction’, Ibid.
  3. Richard Kallweit ‘The Common Ground for All This Work’ in Criss-Cross Art Communications #10: The Criss-Cross Pattern Project ed. by Fred Worden, Charles DiJulio, Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit (Criss-Cross Foundation, 1979: Boulder, Colorado).
  4. Ibid.
  5. ’21 February 1993′ in Donald Judd Writings (Judd Foundation/David Zwirmer Books, 2016) , p.812.
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s