Completed in 1986, Donald Judd's 100 aluminum boxes offer one of the most exciting locations to study the grace of minimalism. His vision at Marfa in Texas has transformed a piece of military history into a peaceful and unique environment for art and architecture. Here, the shimmering material transcends the formal strictness of plain patterns and the narrow concepts of minimalism. The multiple reflections of light and space create an illusionary atmosphere beyond ascetic ideas.
Donald Judd (1928-1994) chose a remote spot in the USA, far away from well-known art centers, to turn his dream of architecture and art into reality: Marfa in Texas. In the 1960s his interests changed from painting and sculpture to architecture. Although he avoided the term “Minimalism,” Judd became one of the leading Minimalist artists focusing on material and space. He wanted to relate the architecture of a museum and art in a way where both elements strengthen each other. Located on 340 acres of land on the site of a former fort in Marfa, Judd began the construction and installation at the Chinati Foundation in 1979. Two cubic ensembles demonstrate his rigorous pattern design there: The “15 untitled works in concrete” (1980-1984) with 15 concrete sculptures on a 900-meter line and the “100 untitled works in mill aluminum” (1982-1986) with 100 aluminum boxes in two sheds. The first one plays with the striking effect of light and shadow under the harsh Texan sunlight. The second work intrigues the viewer with multifaceted reflections using daylight, architecture and the cubes themselves.
Judd started originally with 25 pieces and finally developed a concept with 100 shimmering cubes which he distributed in two former gunsheds for trucks. He removed the doors on the long sides of the buildings and installed windows with cross-shaped spars. The new barrel vault and façade structure induced a well-balanced contrast to the ordinary sheds. Judd arranged the 100 aluminum boxes (41 x 51 x 72 inches or 1 x 1.3 x 1.8 meters) in a strict rectangular grid in three rows following the floor pattern and the columns. The color and surface of the mill aluminum were crucial for Judd, as evidenced when the prototype showed an unacceptable dark color and matte surface and was substituted by a lighter and shimmering one. At first glance the boxes seem to be identical, but with closer observation a stunning formal design evolves. Judd conducted basic but rigid form operations while keeping the box outline: Dividing in half with variations vertically, horizontally or diagonally – either from the center to the short or long side. Additionally he included single and double divisions – perpendicular and diagonal with a distance of 4 inches (100 millimeters) between the panels. These double-walled spaces were designed as closed or open, thereby creating very individual solutions for versatile reflections of light.
The sun dictates the richly contrasting distribution of light and dark on the boxes with long shadows in the morning and evening. Around noon the boxes stay in the calm shadow of the shed roof. From some perspectives the cubes appear to be mirrored, but due to the mill-finished panels the reflections mostly dissolve the clear mirror image. Especially when looking towards the façade, the normally gray shades reveal fascinating blue and green tones from the clear sky and the surrounding grass. The small double-walled spaces in the boxes create surprising reflections of the exterior like a tunnel of light. However, with a change of perspective, the tunnels can change into a dark space. With the horizontal, vertical and diagonal divisions Judd introduces complex reflection patterns with the surrounding fields: the blue sky, the green exterior, the gray ground inside, the roof shadow and the neighboring aluminum panels. Furthermore he adds a lively rhythm with the linear structure based on the cross-shaped spars in the façade. Moving through the contemplative space turns the work into a highly complex play of light and reflections. The strict systematic layout loses its rational rigidity when the shimmering planes build up a poetic world of numerous illusions of reflections. The setting sun heightens the grace with spectacular reflections of cool silver and warm orange colors.
Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works for the lighting company and academy DIAL. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the books “Light Perspectives” and “SuperLux”. For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him@arcspaces. Schielke's visit to the Chinati Foundation was part of the lighting field trip by the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, which was kindly supported by Zumtobel and feno.