The Loneliness of Specific Objects
On The Floor
The sculptor Donald Judd is one of the most important artists of the mid 20th century. Starting in the 60s, Judd took sculpture down from the plinth and placed it on the ground. The idea was to allow the space around the work to affect the way the viewer sees the art — the way it is experienced, felt. What happens when art is taken out of the vacuous space of a museum? When it’s set in an old armory, or dropped in a sprawling field?
This hotel room is a blank canvas. The walls are white and bare. No TV. Just a bed and a desk. My plan is to use the desk, to write. I want to enjoy the silence of this small space. It is January, and I am in the midst of a deep depression. In truth, it feels like this depression has been digging its heels in for the past ten years — ever since I quit the drugs and booze. I have driven seven hours from my home in Fort Worth to Marfa, Texas. A seven-hour drive leaves a lot of room to think. What am I thinking now? I’m thinking that this hotel has a pool, that if it were warmer I might have the idea to jump in and let myself sink. I am alone and this town is quiet.
In 1883, Marfa was established as a water stop for the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway. The story goes that the wife of one of the railway executives was reading The Brothers Karamazov and suggested the name of a minor character, Marfa, for the town. But a more accepted version is that the name comes from a character in the Jules Verne novel, Michael Strogoff. I don’t think it really matters.
Loneliness is more than a feeling, it is a place — it is a space we move through. Or maybe it moves around us the way water moves around a stone.
Loneliness is on my mind, lately. What does it mean to be alone as opposed to being lonely? How are solitude, isolation, and loneliness different; how are they the same? The musician/performance artist Henry Rollins speaks of loneliness adding a special kind of burn to the day. And maybe it does. But a burn still burns with pain no matter how special. I have started several essays as of late, but I haven't been able to finish them, haven't been able to make them click into place. I haven't published anything in over a year, but still I keep writing. Some days all I do is stare at the empty whiteness of a new document. At least I’m trying, right?
“I just liked it here…”
The woman making coffee is young and attractive and covered in tattoos. She seems aloof and not all that interested in the shot she’s pulling from the espresso machine. A middle-aged man is asking her questions as he sips from his cup: how old are you? do you like working here? what else do you do? what do your tattoos mean? how did you get here?
The coffee shop is part of what was once an old lumberyard. The lumberyard has now become an event space and home to several artists’ studios. The coffee shop has walls of corrugated tin held up by exposed 2x4s. I sit near the fire place and read while I wait for my espresso. It is quiet except for the man lobbing questions at the barista. She shrugs off the questions with a sense of unaffected cool, ignoring all but the last one. “I came to visit some friends,” she says. “I just liked it here … so I stayed.”
In the Dark
At dinner, I sit alone and read a book. A woman comes in holding a motorcycle helmet under her arm. She is pretty, petite. She doesn't look like the type to ride — not that I would know what that type would be. I want to ask her if she’d be willing to give me a ride back to my room. I don't want anything sexual, I don't even want to talk. What I want is to wrap my arms around her small waist, lean into her, and rest my cheek on her shoulder blade. I want to feel the comfort of her being in control as she speeds us through the dark.
The stars are thick as I walk back from dinner; they break themselves on the night sky.
A Work Need Only to Be Interesting
In what is probably his seminal work of criticism, “Specific Objects,” Judd wrote, “It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.”
In 1971, Judd rented a house in Marfa. He was looking for a respite from his life in New York. He liked the clean, empty land. Later he would purchase some 340 acres of land which included the abandoned buildings of former Fort D.A. Russell. Two artillery sheds were renovated and became galleries for 100 of Judd’s aluminum sculptures. And in a field where the vegetation is allowed to grow, Judd’s large-scale concrete boxes stretch over a mile.
Follow the Lights
There are lights that dance on the horizon. They are red and blue and green and white. They twinkle and float; they disappear and then pop back up in a different place. I stand at the Marfa Lights View Center and I look south-southwest to watch them do what they do. It is cold and mostly what I see are couples twisted into one another. They hold hands, they embrace, they turn and kiss. And they point at the lights in a kind of awe.
The lights are mysterious. Some ascribe them to the paranormal — they call them “ghost lights.” The lights are atmospheric disturbances. They are reflections from campfires or the headlights of cars traveling on Highway 67. But we don’t want science. We want the unexplained. So we suspend our disbelief and we believe the unbelievable.
The Main Things Are Alone
“Please don’t play on the art.” The woman at the Chinati foundation says this to me with a sense of defeat. She knows I’m going to ignore her. She knows that I will climb in and on the giant boxes that lie just down the hill in the field that runs along the property’s border. The boxes measure 2.5x2.5x5 meters, and are 25 centimeters thick. They are cold against my cheek.
The day I’m there, I am the only one in the field. The sun is out, there are a few wisps of cloud in the sky. It is quiet and the breeze breathes life into the grass. The boxes seem lonely, isolated. Dropped into a space only to see how the space might react to the intruder.
The temperature won’t climb out of the 20s today. It’s my last day in Marfa and I decide to drive an hour to Balmorhea State Park. I think: I’ll walk around, look at nature, try to breathe. I pay my entrance fee and the woman at the desk asks me, “Will you be swimming today?” When I say no, she shrugs and takes my $7.
The park is known for its spring-fed swimming pool that covers 1.75 acres and holds 3.5 million gallons of water. The temperature of the water stays between 72-76 degrees year round. There’s little else to the park — if you’re not swimming, why are you there? Okay, then, why not.
The air bites as I strip down and slide into the pool. The water is warm and steam from the surface curls around my head. At the opposite end, two women swim. I don't know if they have seen me, I keep everything below my mouth submerged. The women laugh as they splash and play. They are in their late 40s maybe and they seem happy to be floating where they are. When they’ve had enough, they get out of the pool and remove their suits and stand facing each other. For a moment, they are still: standing naked together, exposed to the air.
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