chinati newsletter, 2010

over the past few weeks, perhaps in anticipation of my residency here, i’ve been thinking a lot about my work in relation to the idea of site specifics. traditionally the term concerns the placement of a work, but i have become interested in the possibility, or potential, of its use in relation to the making of a work. the dialogue most likely began a few months ago, when i discovered a text by judith hoos fox from 1980, related to robert irwin and his various definitions for site related works:

            site dominant works are those around which the surrounding space is organized.

            site adjusted works are conceived in the studio and then placed in a complementary location.

            site specific works are planned for a specific spot and installed there in its midst.

            site determined works break this tradition. no longer is “object in landscape” the generating concept. site determined projects not only respond to their site but are seen as visually woven into that space, a part of the scene yet not changing the whole. because they often utilize two-dimensional materials, sheets of glass or steel, and align more closely with landscape architecture  than with architecture and sculpture, they tend not to be perceived as objects or forms in space.

in terms of my own thinking, i would add site dependent to the list. i believe this term could work for two entirely different situations where an artwork was dependent upon a site – one for its meaning (by its situation within that site), and one for its making (by the influence of that site towards forming, thinking, and building). in the former situation, the work is dependent upon the site of its installation to inform an audience towards experience and meaning. in the latter situation, the work could not have been created without being in the presence of the site and its history, but the work’s installation could be anywhere.

i began to wonder how these terms could relate to the process of making, as opposed to being restricted towards describing a physical relationship between two things – i.e. meaning through proximity. i wanted to find a way for these terms to be opened up a bit, to suggest the idea of a site’s relationship to the making of a work, as opposed to only being able to speak towards its placement. if one allows the site’s dimensions or history or location or character, etc. to influence, or impact, one’s practice and process of making, wouldn’t the resulting works be site dependent, and in essence, also in terms of their making, site specific? in this way, the artwork becomes dependent upon the site, not for its meaning or viewer experience, but for its conception and production.

 certainly one could speak of monet’s water lilies or haystacks as dependent upon a specific site for their making; and in some ways, a discussion of landscape painting could put an easy end to this whole idea. certainly numerous conditions related to site – light in particular – determined monet’s choices of what to depict. but just as irwin’s terms take the definition of sculpture and expand it to create a situation where an object is not only informed by itself, but by its placement and surroundings, isn’t it possible that the idea of site specificity can be attached to certain works where the site plays a larger role in the decision making of the artist than simply the visual replication of that place? what can we call works that are somehow influenced and informed by a site in ways that have little to do with visual replication?

 when i arrived in marfa, the irwin text had been rolling about in my head for several weeks; so i was surprised to find waiting for me on the kitchen table, amidst some information about chinati and my residency, this quote from donald judd:

            it takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. this should not always be thrown away. most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. somewhere, just as the platinum – irridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.

it seemed as if judd was testing me, pushing forth phrases like “placed and never moved”, to determine a site specificity that had little wiggle room. and yet, i still felt there was potential in exploring these ideas. it’s not that i didn’t agree with irwin or judd, in fact there is a large body of work – both historical and contemporary – that i love, and that fits beautifully within the demands of both judd’s and irwin’s criteria for site specificity. yet i couldn’t help but feel that along with their ideas regarding the sited work’s necessity to always remain within its context to retain its meaning, there is room for another kind of sited work that can exist, detached physically from the site that birthed it, but which carries within it a deep relationship to that site as a necessary component of both its forming and its meaning – an outcome that would only be possible through the object and the site’s entwined personal history.

john Beardsley, in his essay for the 1978 exhibition “probing the earth”, characterizes “land art” by saying that artists “no longer depicted the landscape, but engaged it.”

of course, beardsley is talking about work that directly engages the landscape, physically (spiral jetty, sun tunnels, etc); but what is interesting to me is the divide between the words depicted and engaged. surely a work made through a deep engagement with a site fulfills a certain aspect of what judd and irwin are talking about – not in terms of installation and “sited-ness” – but in the depth of conversation between the site and the object being made within it.

i became interested in the idea that an artwork could be deemed site dependent if its making was determined through conversations with a site and its various characteristics – form, size, history, and other conditions specific to it. even though the work may eventually leave the site, and could potentially be exhibited (or sited) anywhere, it would always remain an artifact of its own experience of being made through a specific relationship to the space it was made in. this has nothing to do with depicting a site (which would essentially be what most would consider landscape painting), but everything to do with a specific kind of engagement between artist, object, and site. it is not about how something is seen publicly; it is about the private conversation through which it was made.

i spent a few months preparing in mind what i wanted to do in marfa, and when i arrived i began with the plans i’d brought with me – to continue to paint from a 12 page classical music score i’ve been working with for the past 5 years, to begin a series of drawings inspired by old postcards that belonged to the painter frederick hammersley, to continue a series of large scale collage scores built from the notation of piano music by gurdjieff, to make a film/video connected to the landscape at chinati, and to begin a new series of works somehow related to stendahl’s dictum for writers to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not”.

as i sat in an unfamiliar studio for much of my first week here, running these projects through my mind, i couldn’t help but think about irwin and judd in relation to their ideas of site specificity. i kept wondering how i could approach it, yet still allow my way of working to follow its own path. through all three of these texts (irwin, judd, and beardsley), i wanted my own process to allow itself to be pulled in certain directions, directions that would be specific to the internal tuggings of this new location (and/or context). instead of bringing my studio with me, and bringing work home that could’ve been made at home, i was hoping to find a way to allow this situation – a collision of marfa, judd, chinati, and the books and boxes of things i’d brought from home – to determine what i do and how i do it, so that in the end i could create works that would never have been birthed without my being here.

while my work with media such as film and sound fit comfortably into a more traditional understanding of site specificity, particularly in terms of responding to space, i have consistently avoided any situation where the paintings might be forced to participate in an installation context, mostly out of fear of them becoming props. painting, for me, is a daily practice. ideas are certainly part of the process of conception and execution, but there is also a necessary state of unknowing, where words cannot derail thoughts or actions that have no known reason behind them. the process of making paintings, for me, more than any other discipline, must include absolute permission towards left turns and following roads with no known destination. i never want the works to have to conform to my ideas or intentions, for these things are made through conversation – sometimes i tell the paintings what to do, and sometimes they tell me what to do.

the idea of making a painting, knowing that it will be forced into a physical situation, and forced to perform (or conform) towards a specific site relationship, would render mute its ability to breathe, and would kill its ability to move beyond my ideas, to a realm that is entirely its own – so that a viewer may converse with it outside of my own intentions.

in light of all of this, i was struggling until, as if tripping over a stick, something opened up and i found myself again facing this question: what would it mean to create a body of work that would explore my own ideas around the phrase site dependent, specifically in terms of engagement with the site towards the making of things? and, perhaps more importantly, how could i find a way to allow the site to have an impact that isn’t forced or artificial?

i had already started working with stendahl’s 20 lines towards a video. each of the first few mornings, i woke early and took a walk. my plan was to shoot 20 “lines” in nature a day, flipping stendahl’s sentences into graphic geometry found in the landscape. after two mornings of walking the chinati grounds and filming lines, i watched some of the footage; clearly the activity and the results were of little interest. walking through the landscape, focused on finding something i had determined before i’d even arrived, left my eyes and mind excluded from seeing and/or thinking about anything outside of “the plan”. thus, the resulting video footage and the activity of gathering was incredibly rigid and dull. the problem was twofold: first, i was not allowing myself the ability to wander or discover, and second, i was not remotely immersed in either the landscape or the thing i was making.

a few days later i arrived at my studio, and as usual it was incredibly cold. after tinkering a bit, i took a chair out into the yard and sat down in the sun. the tree in the studio back yard is magnificent and winter bare, and i had spent a good deal of the last few days absentmindedly staring at the vast array of small fallen branches resting upon the ground of small pebbles and stones. the similarity of the grey of the rocks and the branches had been something i’d unconsciously been staring at during my supposed breaks from working. on this day, as i was sitting there, i realized that i had been looking at a field of “lines” without really noticing.

because i was looking for straight lines, i’d somehow turned off the part of my brain that could identify these curved and crooked things as “lines” too. it seems such a small thing, and yet it felt like a revelation…

i spent the next few minutes gathering 50 or so crooked tree lines, which i then dropped in a pile onto the studio floor. i laid out a piece of paper, and with my eyes closed, i plucked a random branch from the pile, and with open eyes drew the line of its contour. i then followed the same process 19 times, until i had built a form, and the beginnings of a drawing built from 20 different found lines. i continued to make one 20 line drawing each morning for the next 20 days of the residency.

rather than forcing stendahl and myself upon marfa, i had finally arrived at lines that were not exclusively mine, nor stendahl’s, nor marfa’s; but were discovered and built through a kind of sympathy between the three of us.  it was then that i felt stendahl’s words merge with la monte young’s fluxus score – “draw a line and follow it” – and thus, these drawings have become a process of “drawing 20 lines a day and following them” ( “draw” meaning here not only to build with lines, but also to pluck by hand). those first 20 lines drawn became a very important first step.

as i sat on the studio floor, looking at the first stage of the first 20 line drawing, i realized i had also been looking quite a bit at the studio’s ceiling. it had, at some point in time, been “refurbished” through what appears to be a stripping away of a false ceiling, revealing a beautiful awkward lattice made up of numerous pieces of wood and various geometries. its grid is more tuttle than mies, and while i loved it very much, i was also struggling to reconcile that love with the fact that “i don’t make paintings from looking at things in life”. then, as if the tree lines were whispering into my ear of a lesson already learned, i let go of some stubbornness within me, and acknowledged that the ceiling forms wanted to enter the paintings in spite of what i do or don’t do… they suggested their presence in the work, and i had to acknowledge their voice, which allowed me to bring something to the paintings that felt even more unresolved and awkward than usual. and so… i trusted the voices in the forms, for how could i ignore things that were constantly hovering above me all the time, looking down upon me while i painted. this looking and responding to something outside the border of the site of the stretched canvas also seemed a good place to start, particularly as it has been nearly 25 years since i have worked in such a way.

at this point i felt i was beginning to approach judd’s and irwin’s words on my own terms, where my work could be made in sympathy with their ideas towards placement: where the place of making could explore ideas of the site specific, rather than the placement of the made.

in this light, i approached judd’s statement as a possible score for making work. just as the tree’s branches were “thrown at my feet” by the winter and the wind, this one small fragment of judd’s words was also handed to me without seeking or asking. there is a wonderful quote from rilke i have on my studio wall at home – “hands must be gentle to accept the offering” – and i think that the mind must be open to receiving inspirational gifts in a similar manner… and thus, judd’s words became a primary vehicle towards a potential body of work.


the drawings began with 20 lines following the contours of fallen tree branches found on the ground behind the studio. these lines are made with a brush and sumii ink. the color pencil, watercolor and crayon use judd’s text as a score for their order in terms of process and their arrangement within the drawing. collaged elements upon the surface of the drawing are small pieces of paper with a rubbing of one of the judd designed benches in the studio, merging an actual size fragment of the original space with the newly created within it. since the drawings were also worked on in my living quarters, some of the drawings also have the presence of frottage of both the floor and dining table.

the paintings use forms from the studio ceiling, as well as a visual system transposing the vowel structure of judd’s text into skeletons and skins for image building.

the large score/drawing/collage uses a linear structure based on the color coding of buckminster fuller’s geodesic dome (one of the only elements i did bring from home to use and did use) as a framework for a musical score built upon it, which uses all of the letters a-g (the musical staff) in judd’s text. the score’s size is related to a detached door found in the studio, and used as the “table” for this drawing to be made upon. small studio bench rubbings are also present.

the soundwork follows the score, through recordings of playing the musical noted letters in judd’s text in various sites around chinati, as well as the studio. the order of the notes is determined by the reading of judd’s text, while the sound of the performances is determined by the acoustic characteristics of such sites as the buildings containing judd’s aluminum works, and the unfinished concrete buildings on the chinati land.

the sculpture also uses the vowel structure of judd’s text as a score. here the colors relate to rimbaud’s vowel color equivalents (which i have used numerous times over the last 15 years). the wood was found on site by the last artist in residence, who gave me 5 leftover pieces of wood the day i arrived. certainly, the 5 pieces suggested the use of the 5 vowels, particularly in relation to the fact that the second largest number of vowels in judd’s text were the “A”s – and lo and behold the second largest piece of wood was already painted black – which is, of course, rimbaud’s color equivalent for the letter A…