A Brief Account | Donald Judd and The Chinati Mountains

I was new to The Nature Conservancy of Texas in San Antonio – the state chapter’s first headquarters office – back in 1993. Having worked the past few years at The University of Texas at Austin in the College of Fine Arts where I had recently received a Master’s Degree in 19th century American landscape painting, I decided to contact the legendary artist Donald Judd to see if he might take an interest in the Conservancy’s work. He was known to be a controversial “New York-Texas” character, living in the midst of sparsely populated, conservative West Texas where he had acquired a great deal of land in Marfa and in the Chinati Mountains.

I was curious. I wrote and asked if he might be amenable to meeting in person. In truth, I never thought he would respond. Judd was reclusive and he was known to spend much of his time in the remote Chinati Mountains at his private ranch, rarely receiving visitors.

To my surprise, Judd answered positively. He asked me to come see him right away. Knowing I was still new to the Conservancy, I took native plant expert Wendy Bigler with me. We rented a car and drove west.

Donald Judd Concrete Sculpture, Marfa
A Judd concrete work at Chinati Foundation.

We stayed at Chinati Foundation in Marfa, in one of the former army barracks Judd was slowly converting to art installations by his artist colleagues and student housing. The following day, we got up early and piled into a heavy-duty truck with food provisions and headed out to the ranch. The road trip itself was an adventure, traveling for hours down dusty roads, climbing over huge rocks and boulders in our weathered four-wheel-drive to reach Judd’s remote compound.

After we arrived and were properly introduced, we learned from Judd that he was keenly interested in exploring the idea of a conservation easement. We stood together on the front porch of one of several of Judd’s ranch compound buildings, and he pointed to the distance where a trailer was parked on the top of a hill and said:

“You see that? That is what I want to prevent.”

Judd did not want to see the scenic, wild Chinati Mountains carved up into small “ranchettes,” attracting people with neither aesthetic nor conservation interests.

The next day after our expedition to see Judd in the mountains, he came back into Marfa where we gathered in what I call his “tack room,” a small building downtown where Judd kept ranch maintenance equipment and supplies, as well as maps of the Chinati Mountain range.

Judd showed us his maps, energetically pointing out smaller tracts of property across the region that he did not own, but that he would some day like to purchase. He wanted to keep them from being developed. He envisioned sealing-off as much of the Chinati Mountains as possible from human development!

Wendy and I found Donald Judd to be a knowledgeable, passionate conservationist, something we did not expect. He was kind to us and very cordial, and we enjoyed his (unexpected) sense of humor.

We drove back to San Antonio to report our adventure to the powers-that-be, but sadly, before a conservation easement could be devised, Judd died of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 65. We had no idea how ill he was at the time, but believe in hindsight that Judd knew he was terminally ill when we met with him. He wanted to protect his ranch with an easement, knowing that it would not be long before he would be unable to do so himself. I have to be honest, Judd was also viewed as a “radical” in West Texas in those days. The Conservancy was eager to ally itself with more conservative elements in the region, and having our first meaningful West Texas partnership be with Judd was worrisome for the real estate team in San Antonio. They dragged their feet and we lost out.

I returned to Marfa to introduce a potential conservation buyer to the Judd Foundation (which is run my his children, and which is entirely separate from Chinati Foundation), soon after Judd passed away. My thought was, we needed to help Judd fulfill his wishes as soon as possible, but with little money from his estate, perhaps we could find someone to acquire the ranch and put a flexible easement on it, an agreement that would allow his children regular access in perpetuity. In fact, Judd was buried at his Chinati Mountain basecamp.

Edge Journal Vol I No. 1 1991 (partial scan of the cover).
The Edge journal of UT College of Fine Arts faculty accomplishments.

I was surprised to see that everything at Judd’s private home and compound had been left literally untouched. I remember his reading chair and a tall stack of books sitting on the floor next to it. At the top of the stack was an art journal – The Edge – that I had helped produce before I left the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin. And the page was open to an article about Vincent Mariani, now a Professor Emeritus. Follow the link to a 1986 issue of The Alcalde alumni magazine for a description of his art at the time. I have often wondered if there should be an exhibit in Marfa of Vince’s work.

Years later in 2007, I worked with Chinati Foundation for a few months to help assist with fundraising. By then, Donald Judd had become an even more powerful force in the art world. I sat with interns spending the summer months at Chinati that year getting some hands-on work and “art” experience, telling them about my experiences with the artist. He had become a “legend” by then, and I could see their eyes open wide and their jaws dropping. But to me, Donald Judd was just a nice fellow and very approachable. I realized though, that things had changed.

More Information

  • Judd Foundation (a nonprofit organization that is doing a fabulous job conserving Judd’s legacy)
  • Chinati Foundation (a nonprofit organization that includes not only major installations and works of art by Judd, but also those of several of his colleagues).
  • Photograph of the Judd concrete work at Chinati Foundation is courtesy of Adobe Creative Cloud. The Edge journal image was scanned by me.

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