October 18, 1999
Volume 52, No. 8
Minimalism course travels to West Texas
"Art History" is expected to involve a predictable series of lectures, readings and slide projections interspersed with rare gallery and museum visits. Last spring at Emory, a course with Assistant Professor James Meyer proved an exception to the rule.
According to Joseph Liebman, a 1999 Emory College graduate, Meyer's enthusiasm for art is contagious. His stimulating introduction to "Minimalism: Art and Theory" set the tone for what was to be a unique academic experience. "He's an amazing professor. He blew me away with his perception of art. He was so excited behind the podium at White Hall that he made everyone excited."
The course focused on minimal art, a form of art that developed in the 1960s and is characterized by elemental forms or structures. The seminar is one of the high-level, smaller courses that have recently been developed for undergraduates in the art history department. All the students were required to present papers on topics related to minimalism based on original research. During early discussions about the research project, Liebman expressed a particular interest in investigating the work of sculptor Donald Judd.
In the early 1970s, at the peak of his success in New York, Judd ventured to West Texas and selected the town of Marfa to set up an environment for the permanent exhibition of his art. He had criticized the short duration of individual art installations, believing in what he called a "partnership" between a work of art and a space. Judd's notion was to create a setting where architecture, furniture and art would be interwoven.
Meyer told the class about how Judd reinterpreted the use of buildings on the site of Fort Russell, an abandoned military base outside Marfa. The artist slightly modified those existing structures to establish exhibition spaces, offices, studios, classrooms and housing for what became the Chinati Foundation.
Much impressed, Liebman considered the possibility of a visit as part of his research. A few days later, Meyer came to the class, announcing the approval of discretionary funds from the department for the entire class to take a field trip to Texas. Emory would cover airfare and car rental. The students would be responsible for lodging and food. Professor Judith Rohrer, a specialist in modern architecture, would join the expedition and contribute her perspective to their discussions.
"It's awesome that Emory made the trip happen, and it was great of Dr. Meyer to go through the red tape to get us there," said student Sarah Jane Bruce. "To be honest, I was very impressed. That was money well spent, a great opportunity that everyone appreciated."
"Chinati is a world away from looking at slides through a projector," she added. "You can't really experience art in that context. It was really incredible to see work isolated in an environment where it's nothing but you and the work. Judd really thought it out--no interference, no distractions. [It was] one of the best viewing experiences you could possibly imagine."
During their visit, students and professors were guided by the foundation's staff, including the art conservator. "They gave us access to Judd's remarkable house compound, 'The Block,' and other buildings around Marfa designed by Judd and containing his art, which most visitors do not get to see," Meyer said.
The students were inspired by their encounter with the Chinati Foundation--the creative and intellectual fallout was tremendous. After the four-day trip, Liebman presented a paper on Judd's architectural concepts as realized at Marfa, and for her final project Alison McElheny discussed Judd's furniture design. Another student, Omar Abou-Samra, stopped again at the foundation on his way home to California after graduation. Jennifer McNeil took photographs of Judd's concrete structures that will be featured in Meyer's forthcoming edited anthology, Minimalism.
Liebman plans to take his exploration of Judd's world a bit further--he'll return to Marfa this coming January to serve a three-month internship. "Marfa is one of the most gorgeous places I've ever been," he said. "The art there is amazing. Two days wasn't enough. Now I'll have a chance to go spend time in those rooms. An internship at Chinati is not like those in other museums; an intern gets a set of keys. He can go into one of the rooms at 2 o'clock in the morning to look at [John] Chamberlain's sculptures and listen to music."
Meyer, whose research focuses on contemporary art, has another book upcoming. Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties will be published next year by Yale University Press. He believes that the Chinati Foundation is one of the best places to view contemporary art in the United States.
"Opportunities for seeing significant examples of modern art are limited in Atlanta; we mostly teach from slides," Meyer said. "By funding the trip, the art history department recognized the importance of exposing our students to actual works of art. There is no substitute for a firsthand encounter with significant art and architecture. The great success of the visit encourages me to plan such trips in the future."