A swim in dye

Julian Dashper recently described himself as a New Zealand artist who lives in Auckland and travels. He makes work that might at first look like painting or sculpture, but is in reality more about the umbrella subject of abstraction. He likes for instance the implied dumbness or quiet-ness of abstraction in contrast to the saturation of today’s instantly accessible world, and the way that abstraction can be used to politically resist the didactic museum culture we currently live in. He went to Chinati as a senior Fulbright scholar and an artist in residence to undertake research into artists’ archives and the practice of archiving - something that I believe he embraces performatively – and also to consider the idea of Neominimalism. (This interview took place on St Patrick’s Day, 2002, Aotearoa time.)

From having undertaken this residency in Marfa, can I assume you are a fan of Donald Judd’s work?

To be honest I wouldn’t say that when I first arrived in Marfa that I was some sort of Donald Judd disciple. I did and do still think that he was a very important and crucial artist and his artwork will always have a great resonance in our international culture. But since going to Marfa to live I have become an absolute fan and convert of the project he started there in Texas; although I would hesitate to say that what he accomplished in Marfa, as an architect of his own museum circumstance, was his greatest gift to the human race. To me this is not a useful way to look at Marfa. But it did deeply affect me, as an artist living amongst the works permanently installed there. I used to think that while I was at the Chinati Foundation, if it was on fire, what would I rescue first? Funnily enough, I don’t think I would have taken a sculpture by someone. I think I would have taken one of the large tables he designed, not just because I like them as furniture, but because I like the social aspect of them - how people sit around them discussing art, discussing ideas and just living in general. To me, Judd exiting New York soon after having had a very large retrospective at the Whitney Museum at the tender age of 40, and going as far away as he could in America to start a museum run by an artist, is a very interesting and unparalleled idea.

Why did he do that?

He was fed up with New York basically. In many different ways but most importantly he was looking for a way to install his own art work and the work of others on a permanent basis. He could not find this in conventional museum settings where shows still go up and down like underpants on a clothesline. Plus he was also getting too many interruptions to work uninterrupted.

But why Marfa?

In 1946 he and four other soldiers had travelled through that area on route to San Francisco ‘in order to be shipped to Korea to pester the world.’2 He remembered it fondly, so in 1973 he bought his first buildings in Marfa and began to change them so he could place work there permanently. Interestingly, he wrote in his complete writings from 1975-1986 that in 1974: ‘Also I went to Australia, where perhaps I should have gone in the first place.’’ Mind you, years later he even said at one point when he was arguing with someone in Marfa that he wanted to move the whole project from there, brick by brick, to Europe. But ultimately, what he was looking for was an architectural situation he could more or less completely control. He bought up a lot of buildings in and around town (some with the help of Dia) and even started to buy ranches further and further out from town as well. He made his “last studio” on the most distant ranch from Marfa, where he is now buried.

Judd, as I see it, had wanted to resist the well-trodden procedure that on any spare Sunday afternoon in Manhattan you can just hop on the subway and go up to a museum and see a show and have a definable experience and then come home again a few hours later. The same behaviour as going to a movie or a ball game. For instance, these days the Tate Modern, even though it is a great, museum, is also London’s hottest dating place. What was remarkable about Judd was that he saw this happening to museums in the 70s. He saw a lot of things in advance. He basically pre-empted the art-as-entertainment idea. In Marfa, art unfolds in a different way. It is a different system. For me, that is where I think his genius was. He made a different system. When looking at art there you don’t ask “oh what does this mean, how will I understand this? “You simply feel pleased that you have arrived at this edge. It is completely special to be there, you just want to soak it all in after you jump off the deep end. So, in that way it is like going for a swim in dye. This museum focuses on the work of the artist and not the other way around. I have never struck that before, to be honest.

What do you usually get when you front up to a museum?

There is usually this expectation that you are going to cause some sort of problem when you walk in the door. The museum is going to have to decode your work or try to present it to their audience in a palatable way. So you end up as an artist feeling more like you have brought something smelly in on your shoe when ­you come in the door with an idea. Arriving in Marfa was the complete opposite. I was immediately told I could do anything I wanted. Or not do anything if I wanted to as well. I subsequently realised that a lot of my energy for making exhibitions comes from the idea or expectation of resistance. That was a big point personally for me when I realised that.

What would your ideal artist-run museum be?

I’d buy all the houses in one street (doesn’t matter where. Paris, France, or Paris, Texas. Preferably both), make lovely apartments for my artist and writer friends in some and show work simply in the others. I’d create a normal community which was nice to be in. It could have children, animals and gardens around it as well for instance. And as a result it would be an exhibition site that didn’t make you feel tired when you walked in the front door like most museums continually do to people these days. Plus, surprise surprise, it wouldn’t need a fortune to run it. Of course you’d be able to get parking outside as well, which is great for us 42 year olds!

Now you are a very performative soul. What non-exhibited work did you do at Marfa?

People said to me, what will you do at Marfa? Are you going to make something very permanent? An outdoor wall or something? I think it for me it was kind of stupid to do something like that. Physically permanent. Other artists would do things like this and it might be right for them, but I myself became much more interested in other things. Like we had all this extra luggage with us for instance (what a beautiful metaphor). What were we going to do with it? How were we going to get it back home to New Zealand? How about just burying it? With their high desert climate you could come back in 10 years and it would still all be fine. And it’s only stuff I use in America anyway.

Like what?

Like my big boots for the snow. And my black suit that I bought in London years ago (which said it was made in Italy on the label), that I wear to big museum openings and funerals. So we figured that if I wrapped a couple of suitcases in polythene bags and buried them there they would be fine forever (provided I don’t put on weight). By being presented with everything there as permanent, I became interested in the excessive ephemerality of things. I talked about other ideas or processes that happened to me in my ‘100 thoughts’ [see nos. 35, 36, 41, 52, 57, 62, 86 and 93].4 As an artist, part of my practice is to exhibit, and I like to exhibit, but it was really important to take a step outside of that and say that everything I make in the studio I am just going to throw away. It felt good. Cathartic. It felt like being a pure artist.

You are not a sculptor but you do have a sculptural history.

Maybe I was a sculpture in a previous life? I don’t know. I have never liked the term painter and I have never liked the term sculptor. I just think of myself as an artist. Purely as that. I have resisted being called a sculptor because of this notion that you then make things yourself. You sculpt. One thing, talking about the notion of process, that really made me feel a lot more ‘at home’ after being in Marfa, was this idea of working with fabricators. Because here in New Zealand, and also most other parts of the world, if you are working with fabricators you are seen as kind of cheating. But it is really interesting to look at the way Judd worked with fabricators and assistants. Some might say that was his great gift to art history. Not so much what he made, but how he did or didn’t make it, as the case may be.

I talked at great length to one of his main fabricators who told me a wonderful story about this giant piece that was shown in the old Castelli galleries on Greene Street (which is now a big long ‘shit-nack’ shop), one of those block-long galleries from the glory days of So Ho. Anyway, he said he made this huge plywood piece (now commonly known as the Saatchi piece) in there for Judd. It took him several months to make and install it, all the time while Judd was living just a few blocks away. It looked incredibly simple, a huge plywood piece going down the length of the gallery, with classic Judd intersecting planes and lines. But the back had to be held together with metal straps, like a chicken run. He made a secret passage down the back of the piece, and everyday would slide through a secret door and work on it from behind, like a starfish. Of course he was very proud of it, so he told me that he said to Judd, “the opening is next week… l am about to seal the secret door… do you want to have a look behind the work? But Judd just said ‘No!”‘ He had no interest in that part at all. For me this was one of Judd’s great gifts, making fabricators visible again, and in turn almost entirely removing the hand of the artist. I’ve never subscribed to or enjoyed the notion that an artist is good because of the way he or she is able to make things themselves physically. I don’t think that is such an interesting idea at all.

And art is about beautiful ideas you think?

Right. It’s like I’ve also just returned from Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, and people often say to me now did you see any lightning there? Natural question I guess. But I just reply, that I can’t remember if I did or not. It doesn’t seem to actually matter when you’re there looking at that work. It is not some joy ride at Disneyland even though I did still get completely turned upside down by it.

So, how do cowboys say goodbye Julian?

They say “I’ll see you in the fall or not at all.”