The first time I went to visit a pair of former artillery sheds on the outskirts of Marfa, Texas, the sun was high in the sky and I knew very little about what I was about to see. The second time, the sun was setting and I knew a bit more, and everything was completely different.
The contents of the sheds are officially known as 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum (1982-1986) by Donald Judd. There are about 60 works in one shed and about 40 in the other. Each one is a box measuring 41 by 51 by 72 inches, and no two boxes are exactly alike. (Bear with me here: I’m about to make one of the most captivating pieces of art I’ve ever seen sound as dry as a tax return.) The boxes have open sides or half-open sides; their sides extend all the way to the corners or are offset by four inches; they are empty or contain internal dividers. The dividers are vertical or horizontal or lateral; they are perpendicular or diagonal; they are single or double; they divide the whole box or half the box; they extend all the way to the corners or are offset by four inches. That’s it; no other variations are allowed. But just as there are, we are told, 221,184 ways to order a Whopper, this still gives an enormous number of possible boxes.
When I first saw them, I assumed that Judd must have begun by generating every single viable permutation and then picked 100 to put on show after the fact. Perhaps, I thought, he chose at random, or had many more than 100 boxes fabricated, editing them down once he’d seen which ones looked best. That’s how I would have done it. It would be far too tedious to design the boxes one by one, because you’d have to remember all the configurations you’d already used in order to avoid repeating yourself: even if you employed some sort of special notation, the task would be maddening enough by the 50th box, let alone the 90th.
But another reason for my assumption might have been the time of day. The even and indirect light of a Texas morning through the sheds’ tall windows gave the boxes a quality that you wouldn’t call inert, but that you could very well call implacable, chilly, unwavering. For all their beauty, it was easy to believe that they had been spat out by some sort of algorithm.
When I went back late the following afternoon, there was nothing cold about them any more. The sunset was doing extraordinary things. Some boxes filled up with bronze, some filled up with shadow. Some turned into mirrors, lenses, fishtanks. For almost an hour, wandering among them, I had the sense of qualities such as solidity, opacity and reflectivity moving back and forth between them like assets between bank accounts. And because I’d spent a few minutes in the gift shop flipping through Marianne Stockebrand’s hefty book Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd (2010), I now knew that Judd did indeed design the boxes one by one, or at least in smallish groups, over a period of several years. There was never a master list.
To the question of how he could grind out 100 different configurations without inadvertently repeating himself or going out of his mind, there are two answers. The first is that, on the evidence of his sketches, he actually did repeat himself a few times, but managed to catch the duplicates before the blueprints were sent off to Lippincott, Inc., a specialist art fabrication company in Connecticut. The second is that Judd was a professional Minimalist (even if he would not have used that term). Variations and iterations were his whole method. Keeping these boxes straight wouldn’t have been as trying for him as it would be for you or me. He loved every one of his children.
My second visit to 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum gave me that rarest of experiences, a genuine epiphany with a work of art. The boxes had bloomed and deepened before my eyes. I went from complete indifference about Judd to real fascination.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/artists-and-bitcoin-miners-alike-find-grace-through-brute-force