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When I was 20, I spent seven months in double traction in a hospital room overlooking a parking lot in Rhinebeck, New York, and got a lot of reading done, including all of the Agatha Christie novels the hospital cart had to offer. It was far better than watching daytime television.
A few years ago, before lockdowns and social distancing, I had both knees replaced exactly three months apart, a year after I had two vertebrae fused in my neck. Over the course of this two-year period, I spent a lot of time limited to my apartment and the sidewalk in front of the building where I live.
One of my favorite books during this time was Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: 50 Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will by Judith Schalansky. In fact, even though I have since gone months without opening this book and reading one of its short, precise entries, the Pocket Atlas, with its bright orange cover, has never left my desk.
In addition to its evocative entries, few longer than a page, Schalansky’s book contains 50 maps; each one shows a gray, detailed piece of land plunked down into a sea of flat blue, presumably miles from its nearest neighbor.
John Donne claimed, “No man is an island.” Perhaps he was wrong. The entry for the island of Rapa Iti begins:
In a small town in the foothills of the Vosges, a six-year-old boy is visited by dreams in which he is taught a completely unknown language. Little Marc Liblin soon speaks this language fluently without knowing where it comes from or whether it even really exists. He is a gifted but lonely child, with a thirst for knowledge.
One exhibition that I was looking forward to seeing this month was 25 years 12 works 5 poems: A Solo Exhibition of Greg Colson, which Thomas Park Gallery was going to open at a new location, having closed its former space at 195 Chrystie Street.
According to the gallery press release, the delayed exhibition will be “held in convergence with the book, Five Poems to be published by Little Steidl.” Five Poems — a slipcased, five-part artist’s book, the first full-scale monograph on Colson that I know of — would be a welcome addition to my library.
Curious about what was going to be in the exhibition, even as I realized it was going to be some time before I saw any of the works in person, I asked the gallery send images to me.
I was immediately struck by a linear wall piece, “MARFA” (2014, enamel, acrylic, pencil, ink on wood, metal, plastic. 52 by 64 by 3 inches).
When I was looking at Colson’s piece, ostensibly an oversized street map, I began thinking about the Texas town of Marfa, where I have never been, even though I have an open invitation from the Lannan Foundation to write in a house they would provide for me for up to six weeks.
Although I have no real sense of how big or small the town actually is — is its population 500 or 5,000? — in my mind, Marfa is big because Donald Judd lived there from 1979 until his death in 1994. He acquired a compound of decommissioned military buildings there, and, over time, transformed the campus into the Chinati Foundation, a museum of both his work and artists whose work he owned. I don’t know how many buildings he bought.
Other than the Lannan Foundation residency, the reason that I would go to Marfa is to see the work of John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, Richard Long, John Wesley, and other artists carefully and thoughtfully installed in open, airy, light-filled, spaces.
I like the idea that Judd took over military buildings and repurposed them to exhibit art. The 798 Art District in Beijing is another place that repurposed former military facilities. Built in 1954, many of the buildings were designed by the East Germans, who derived their ideas from the Bauhaus: large open structures with lots of natural daylight. Odd to think that military architects would interested in natural light, but that seems to be the case.
Colson’s “MARFA” is made of metal and wood strips, brackets, bolts, and a pool cue. On each of the strips we read a street name, nothing more. The spaces between the streets are empty, so that the wall is visible behind the skeletal structure. It is likely that he first made a drawing for it.
Colson gives you no sense of the town’s topography, nor do the empty spaces between the metal and wood strips offer a clue about what the buildings lining the town’s streets look like.
The street names seem to come from different sources and they don’t quite add up. What do “Philadelphia,” “Madrid,” “Dean,” and “Waco” have to do with each other? Streets run parallel to each other, and go off on an angle. We learn a lot about we don’t know while looking at “MARFA,” and I think that is one of Colson’s points.
All of this leaves a lot of space for the viewer to move around in, to dream and remember. With “San Antonio Street,” one of the town’s main thoroughfares, inscribed on its shaft, the pool cue helps push my imagination. I imagine that every town in America the size of Marfa has a pool hall, perhaps more than one. There were pool tables in the Grange Hall in Missoula, Montana, the night I went there and listened to a local band.
Colson’s “MARFA” is a sculptural drawing made with straight sections that are bolted and bracketed together. The joining together of cut pieces of metal and wood by unpainted bolts echoes Judd’s combinations of fabricated boxes, especially the ones he did after a 1983 trip to Switzerland, where he learned about a small company that used coats of pigmented powder, instead of paint, to color sheets of aluminum. There is something very American and New World about Colson’s “MARFA.” This is not an Old World or European-style map.
This is what I find captivating about Colson’s deadpan work: he reveals something about the way we live — through a map, a pie chart, or the silhouette of a piece of machinery — that makes me curious to know more about the subjects he chooses, while underscoring how little I might actually notice about the world we commonly share, its constant parade of signs.
There is no indication of the town’s history, no designated landmarks, and nothing to suggest where Marfa is located in the state of Texas. It is a street map in the purest sense, and highly impractical. It reminds me of color-coded subway maps of Berlin, Beijing, Paris, and New York City.
A dark green metal strip, made of two sections bolted together to form a widely opened V, reads on both sections, “BNSF RAILWAY,” with “SUNSET LIMITED” just beneath it. One green section extends the furthest out from the others, moving left or what I am inclined to read as West, while the green section bolted to its right end spans the entire map. Not surprisingly, I am reminded of the railroad tracks that ran through Missoula, spanning the city.
It appears that Marfa has no curving streets, only straight lines aimed toward the horizon or whatever is out there beyond the town limits. Is their straightness a sign of American efficiency? Where do they all go? Do any of the actual roads end in the middle of nowhere, like they do in a Guhan Wilson cartoon? We have such faith in maps. Once, while driving in Providence, Rhode Island, the GPS didn’t show me the bridge that I was crossing, only the river underneath.
Why is Madrid Street, which is near the bottom of “MARFA,” one of three streets (Philadelphia and Washington, both short streets, are the other two) that run parallel to the floor and ceiling, while all the others are at a diagonal?
It is hard not to think of the one-paragraph story, “On Exactitude in Science” (1946), by Jorge Luis Borges. In this parable, which is a fictional quotation from an imagined text, Borges imagines a science of cartography that is so exact that it requires a 1 to 1 scale. The map becomes the landscape it is referring to.
Colson does the opposite. He frames off areas of empty space and tells us nothing about what occupies them. Where are the buildings? Is there a gathering place for the community, like the Grange Hall in Missoula?
With its citation of a railroad, Colson’s map reminds me that we inhabit a circulatory system where things originate, or are delivered, or just pass through.
When were the buildings that we don’t see, but know are there, built? Where are City Hall, the town library, the police station, and courthouse? Are they close together? Who were the architects?
What about the sanitation department? Where does the town’s water come from? Which families got rich in Marfa, and which lost everything? Are their heirs still living in town? How many churches are there? And what temples, synagogues, or mosques?
As the questions pile up, I realize that Colson’s “MARFA” makes me long to go there.
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