Early December 2019


Fourteen days after arriving back from Europe I found myself on a plane again, this time southbound, four and a half thousand kilometers to the city of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. As we were about to depart New York we were conscious of an approaching snow storm, and even on the runway it announced its arrival with icy patches sliding down the aircraft’s window. It’s a long journey, three hours to Houston then five more through the night to Ecuador, an evening of far distance lightening, illuminating the Ocean and Forests in sudden welcome dramatic flashes, moments of excitement and relief from the black void outside the window for the few of us still awake.

Many of the passengers on the plane, I guessed by their expensive outdoor attire, were headed to the Galapagos Islands rather than to the capital. On arrival the first thing you notice as you take the winding road from the airport is the thinness of the air, the city is close to three thousand meters above sea level, a couple of miles or so, and your body reacts sometimes in an alarming way, a shortness of breath making you fear for your heart until you remember where you are. The taxi journey itself is comfortable as the road is new and smooth and snakes its way through high terrain down into the city, the driver on the emptier sections of the journey taking a racing line crossing to the other side of the road as if competing in a Grand Prix, and I urged him on, both of us laughing. I couldn’t help noticing that several people during the week mentioned how quick and nice this airport road is which left me feeling that there is something touching about their civic pride.

To get to my office there was a short but steep walk from the hotel each morning which forced me to stop several times to allow my breathing to catch up to my ambitions. In the office itself, the view from the conference room was spectacular, less for the city and mountains, but more for the changeable weather which animated and breathed life into the scene, projecting a sense of dark drama in one moment and then the next, a Swiss like perfection of blue skies and powdery clouds. In the morning the sky was so dense and the clouds so white and perfectly formed that the tableaux resembled the innocent simplicity of a child’s painting but by nightfall, now the weather taking a wild swing creating an ominous overcast sky gathering behind a black silhouette of construction machinery, it transformed into a twenty-first century dystopian landscape. I liked this visual restlessness, the sense of movement in the climate coexisting with the stoic quality of the city, never bending to the rain the heat or whatever else is thrown at it. But this view is also a distraction and I know I’m being laughed by the local employee’s as I take pictures during the day with my comically small camera.

In this part of the city itself there are many new buildings, offices and apartments in a style which might be uncharitably called bland modernism, where the wide windows reveal ugly brown furniture and the slight, barely noticed, whispered movements of uniformed cleaning ladies during the day. In the background are the mountains which form a deep brooding V shape forming the valley the city sits in, providing an inexplicable feeling that we are protected by these volatile volcanic Pichincha mountain ranges. I realized long ago that we humans seem to be good at living with such deep contradictions; building expensive homes on the San Andreas Fault lines, only feeling safe when we live in the world’s capital cities which are the bulls-eye in a  target for multitude of nuclear warheads; it is a particularly twenty first century form of denial. When I asked my friend later in the week about the active volcano’s he laughed and I sensed his pride at living so precariously, as if that was a key component of life, the potential for sudden death and disaster.  I could see small white house’s climbing up the mountain that look like shellfish clinging on the side of a rock pool but if you look further from that valley there are signs of pastoral farmlands and forests in the distance creating a powerful yearning to be outside, to see the city from above.

Working with the staff and management in our office can be revelatory experience as they approach their day with a seeming innocence of political ambition; they embrace and kiss, appear to be happy working together and possess sincere interest in each other’s lives and daily news. They also don’t seem to have to work too hard or allow stress a foothold into their day. Naturally we silently compare our situation and attitude – driving me more and more to consider the nature of work, mine in particular. In my world, which is a medium level executive in a large global company you sign two contract’s when you start the job. The first formal one, the terms of employment and all the official business, but there is also a second one, the contract you make with yourself; how much will you give up, how much are you are prepared to play the corporate game, will you leave all integrity and authenticity behind? I walk that tight rope like everyone else, to call out foolishness? to align myself with the ambitious and powerful despite the lack of belief? Its all still a work in progress I concede on the long trip back to New York…..

Then last night we went to the Donald Judd Christmas party in his Spring Street house, an event that we have attended almost every year, and as we get older the building gets younger thanks to its many face lifts. If I had to list my favorite artists then Judd would always be included although probably for all the wrong reasons; I like his interiors and furniture as much as his sculptures, perhaps more…and secondly fall victim of the cult of admiring self-centered, overly purposeful, driven individuals; I have no evidence to suggest he was an art world Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne, leaving a little chaos in his wake, but his rigorous output and style of living suggests this. I have also been around people who were close to him and his family and there is always a feeling of nervousness when we talk about him, like he may suddenly overhear and reappear to correct us all.

I felt I got closer to him in Marfa a few years ago when I was allowed into his inner sanctum and could browse his book shelves, a sadly dying practice in this digital age. I was thrilled to see the Diary of Samuel Pepy’s, it must be the only copy in West Texas, but also the bourgeois coffee table book “French Style” a book about interiors, showing Parisian apartments drowning in Chintz and near empty Fisherman’s cottages in remote Brittany. I owned this book once, and also “English” (and improbably even “Greek” style) but one morning some years ago I woke in a fog of nihilism and threw them out, knowing it wasn’t so much the books that were going into the dumpster but all the unrealistic fantasies and dreams they contained. In the same way that Lucy Jordan had reached the age of thirty seven knowing that she would never ride through Paris with the warm wind in her hair, I’d also reached the conclusion that the tiny, eighteenth century cottage in a quiet backwater of Arles…well, that probably wasn’t happening either. It was also a relief, this acknowledgement that I wouldn’t suffer the anguish and complexities of wealth, multiple properties and false friends.

But I looked at Judd in a different way, seeing all the things he didn’t put into his work, admiring even more his disciple of exploring raw form, texture and color now having a little more insight into the man himself; the scope of his aspirations and wide ranging luxurious and slightly decedent interests.




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