Monument to the Last Horse by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

This essay first appeared in Large-Scale Projects by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, The Monicelli Press and Cossje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg, 1994.

The Chinati Foundation, started by the artist Donald Judd to display contemporary art, is located in Marfa, Texas, a town of 2,984 inhabitants in the highlands of western Texas. The uncharacteristic name of the town was selected by the wife of a railroad engineer who was reading The Brothers Karamazov. Most of the Foundation's collection is housed at Fort D.A. Russell, a former US Army base acquired by the artist, who restored and redesigned the buildings to show permanent exhibitions of his own work and that of other artists he admired, such as Barnett Newman, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, and the Russian artist lIya Kabakov.

Earlier in the century, the US First Cavalry had been stationed at the base. In 1932, when the unit was disbanded, its oldest horse, Louie, then 34 years old (99 in human terms, caparisoned in black, was destroyed after a "hail and farewell" salute and buried under a concrete marker on the fort's parade grounds. The era of cavalry regiments had come to an end. The marker was first pointed out to us by Judd during a visit to the Foundation in October 1987. It was crumbling, like many of the structures of the fort and around it, in the dry, hot climate of the place, and seemed as pathetic a memorial to an under-appreciated event as we had ever seen, a true anti-monument. The view from the site, however, was a favorable one: standing in front of the marker, situated halfway between two of the abandoned barracks, we looked eastward down a slope to a line of monumental concrete works by Judd; beyond these the land rose into a ridge, forming an irregular horizon with mountains peeking up be-hind it, over which the disk of the morning sun would gradually emerge.

CoosJe, who had once done a study on the horse in ancient times and collected material on the plight of the horse in modern life, saw Louie's marker as a perfect spot for an alternative monument proposal to fit in ironically with Judd's plans for preserving the history, traditions, and crafts of the area, which included commissioning saddles from local saddle makers and using adobe techniques in his constructions. Don and I had known each other since the early 60s, and I was pleased at the thought of placing a work into the context of his universe. He received our proposal for a new monument to Louie with enthusiasm, and its gradual elaboration became a theme in the visits to Marfa that followed.

The monument to Louie had to be in the equestrian tradition but in the form of an object associated with a horse rather than the horse itself. I remembered an idea for a reduced equestrian work that consisted of a horseshoe on a hoof and a portion of the horse's leg. In discussions with Judd, the project evolved into a steel frame of a large horseshoe to which the adobe materials of mud and straw could be applied to suggest pieces of the ground stuck to the shoe. The adobe would be reapplied whenever it became necessary.

During the days of our stay in October 1987, I collected examples from the bent and rusty horseshoes that littered the grounds of the fort, though the particular one selected was found on a visit to Judd's mountain ranch near the Rio Grande. The day of our departure I measured the marker of Louie's grave. I also noted that the arc of the shoe should be positioned to frame the sunrise. Thinking that the shoe needed something to make it more interesting in the round, I twisted it and then stuck a rusty nail found in the road through one of the holes, disregarding the fact that the nail was much longer than those ordinarily used. Back in New York, a model was made using the found horseshoe and nail, on a small-scale version of Louie's graveside marker. On a subsequent visit to Marfa in August 1988, the scale of the full-size work and the orientation of the shoe were determined by mounting a plywood mock-up that had been made up by assistants at the Foundation. The horseshoe was erected with its prongs facing downward because that position made a better sculpture-in spite of the superstition that it signified the spilling out of luck. Louie's marker had originally been inscribed with the motto Animo et Fide, "spirited and faithful." It wasn't clear whether this was meant to refer to Louie or his unit, but the phrase seemed general enough to preserve on the new version of the monument.

The possibility existed of funding the sculpture through a government grant, but we decided instead to raise the cost of fabrication through a limited edition of smaller versions of the sculpture. The large work would be donated to the Chinati Foundation.

The plan to use adobe was set aside as too difficult to maintain. On the small versions, a kind of "mud" made of plastic cement and wood shavings gave the effect of adobe when applied to a steel cutout of the horseshoe. After the mud hardened, it was painted. Each sculpture received an individual application of mud and paint. In the large work, sprayed polyurethane foam was substituted for the concrete, sandblasted, and afterward coated with a hard, weather-resistant resin. The horseshoe was cut from aluminum and studded with scraps of the metal, giving the effect of pieces of straw sticking out through the mud. The nail was torch-cut from a solid aluminum slab.

The city of New York maintains a space for the temporary installation of sculpture at the southeast corner of Central Park behind Augustus Saint-Gauden's gilded equestrian statue of General William Sherman, not far from the spot where the real, weary steeds that draw tourists around the park gather to wait for their customers. An opportunity to place a work on this site arose, coinciding appropriately with the projected completion of the Monument to the Last Horse, in the spring of 1991. At the last minute the site became unavailable, however, and the sculpture was shifted to another temporary location in front of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, becoming the first equestrian monument to be placed on that boulevard. The sophisticated site, with the rough surface of the shoe directed at the ornate facade of the Racquet & Tennis Club across the avenue and its smooth back complementing the gloss and hue of Mies van der Rohe's skyscraper, made the sharpest contrast possible with the monument's eventual destination.

First published in Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Large-Scale Projects.
New York: Monacelli Press, 1994, pp. 470-475.


Related reading

Artillery Sheds by Donald Judd

Monument to the Last Horse: Animo et Fide by Donald Judd.