Art in the Middle of Nowhere: Marfa, TX
This weekend I went on a road trip to have a reunion and see fantastic art. I headed west to Marfa, TX. About six hours from San Antonio, the main part of this trip is desert. You must fill up your gas tank when you stop, there may not be another one in time to save you. This tiny town remains largely unknown, except to artists. Then it is recognized internationally. In the 70’s, Donald Judd, a minimalist sculptor, discovered this Texas town in the middle of nowhere. From then on, he worked in both Marfa and New York City and, I believe, truly began his legacy. Judd’s vision was to display the work of the artists that inspired him in permanent, large scale installations, unlike the short, rotating exhibitions he disliked in New York. Also, he didn’t feel these artists were properly represented in permanent collections. With help from huge organizations like the DIA, he was able to purchase large, former military buildings, and in 1986, opened the Chinati Foundation. It has now expanded to an incredible 340 acres. He also began the Judd Foundation, that focuses on the preservation of his own work. The collection features large scale work from Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and John Chamberlain, to name a few. That is an incredible collection of art. From the massive amounts of art he created, to the expansive project Chinati has become, I respect his ambition and can see he created an art community here. When I was in college I went to Marfa for the first time. It was an amazing experience. Seeing what Donald Judd has created is inspiring. With an art compound that large, it is normally only able to be viewed through a guided tour. Except for one weekend a year, the Chinati Open House. During this time, you are free to wander through the extensive displays of art on your own. So far, during this open house is the only time I have ever visited Marfa. There are also normally plenty of free events that coincide with the weekend. The first year I went in 2007, my husband and I bought a tent, hopped in the car and headed West. Not knowing what to expect, we found an amazing community, fantastic art, and a pretty unique experience. The city had a free barbeque in the evening, after which Sonic Youth played a free show, and ended the next morning with the Chinati Foundation hosting a free breakfast. Did I mention the word free enough times? It was such a fantastic experience, the next year, 2008, I organized a trip with some classmates. There were ten of us on that original trip. Since then, eight of us have remained friends, artists, and a support system for each other. Beginning that year with everyone, the event began to change. No more dinners from the city. Still a free music event, but nothing as legendary as Sonic Youth. This has changed the number of people dramatically that attend this weekend. But that doesn’t detract from the real reason for going – amazing art. There are still lectures, screenings and readings that relate to the artist or project featured for the weekend. And of course, there will be the huge permanent installations, always amazing to contemplate in person. While a few other said they were going to come this year, ultimately, it was the eight of us that returned. We enjoy experiencing this unique adventure together.
The road to the Chinati entrance is dotted with a few older houses. We find that one of them belongs to the artists Julie Speed. Having seen her included in many shows, as well as seen books of her work at various museum shops, I am familiar with her art. We go in and find what an incredible studio she has. Wonderfully spacious, each room leads to another body of her work. There are three rooms, then a huge additional room, the largest in the house. Prints, paintings, and collages line the walls and shelves, displaying her extensive collections of work. As if that already wasn’t enough, her backyard view is of the huge concrete sculptures created by Judd, made up of fifteen displays of various cement blocks.
I recently had the privilege of seeing a huge portfolio of her prints at the Southwest School of Art (work in addition to what I was seeing here). Speed will be showing there next year and Kathy Armstrong, the Director of Exhibitions, had picked up her work. Speed was very friendly, as I discussed seeing her portfolio. She willingly shared her techniques on pieces there on display, as well as how she printed her own catalogs for some smaller exhibitions. The information was very helpful and it was nice that she was easy to talk to. I always love going to visit people’s studios. It is, of course, much more revealing than at a gallery space exhibiting only one body of the artist’s work. Arriving at Chianti, it looks like a few old buildings and a lot of desert. However, enter, and you find a world class collection of Contemporary Art displayed unlike any other museum. Donald Judd displays his permanent collection of metal boxes in two huge former airplane hangars. This is a personal highlight of the trip for me. Jim, a friend of mine, jokes that the hundred boxes no longer
make Judd a Minimalist. While there were one hundred works in the two buildings, they way they worked with the environment made it feel as if the room was empty. We discuss how important the environment is to minimalism. He said the way they are displayed here “cleanses the pallet,” and I absolutely agree. Placing minimalist pieces alongside artwork from other genres does interfere and take the piece out of context. This could be argued for almost any artwork, but I believe it is an important element for minimalism. The slick, fabricated metal boxes played with the reflection from the floor to ceiling windows. Sometimes where the piece ended and the environment began was blurred. I think that is what I find mesmerizing about these pieces. No matter where you are standing, the effect is the same. I had a difficult time choosing these photos in particular, so many were easily great examples of Judd’s intentions. Each I time I experience them, I understand a little more. Making this pilgrimage several times, I still continue to learn learn something new, each experience evolving my feelings about these permanent installations. On display in another building was a temporary exhibit of some more of Judd’s work, seeing his concepts realized smaller, in a third medium of wood. They have similar patterns to the
fabricated metal boxes, but are much smaller in scale, displayed on the wall, and have a much different feel. These pieces do not react with the environment. I’m not sure if these are considered studies or completed works, and I also contemplate the huge cement blocks. I have never considered those to be studies. Is it just the size that I am thinking about? Judd does tend to work on a massive scale. It’s interesting to see an artist work on a particular concept over such a long period of time. The original thoughts and ideas evolve, as all art should. It is just more obvious how they evolved on similar series of works. With Minimalism concerned with the formal elements, you can understand from these pieces that the scale and material are an integral part of his work.
Besides Judd’s metal boxes, my other absolute favorite permanent exhibit here is Dan Flavin. I have posted seeing his work in New York and Berlin, but this is one of my top two Flavin installations I have ever seen. The other is the fantastic piece at the Menil in Houston, taking up an entire building. This installation is much larger in comparison. Displayed in the center of six different U-shaped buildings, there are two pieces on each side, a total of four physical pieces in each building. Then there is the way they work together, expanding this installation further. This unique piece must be viewed from both sides to fully appreciate what he has created. Each side exposes a different color, working with elements of light and color theory. Like Judd, Flavin’s work is best displayed without interaction from any other art. The scale and concepts are enough to stand on their own. In fact, they thrive that way. The color pallet alternates buildings from pink and green to yellow and blue, eventually bringing all four colors to the last two remaining buildings. Flavin’s pieces also play with displaying the light from both an interior and exterior fixed location within the building, changing the perception in each installation. These pictures are not a very good example of how these pieces are experienced. Some things really cannot be captured on a camera. But I had to at least try to show you what I had experienced here.
We then headed a few blocks into town for the lectures. The main exhibition on focus this Open House is John Chamberlain’s huge collection there. Housed in a large separate building from the Chinati Complex, I had actually never been there. Both huge in terms of the scale of the work, as well as the number of pieces that were displayed, it was yet another impressive collection put together by Donald Judd. Saturday, there were two lectures and Sunday, there were three film screenings with or about Chamberlain. The lecture by Lynne Cook on his process was very insightful. Her introduction was very impressive, having an extensive resume that included working with world class artists at world class galleries and museums. It is a dream job to co-curate the Venice Biennale or an exhibit of Richard Serra at the MOMA. Definitely someone I should be looking to model my career after. When I think of working behind the scenes of an exhibition with big names, my thoughts always go to touching the work. That’s all I want to do. Be able to pick up a Cindy Sherman photograph or hang a Jasper Johns print. Really. I am getting chills thinking about that right now. And it’s a real job. Someone gets to unpack each piece of work for all these travelling exhibits and personally look over it for anything that may have happened when it was shipped. Of course, the curator has full access to the pieces without actually having to do the physical labor of installation. Cook discussed Chamberlain’s process, how when working, he was looking for pieces to “fit”. He visually knew when it was right. This is how most artists intuitively work, regardless of the medium. I don’t think anyone that is not an artist can really understand what that means. It sounds so flighty, maybe even a little poetic. Showing clips of a film on his work also allowed us to see his incredible studio! A massive warehouse stored huge piles of auto parts, sectioned by what type of part it was. It was pretty insane to look at. Occasionally, I get accused of being a hoarder when people see my collection of materials. However, it is a tiny pile compared to the enormous stockpile Chamberlain was working from. What a fantastic studio that must have been to work in!
Another reason for my excitement to visit Marfa: Prada Marfa. This installation by Elmgreen and Dragset was funded by Ballroom Marfa, but actually exists about 35 miles outside of Marfa, in
Valentine, TX. Completed in 2005, the non functioning store houses Prada shoes and purses from the 2005 Fall Collection. The non function is reinforced by the absence of a door handle. While housing these valuable commodities, the store itself will eventually deteriorate, decaying back into the landscape, I imagine looking like many of the tiny towns and houses in the area that only now exist as a remnant of the past. I saw this sculpture two years after it went up, in 2007. Now returning five years later , I begin to see the wear and tear the building is taking. Cracks have begun to appear on the facade. The transformation has begun. One of my goals is to see this building at sunrise or sunset. Having only seen photos online, it looks beautiful. This visit, however, had some disappointment for me. I had been wanting to do a photoshoot here for a while, so I found a camera and arranged for model months ago. Unfortunately, the week before the trip, she cancelled, leaving me without enough time to find someone else. This will have to happen another time. A few people don’t understand why I try to return here annually. It is the art, but it’s much more than that. Maybe I am cleansing my own art pallet, clearing my mind from racing imagery and over processed thoughts. The six hour drive (really 5.40) is a serene coast through the desert, removing yourself from the realities of everyday life. I can just be here. Even anonymous in other destinations, there is still an urgency rushing around you. That is all removed here, where life moves much slower and the art is such an important part of the community.