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Minimalism to the Max in Marfa

Artist Donald Juddʼs Chinati Foundation
Written by Susan Kirr. Photographs by James Evans.
Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, created between 1982 and 1986, are permanently installed at the Chinati Foundation.

Art takes kindly to the wide-open expanses of Marfa, Texas.

Marfa doesn’t judge the art, doesn’t compartmentalize it, doesn’t hastily move on to the Next Big Thing. Marfa just settles back and quietly wraps its arms around the art, protecting it, accepting it. This tiny town of about 2,500 people has turned out to be a fitting home for the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary museum established in 1986 that synthesizes art, architecture, and landscape near the shifting shadows of the Chinati Mountain range.

Why, of all places, Marfa? Two words: Donald Judd. The artist, who died in 1994, was dubbed a Minimalist by critics, but like most artists, he never fit neatly into the box.

Born in Missouri in 1928, Judd began his career as an art history student in New York City, writing monthly art reviews, slowly clarifying and solidifying his own philosophy of art.

He graduated cum laude from Columbia with a B.A., later earned an M.F.A., and was awarded a Guggenheim Fel­lowship. Gravi­tating toward painting, and later, sculpture, favoring industrial materials such as aluminum, Plexiglas, and plywood, Judd gradually began paring his work down to the barest essentials, utilizing simple, bold colors and spare, geometric forms. During the 1960s and ’70s, he experienced a good deal of success, selling his work for large sums of money and exhibiting sculpture in top museums around the world.

Ever the willing gadfly, Judd criticized the art establishment in various publications. High on his hit list were museums and galleries, which he chastised for their lack of care in transporting, installing, and exhibiting art. Judd considered the space around a piece intrinsic to its proper appreciation and felt that artists should be deeply involved in the design of the space showcasing their work. Believing that art institutions too often neglected this aspect, hurriedly shuttling work in and out as time and fashion dictated, he finally decided to take action.

In the early 1970s, Judd planned his escape from New York, driving through the American Southwest, scouring the countryside for the right place to relocate. In far West Texas, he happened upon Marfa, and in 1972, he moved there. He spent the next 22 years creating his own vision of an enlightened place, an alternative exhibition space, safe for art and artists. ARTnews recognized Judd’s far-reaching im­pact by including him among its list of the 25 most influential artists of the Western world.

Culturally, Marfa lies just about as far away from the New York art world as one can get. With its rich Hispanic heritage, plethora of old ranching families, and vast, dusty, windswept panoramas, it’s a far cry from the glistening skyscrapers, trendy galleries, and hoi polloi of Manhattan. Which is exactly why it seems to have appealed to Judd in the first place.

Culturally, Marfa lies just about as far away from the New York art world as one can get. With its rich Hispanic heritage, plethora of old ranching families, and vast, dusty, windswept panoramas, it’s a far cry from the glistening skyscrapers, trendy galleries, and hoi polloi of Manhattan. Which is exactly why it seems to have appealed to Judd in the first place.

In 1979, Judd sought the assistance of the Dia Art Foundation, a nonprofit museum in New York dedicated in part to the creation and preservation of environmental art. Dia helped Judd purchase Fort D.A. Russell, a U.S. Army base at the edge of Marfa that had lain vacant since 1946. With 340 acres and some 25 buildings scattered across the property, the abandoned fort became Judd’s final canvas. Over the next 15 years, he would systematically renovate, re-envision, and restructure the buildings to cradle permanent installations of his and other like-minded artists’ work.

Drawing on his background as a carpenter’s son, Judd began to work on two former artillery sheds, adding tall, arched Quonset roofs and replacing large garage doors on each side with enormous plate-glass windows. He carefully conceived the transformation to complement the art that would go inside: his 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. These 100 boxes, each 41” tall, 51” wide, and 72” deep, and proportionally arranged in the two buildings, interact so harmoniously with the space that upon seeing it, one instantaneously comprehends exactly what Judd was after.

In the sheds, long, sharp shafts of afternoon light pour through the space, angling at the austere boxes. Mirrored in their shimmering, gray surfaces are the warm, muted colors of the West Texas plains outside. From another vantage point, the industrial boxes stand in stark relief against the landscape, their hard edges in marked contrast to the big sky, distant mountains, and grassy plains in full, magnificent view just beyond the windows.

“Judd was fascinated by the empty land and open space in and around Marfa; obviously its horizontality suited him,” says Marianne Stockebrand, director of the Chi­nati Foundation and Judd’s companion in his later years. “At the Chinati Foundation, he continued his idea of permanency, however, on a much larger scale than in previous exhibits elsewhere. The integration of art and architecture became more direct and stronger, and related closely to the surrounding landscape.”

Over time, Judd reached out to other artists, beckoning them to join him in Marfa to create permanent installations of their own work, to be housed in other buildings on the old Army base. One of the first he sought out was Dan Flavin, a close friend. Flavin began to work on a piece for the Chinati Foundation during the early 1980s, but later he and Judd had a falling out, and the project languished. After Judd’s death, at the urging of the foundation, Flavin completed the design for the installation in 1996, shortly before his own death. The museum employed dozens of workers to construct Flavin’s piece, and unveiled it last October at the foundation’s annual open house.

Flavin’s monumental untitled (Marfa project) inhabits six U-shaped Army barracks. Two banks of colored fluorescent lights, mounted in the base of each U, cast a mystical, multicolored glow into the two long corridors of each building. The cool concrete floors and blank white walls make a perfect canvas for absorbing the alternating bands of colored light—pink against green in some buildings, blue against yellow in others. Like Judd, Flavin preferred impersonal, industrial materials, gracefully transforming them into ghostly forms. The aura of mystery suits the space well—after all, the famous, unexplained Marfa Lights sporadically offer their own cryptic glitter just a few miles away.

Skeleton crew. The photogenic Presidio County Courthouse is getting a facelift, a process not exclusive to vainglorious movie stars.Judd also extended an invitation to Soviet artist Ilya Kabakov, who created a site-specific work that capitalizes upon the decrepit nature of an abandoned barracks, open to the elements. Utilizing the chipping paint and plaster and the patina of dust everywhere, Kabakov created School No. 6, a crumbling Soviet schoolroom with red desks scattered haphazardly about, dusty books and propaganda littering the floor, and a warped portrait of Lenin grinning idly over the wrecked domain. It’s clever and funny, but sobering, too.

Outside the schoolroom stands a huge horseshoe suspended in midair, one crooked, rusty nail protruding from it: the proverbial nail in the coffin to the cattle barons of yore. Titled Monument to the Last Horse, this work, by Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Dutch-born artist Coosje van Bruggen, represents just one example in a long line of the two artists’ fanciful, populist, large-scale sculptures. Others privileged with permanent installations on the grounds include noted contemporary artists John Chamberlain, Richard Long, and Ingólfur Arnasson.

Open to the public year round, the Chinati Foundation also hosts major events throughout the year. In addition, every two to three years, the museum organizes a symposium dedicated to exploring a particular topic of interest to the art community at large. Artists, scholars, and cogno­scenti from around the world gather in Marfa to discuss such topics as “Art in the Land­scape” (1995), “Art and Architecture” (1998), and “Light in Architecture and Art” (2001). The museum recently published a collection of the lectures given on the first two topics, featuring discourse by such notables as art critic Lucy Lippard and architects Frank Gehry and Jacques Herzog.

The Chinati Foundation now draws visitors from all over the world who have heard about the spirit of the place and are curious to discover it for themselves. Many come to take part in the foundation’s biggest event, an annual open house (October 5-7, 2001) free to the public and attended by more than 1,000 people last year.

At other times of the year, visitors must take guided tours to view the collection. But during the open house, people can move about freely, as all of the exhibition spaces are open and staffed with docents. Even more unusual, visitors also get the opportunity to explore private segments of the Judd estate, including Judd’s home, La Mansana de Chinati (a.k.a.The Block), the former fort quartermaster’s headquarters.

Inside The Block, you get an even clearer picture of Judd as a person. Several rooms hold numerous volumes of his immense library, while other spaces serve as private galleries, inhabited by some of Judd’s earlier sculptures, such as vertically arranged, colored Plexiglas boxes. Also, curiously enough, you’ll find a bed in almost every gallery space, which Marianne Stockebrand attributes to Judd’s desire to integrate art and living. (It’s also said that Judd liked to contemplate art while lying down.) The artist’s bedroom and kitchen remain largely as he left them, Native American blankets draped on the walls, a handwritten note on the kitchen counter, his collection of arrowheads splayed across the dinner table.

For this month’s 15th annual open house, the museum plans an ambitious lineup of events. Internationally renowned artist Fred Sandback will install some of his work in the foundation’s temporary exhibition space. Chinati Foundation artist-in-residence Howard Goldkrand will perform a “sound piece” at a public dinner on Saturday evening, and actor/writer Wallace Shawn, perhaps best-known for his role in the popular movie My Dinner with André, will stage a reading of his play Marie and Bruce on Friday evening.

No longer below the radar, the Chinati Foundation recently made the U.K. edition of Condé Nast Traveller’s short list of seven American wonders, defined as “buildings in the U.S. that defy architectural convention by reviving historical forms or rewriting the rules for the future.” The magazine commended Judd’s brilliant mélange of art, architecture, and landscape.

After a few days in Marfa, you slowly get a better understanding of why Judd found a home and creative wellspring here on the high plains of the Chihuahuan Des­ert. The expansive countryside and the warm, small-town personality most likely exerted an irresistible pull.

It’s said that to be really touched or moved by art, you need to experience it firsthand. Judd took this idea a step further, creating installations that thrust art right up against a wild, untamed envi-ronment. He created a destination, luring us out of the cities, out of our routines, back to the earth, seducing us with simple, immutable forms ensconced in an awesome natural setting. When those two seemingly disparate things come together, it’s hard not to be swayed by the wonder of it all.

When...Where...How

The Chinati Foundation stands at 1 Cavalry Row, on the edge of Marfa, 25 miles west of Alpine in Big Bend country. Except during the annual Open House (Oct. 5-7, 2001), the collection is open to the public by guided tour only. Tours: Thu-Sun 10 a.m., or Mon-Wed by appt. Admission: $10, $5 students and seniors, free for Chinati Foundation members. Make prior arrangements for handicapped access. Write to Box 1135, Marfa 79843; 915/729-4362; www.chinati.org.

The Judd Foundation oversees Judd's private estate, consisting of his art, furniture, library, and numerous buildings. Though the staff is small, visitors can sometimes arrange private tours by appt. Write to Box 218, Marfa 79843; 915/729-4406; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For information on Marfa, write to the Marfa Chamber of Commerce, Box 635, Marfa 79843; 729-4942 or 800/650-9696; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Marfa's area code is 915; the zip code is 79843. Sites are wheelchair accesible unless otherwise noted. Map it!

Accommodations

The Hotel Paisano is listed in the Natl. Register of Historic Places. The hotel, saved from demolition in March when Joe and Lanna Duncan of Ft. Davis bought it at auction, gained fame for housing movie stars during the filming of Giant in 1955. Featuring iron scrollwork, ceramic tile, and stained glass, the hotel will offer upscale suites when it reopens this month. Rates: $79-$175. Write to 207 N. Highland, Marfa; 729-3669 or 866/ 729-3669; www.hotelpaisano.com.

The Arcón Inn is a quaint adobe Victorian B&B with 4 themed bedrooms, as well as a territorial casita with 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, and a sitting room. Casita is wheelchair accessible; main house is not. Rates: $85-$190, breakfast included. Write to 215 N. Austin St.; 729-4826; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Holiday Capri Inn, on US 90 west, harks back to the 1950s with pastel colors and kitschy decor. A small gift shop offers local memorabilia. Rates: $40-$55; 729-4326.

Attractions

The water at Chinati Hot Springs bubbles up from the ground at a soothing 109 degrees. Choose from private cabins ($45-$70), a bed in a bunkhouse ($20), a campsite ($10), or day use of the springs ($10 per person, $8 seniors, $5 ages 12-16, free age 11 and younger). The nonprofit facility contains indoor and outdoor baths and a kitchen with refrigerator, stove, and utensils. Not wheelchair accessible. Write to Box 67 Candelaria Rte., Marfa; 229-4165 or 837-0715.

The Marfa Book Company is much more than a bookstore specializing in art books. It's also an espresso cafe, a wine bar, an art gallery, and general community gathering place. Hours: Daily 9-9. Write to 105 S. Highland St.; 729-3906.

Hecho en Marfa, 119 N. Highland St., is the Marfa Studio of Arts store, selling local and regional art. Hours: Wed-Sun 1-5; 729-4616.

Travelers can sometimes witness the Marfa Lights from a viewing spot on US 67/90 about 8 miles east of town. The Marfa Lights Festival, held each Labor Day weekend, features food, crafts, a parade, a concert, and a street dance. For details, call the C of C www.marfalights.com.

Restaurants

The atmosphere is warm and friendly at Carmen's Cafe, 317 E. San Antonio St., which specializes in home-style Mexican breakfasts, sandwiches, burritos, and steaks. Hours: Mon-Sat 6-2 and 5-9; 729-3429.

Mike and Sylvia Zubiate make everyone feel welcome at Mike's Place, 111 N. Highland St., a homey restaurant with a clever motto: "7 Days Without a Mike's Burger Makes 1 Weak." The menu features burgers, Mexican plates, pizza, and a fine green-chile stew. Not wheelchair accessible. Hours: Mon-Fri 7-7, Sat 8-2; 729-8146.

Patsy's Thunderbird Restaurant, 610 W. San Antonio St., feels like a real diner, with a big, broad view of Marfa's main drag. Home cookin' rules here, with favorites like barbecue, pork chops, fried chicken, enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. Not wheelchair accessible. Hours: Daily 6 a.m.-8 p.m.; 729-3404.

Grab a sandwich at the Comida, an organic grocery and deli at 131 E. San Antonio. Hours: Mon-Sat 9-6; 729-3455.

Enjoy good enchiladas and cold beer at local favorite Borunda's Bar & Grill, 113 S. Russell St. Hours: Daily 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; 729-8163.

It's well worth the 30-minute drive to Alpine to visit Reata (named for the ranch in Giant), which serves gourmet cowboy cuisine like jalapeño-cilantro soup and chicken encrusted with pumpkin seeds. Hours: Mon-Sat 11:30-2 and 5-10:30. Write to 203 N. 5th St., Alpine 79830; 915/837-9232.

The following books offer insight into Donald Judd's artistic vision (to order, contact the Chinati Foundation or the Marfa Book Company): Donald Judd: Colorist edited by Dietmar Elger (Cantz, 2000); Donald Judd: Late Work (PaceWildenstein, 2000); Donald Judd: Selected Works 1960-1991 (Museum of Modern Art, Saitama and Museum of Modern Art, Shiga, 1999); Art in the Landscape (Chinati Foundation, 2000); and Art and Architecture (Chinati Foundation, 2000).

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