Marfa, Texas: Artist Enclave & Hollywood Oasis

by Bryon Browne

Pencils ready- a pop quiz: John Steinbeck is to Salinas, California as Donald Judd is to __________. The correct answer, since the majority of us will need the help, is Marfa, Texas. More than likely, the question now is, who the heck is Donald Judd and where in the world is Marfa, Texas?

Marfa is a small (population 2100) southwest Texas town just north of the Big Bend National Park and an hour’s drive from the Mexican border. And realize it or not, it is a location whose desert sceneries you are most likely already familiar with. Giant, the epic fifties film featuring Rock Hudson and James Dean, was filmed on proximate ranch land. The Paisano, the town’s lone historic hotel, served not only as the residence for the cast and crew during production, but the upstairs ballroom also functioned as an impromptu screening room at the end of each day’s filming.

Even if you’ve somehow not had the pleasure of viewing Giant, then, hopefully, you’ve experienced the more recent films, No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, both of which were shot around the Marfa area. When Hollywood calls for isolation on a titanic scale, it dials a Texas number.

Marfa is not an attractive town. If it were a woman, she would be gracious, sweet, nurturing and have a wonderful personality. She would also, like the desert , be half-bald and unrelentingly long-winded. Located a hundred miles from nowhere and dusty as the area behind your refrigerator, the town has still managed to resurrect itself as an artist’s enclave over the past few decades. Once a backwater town hanging precariously close to extinction, Marfa has become a hub for all things hep; think Kramer in a Stetson. However, like so much art, the town was born from necessity and named from a literary inspiration.

Marfa, as the story goes, was named for the Dostoevsky character Marfa Ignatievna from the Brothers Karamozov by the wife of a railroad engineer as they steamed through the town back in 1882. Until that time, due to its being no more than a watering stop for the cattle ranchers and trains, the town held the inglorious but utilitarian moniker of Tank Town (sort of like naming your cat, cat pet.) Another explanation holds that the name Marfa originates from a character in the Jules Verne novel Michael Strogoff, which was published in 1876 with a theatrical, English adaptation soon afterwards. Brothers Karamozovwas not published in English until several years after its completion (it was written in serial format, like much of Dickens’ work) in 1880. In any event, the town and its namesake have been a source of inspiration for many years.

Artists and writers from all over the world have migrated to this area to commune with the desert, the sun and the ethereal. Mostly, they have come following in the steps of Minimalist artist Donald Judd who arrived in the early 1970s. Walking the town today, you would notice that the streets are close to deserted. The downtown area is only as lively as a town of a couple thousand can be. The desert sun beats down on every exposure and tumbleweeds literally roll across the main roads with even more regularity than the Santa Fe railway trains push past on the horizon. There is a languid and unhurried atmosphere here that is common to west Texas, but unfamiliar for much of the remainder of the country. Because the nearest city is hundreds of miles and many hours away, the fervor and fury of civilization seem, like a blustery cold front, to become mollified and temperate before reaching here. Perhaps it was this physical detachment that brought Judd and his fellow artists here initially.

In the mid-1970’s, Judd bought Fort D.A. Russell, a 340 acre, retired army base, and converted the ruins into “permanent art installations” which feature not only his works but those of Ilya Kabakov, Don Flavin, John Chamberlain, Carl Andre, Ingolfur Arnarsson, John Wesley and others. Each barrack, horse stable, gymnasium and even the grassy, open tract surrounding are filled with poetry, paintings, sculptures and over-sized works in concrete, aluminum and blazing, humming neon.  The enormous scale of the project is enough to make any Texan (or Tinsletown director) proud. In fact, the colossal expanse of the area very nearly defies the Minimalist effort. Maybe in anticipation of this sort of criticism, Judd himself preferred the term “empiricist” when labeling his style.

Today, the area is called the Chinati Foundation, named for the mountain range stretching throughout the region. As large a museum as the region can accommodate, the tour (the only access to the collection) needs to be segmented into two separate trips in order to wholly include the site.

From outside, the buildings and their environment still recall the musty, dry aesthetic of the old army base. Indeed, the majority of the buildings have had little exterior cosmetic reconstruction except when structurally necessary. An exception to this is the work of artist Ilya Kabakov whose School No. 6was composed using the entirety of one of the old barracks. Meant to represent an abandoned, Soviet era schoolhouse, Kabakov’s piece utilizes the total available space of the structure.

The interior shows the ruins of a few neglected classrooms with magazine clippings, musical instruments, handwritten assignments, broken furniture and science class paraphernalia strewn about the floor while a fractured chalkboard hangs from a single, obstinate nail.  Impotent Stalin and Marx propaganda cling to the walls. During our visit, the guide, an intern for the Foundation, asked us to “Please not touch anything. Even the dust and dirt is placed exactly where the artist wants it.” In fact, the grasses and weeds outside and surrounding the building are also  intentionally left alone to add to the perception of total and, perhaps sudden, abandonment.

The artist Donald Flavin’s exhibit is comprised of six, block U-shaped barracks. Again, judging from the exterior, they could very well still be soldier’s housing. The interior of each is characterized by dramatically void, dimly radiant hallways, spit-shined and sleek. Placed within the U at the back, at the 90 degree angle, is the light’s source – a union of long, phosphorescent neon tubes, each radiating brilliant, exuberant, paired colors: orange with green, green with pink, blue with yellow, etc. It is hard not to recall the stage settings of the original Star Trektelevision show while viewing these. However, the contrast between these surreal, ultra-modern “canvases” and the desert landscape just outside is profound.

Donald Judd’s exhibits dominate the scenery at the Chinati Foundation. Placed directly in the center of the museum, are two ammunition depots Judd converted into repositories of his more famous works, 100 untitled works in Mill Aluminum. The scale of this work is huge, to say the least. Having bought and shipped the aluminum from a foundry in Connecticut, after years of planning the shape and angle of each plate, the work consists of 100 aluminum boxes, all the same size, placed geometrically throughout the open stretch of each building. Each box has some alteration to it that differentiates it from another: the slant of one side, the open end on another, the screw holes are never the same for any one in particular.

Unlike most of the other structures on the grounds, the two sheds which hold Judd’s boxes underwent such a dramatic overhaul that they are considered works of art just as any other piece on the property. The rather stoically titled Artillery Sheds required an enormous effort of conversion from Judd. He wrote of the sheds as he first experienced them for a 1989 German magazine article:

The buildings, purchased in ’79, and the works of art that they contain were planned together as much as possible. The size and nature of the buildings were given. This determined the size and the scale of the works. This then determined that there be continuous windows and the size of their divisions. The windows replaced the derelict garage doors closing the long sides. A sub-division of nine parts, for example, would be too complicated in itself and as bars in front of the works of art, smaller to larger inside, rather than larger outside as part of the facade to smaller inside as part of the sub-division of the interior. The windows are quartered and are made of clear anodized extruded aluminum channel and re-enforced glass. One window of each building slides open, which isn’t enough, but the sliding windows were much more expensive.

Of course, the work was finished on a grand scale. Soon afterwards though, Judd discovered that the walls and roofs of several buildings needed to be reinforced and even more construction was laid out. From his writings, however, it seems that all of this almost never came about:

Other than the two artillery sheds and later the Arena, I was against buying it. It had been an army base, which is not so good. Most buildings were without roofs, there was trash everywhere and the land was damaged. At any rate the artillery sheds were concrete and solid, although they leaked.

Obviously, the idea panned out and the structures, once repaired, became one of the most unique and extraordinary museums in the country.

In addition to Judd’s art work, he was, evidently, a prolific writer. A critic for Artsmagazine in the ’60s, Judd also has a cache of prose writings concerning his own work as well as details regarding the Chinati Foundation. The Foundation, in fact, hosted a symposium on his writings this past May 2008.

The inspiration that Donald Judd and his associates discovered in the Marfa area has been found by others also. Not only is the region a relatively new home for dozens of artists (you’ll not mistake any of these when visiting the area. These new residents are the ones without the tanned, leathery skin and they, more often than not, are inhabiting the new, split-level, tri-colored homes/studios) but it is the home of the Lannan Foundation. This Foundation is a writer’s resort of sorts and offers scholarships, grants, time and room to create. It has offered many a writer the luxury of both writing space and recognition for the past 19 years. Although I am personally averse to mission statements, Lannan has one on almost every page of its website. Evidently, they are serious about their work. However, that is not surprising. Marfa seems to have that effect on many of us. Even the often cynical David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, was impressed with the town when he wrote about it on his internet journal (isn’t that a “blog”?) in 2006:

In some ways it is a typical small Texan town with a beautiful old central courthouse, a train track running through the middle, grain and cattle loading facilitiesbut that’s where the ordinariness ends. The main street here is lined with super contemporary Spartan-looking art galleries and the offices of at least 3 art foundations. There is a “good” restaurant with white tablecloths and a tasteful bookstore and coffee and wine bar wedged in between the post office, the barbershop and the NPR station offices.

Marfa, Texas is an extraordinary place. For the veteran residents it is an oasis in the middle of the chaos that is the west Texas desert. The artist finds his inspiration in the glowing desert and expansive skies, the naturalist knows that just under foot is mineral rich ground water and ahead, the mountains are waiting.  All of us, with a single visit, are sure to find much more than we ever expected.

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