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The sign welcoming you to this tiny (pop. 2,400) one-stop Texas town reads MARFA IS HOW THE WEST WAS. Having seen little except olive-hued prairie grass, cacti, and tumbleweeds since driving out of El Paso a couple hundred miles back, you could well believe this claim. But if you turn south at the single flashing red light in the center of town and drive past the Border Patrol headquarters, you will soon find yourself leaving America's mythic past for what is arguably the most cutting-edge art complex on the planet.
Marfa's Chinati Foundation, a procession of low beige stucco buildings and immense tin-roof brick warehouses on the windswept site of a World War I cavalry outpost, is an art museum unlike any other. Conceived by Donald Judd, the late avatar of minimalism, as a showcase for art that he believed too unorthodox and too ambitious to be displayed anywhere else, Chinati (named after a nearby mountain range) features works that can be measured in hundreds of meters and hundreds of tons. Here, Judd's sequence of 60 enormous concrete boxes stretches across more than half a mile of high prairie like some linear, ultramodern Stonehenge.
When Judd began his Marfa project over three decades ago, it was regarded as the quixotic quest of an artist who preferred isolation to adulation. Today, 11 years after his death at the age of 65, Judd and the austere, iconoclastic art he championed has never been more fashionable. He is now revered as the patron saint of minimalist art, interiors, architecture, furniture, and even retail design, and Marfa has become a mecca for a stream of dedicated art pilgrims, design mavens, and international hipsters. Not even Dia:Beacon, the highly touted minimalist museum some 60 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan, can rival Chinati's breathtaking wow factor.
In 1971 Judd, already an art-world celebrity—and already fed up with that world as he knew it—arrived in Marfa. He was a plain-speaking but intellectually complicated maverick who had reduced his art to a few elemental manufactured forms, such as metal and Plexiglas boxes, and he was touring the Southwest, prospecting for more space to fulfill his increasingly ambitious agenda. With its ranching industry moribund after years of drought, Marfa was left with numerous abandoned buildings. Judd eventually acquired several storefronts, three ranches, and the former Fort D. A. Russell, which shut down after World War II.
Judd intended nothing less than to fundamentally change the way we look at art. An art gallery was, in Judd's words, "the showroom of a business," continuously shuffling inventories scaled to clients' living rooms, while museums crowded conventional paintings and sculptures together in eclectic "anthologies." In Marfa Judd envisioned himself and a group of like-minded colleagues creating industrial-scale works that would remain in perpetuity. After clashing with his benefactor, the Dia Art Foundation, which sank more than $5 million into the project during the early eighties, Judd set up the Chinati Foundation in 1986 to ensure that it would survive. Devotees now come at the rate of about 10,000 a year, a trickle by major metropolitan museum standards but here a torrent, given the three-hour drive from the El Paso or Midland airport. (The local airstrip does, however, accommodate private jets.)
The visitors are rewarded with an epiphany. Mine occurred on my first trip to Marfa more than 20 years ago, when I went to report on Judd's mysterious work in progress, its existence barely beyond a fantastic rumor and its completion threatened by the bitter dispute with Dia. At the time Judd vowed that he would "finish it if I have to live out here in a pickup." He was a man fighting for a vision he knew would outlive him. I believed then, as I still do now, that I was witnessing the 20th-century version of Michelangelo feuding with Pope Julius II.
The typical Judd piece encountered in a conventional museum can be an acquired taste, with its astringently logical composition of boxes that only hints at the magic he works with color and light. But in Marfa, Judd is a crowd-pleaser. His half-mile-long march of bone-gray concrete megaliths began as a lesson in the complexity of a simple shape: The giant open boxes have two sides, some three; some are grouped in arrangements of three to six; some face at angles, while others stand aligned. These permutations generate different voids filled with bright white light or black shadows, depending on the sun's position. The patterns of light and dark could be some sort of code devised to be read from outer space.
Yet, framing this futuristic construction is the ancient landscape. Marfa sits in the middle of a high-plains plateau domed by a limpid sky and rimmed with low wavelike mountains, the battered remnants of 35-million-year-old volcanoes. The signature work at Chinati, however, is Judd's 100 mill-aluminum boxes, for which he renovated two artillery warehouses, glazing the sides with floor-to-ceiling windows. Judd then placed the 48 boxes in one building, 52 in the other, in parallel rows almost the length of a football field. Fabricated from thick sheets with a quicksilver sheen, each box is strikingly different. Unlike traditional sculptors, Judd always exposed his works' interiors. Here he partitioned the boxes with shelflike dividers, some symmetrical, some not. Intense sunlight reflecting on the aluminum can render the material as transparent as Plexiglas, but when shadowed, the empty interiors reveal an opacity far denser than that of their metal containers.
The most spectacular effect is cumulative: The shimmering boxes form a giant multifaceted mirror that reflects the vast panorama surrounding the site. Not since the mid-19th-century landscape paintings of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt has an artwork so evoked the transcendental majesty of the American West.
Judd isn't alone. Also on view is a surprisingly ecumenical assortment of works by 11 artists, including Dan Flavin. His affinity with Judd is obvious in Flavin's Untitled (Marfa Project), which occupies six large U-shaped barracks at the former fort. In each building are parallel hallways; either midway down the halls or barring the hall's entrances are striped successions of eight large fluorescent tubes in blue, green, pink, or yellow. As opposed to Judd's work, Flavin's art is almost completely walled off from the landscape, appearing, at first, disconnected from this specific place—that is, until you happen to catch a sunrise or sunset from Marfa's 4,500-foot-high plateau and witness the same improbably incandescent color schemes: the pink fringe that flares in a huge arc around the green horizon, the otherworldly explosion of the sunlight against a luminous blue dawn.
The Chinati tour also includes the former Wool & Mohair building near the center of town, where three large warehouses house upwards of 20 works by Judd's close friend John Chamberlain; these are constructed from crushed automobiles—which couldn't seem further from Judd's own art.
However, Judd actually despised the term "minimalism," calling it a critics' concoction. The extent of his maximalist thinking is evident at another pilgrimage site a few blocks from the Chamberlain museum. Judd erected a nine-foot-high adobe wall around some old quartermaster's warehouses and installed himself in his own personal fortress, which is operated by the Judd Foundation, a separate entity, known as The Block. It encompasses a lot of his no-nonsense wooden-slab chairs and tables, as well as a barbecue grill, lap pool, and chicken coops in similarly boxy shapes. Belying his blue-collar affect and taciturn manner, Judd held a philosophy degree from Columbia University and also kept two libraries at his compound. A far cry from the colossal spaces that Judd devoted to his art, his personal living areas were near-monastic cells.
If Judd was a paradox, then so is Marfa, the archetypal small Texas town hosting one of the world's most important tastemaking centers. The Chinati Foundation now offers coveted artists' residencies and holds an October open house that has grown into an international event; there are even rumors of a major installation—by another friend of Judd's—in progress. Yet in an age when culture can be easily packaged and instantly beamed around the globe, Marfa's isolation ensures that the project remains a one-of-a-kind experience, something that must be seen to be believed. Perhaps this explains why Judd's art still seems so visionary, a monument that becomes increasingly venerable without losing its capacity to surprise.
NOVELIST MICHAEL ENNIS IS A WRITER-AT-LARGE FOR TEXAS MONTHLY.
Forever Texas: The New-Old Marfa
If you wander into Carmen's Café ($ lunch, $10; 317 E. San Antonio St.; 432-729-3429), you might feel as if you're witnessing a new, hipster Marfa: German art tourists eat huevos rancheros while local ranchers converse in Spanglish about the Shorthorns—the high school football team—or the price run-up of run-down adobe houses, suddenly in demand as outsiders' homes. Few locals are buying the buzz that Marfa is the next Santa Fe, though. Despite the influx of the cool crowd, this remains a true cow town, stubborn in its history—the 1886 Second Empire-style courthouse still reigns over it like a flamboyant dowager.
When Giant was shot on a ranch just outside town, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean stayed at the Hotel Paisano ($79-$200; 207 N. Highland Ave.; 866-729-3669; www.hotelpaisano.com). This National Historic site may have been recently freshened up, but it still retains all the pretechnological charm of the 1930 Spanish Baroque Revival design by noted El Paso architect Henry Trost.
There are two restaurants in town that should satisfy big-city appetites. One is Jett's Grill at the Hotel Paisano (dinner, $45; 432-729-3838). The other is Maiya's (dinner, $60; 103 N. Highland Ave.; 432-729-4410), with its minimalist decor and eclectic menu—the obligatory Black Angus rib eye, polenta lasagna, and pumpkin ravioli.
Just down the street, the Marfa Book Company (105 S. Highland Ave.; 432-729-3906; www.marfabookco.com) offers a wonderfully quirky collection of books on various subjects, from Roman portraits to Texas birding. Artists and bikers (both mountain and motor) converge at the coffee/wine bar, and there's a gallery in back where yoga classes are held amid exhibitions. The happening art venue is Ballroom Marfa (108 E. San Antonio St.; 432-729-3600; www.ballroommarfa.org), a clean white space that was once a dance hall; it presents the kind of sophisticated multimedia installations you'd find in alternative galleries in Houston and New York—even though the owners have deep Texas roots.
The reason many visitors come to Marfa today is, naturally, because of Donald Judd, whose work can be seen at the Chinati Foundation (1 Cavalry Row; 432-729-4362; www.chinati.org) as well as at the Judd Foundation (104 S. Highland Ave.; 432-729-4406; www.juddfoundation.org), which maintains the artist's former home.