Marfa, TX: Judd Town USA
Marfa’s been on my list of places I wanted to visit since I saw Matthew Collings TV show, “This is Modern Art”, on Channel 4 (British TV, that is) in the late 90s. In the show, he was often traveling around the States, looking at defining American modern art of the 20th Century. He stopped in Marfa and showed some of Donald Judd’s work (from what I recall—this was quite a long time ago).
Marfa turned out to be pretty much as expected. The 90 is a small country route with a few single stop-light towns scattered along the way. Marfa is one of these towns, albeit one that is a little more built out and is full of European and American tourists, many with a distinctly arty vibe. It’s kind of a weird place in that it is still a small working town, but then there is a large tourist-driven art scene kind of bolted on. It doesn’t feel like a seamless integration by any means, but more like the result of one man’s dominance and strong will. I couldn’t really imagine living here, although it is full of interesting looking stores and restaurants. Apparently a lot of artsy New Yorkers have second homes here.
We visited the Chinati Institute, the organization that now runs the old army barracks that Judd bought up with the help of the Dia Foundation in the late 70s. Judd’s idea was to have a place to permanently showcase a series of works by himself and some of his contemporaries, initially Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. There are two large munitions storage halls that now house a series of aluminum Judd sculptures. The halls had windows put in all around the edges and new vaulted roofs added, but otherwise are as the army left them. Judd specifically created the work for this space and it shows. I love this idea of creating a pieces for a specific space, with everything taken into consideration: the landscape, the architecture of the building that houses the work and the feeling of the space as a whole. The pieces were all variants on a basic box made from slabs of rolled aluminum. I’m not sure what the dimensions were, but they were on a human scale. You could imagine trying to fit into some of the spaces afforded by the various angles and combinations of the raw slabs.
Unfortunately, the Chinati Institute forbid photography—apparently so guests can spend time appreciating the art rather than getting lost in their phones. I understand this sentiment, but I also would have loved to have taken some shots, especially in the Judd hall. Apparently Judd disliked the way that curators would often dilute the impact of a work by putting it in a space that didn’t suit it, or in a group show where other work by other artists impinged on its space. The clarity of the work in the hall, surrounded by the beautiful Texan landscape totally vindicates Judd’s viewpoint, in my opinion. So often when going to museums I get exhausted within minutes from overload. The experience of seeing Judd, Flavin’s and Chamberlain’s work, in separate, considered spaces, was refreshing.
When walking around Judd’s pieces, the bright light that floods through the windows brings life to the aluminum. In places, it is highly reflective, in other spots it looks dead and heavy. You can see your own reflection and that of the landscape in the pieces, the pieces reflect in each other and focussing between a single piece and the wider space as a whole, it is a holistic experience. It made me think of the definition of shikantaza in the Zen tradition, “sit hit mind”. The whole world comes in and is apparent in each moment. That is the way this piece feels—everything inside and outside of the space is considered. It is a piece about relationships: a series of blocks which riff on each other and the world around them.
Flavin’s work feels the same way: his single work takes up six barracks which lie next to each other, connected by a small concrete path, all around which bloom an incredible variety of wildflowers. Each barrack is set around a courtyard, and one of which (a barrack housing the temporary exhibit rather than one of Flavin’s) is filled with a Carl Andre sculpture, donated by the artist from when he had a show there. It fits the space well, but I couldn’t help but feel it was the least interesting court yard as the others were filled with an trees and beautiful wildflowers. In fairness, the sculpture probably looks much better later in the year when everything else is dead and brown!
Flavin worked primarily with colored florescent light strips. I have seen some of his works in museums before, but again, in this context, with six buildings dedicated to this one work, his work really shone. No pun intended.
We were thinking of staying another night in Marfa, but having looked around all the galleries (we saw an Andy Warhol show and some other contemporary artists I wasn’t familiar with) we decided it was time to hit the road and head out Austin-way where Google revealed to us the availability of more vegan food options than we could possibly eat in the course of a weekend. Which in case you are wondering, is both a rare and good thing.