For 20 miles southeast of El Paso International Airport, the land on either side of the US-Mexico border is irrigated. When man stops feeding the desert, roughly here, a visit to Marfa begins. Sure, there’s another 130 minutes of driving or so left before you pull up at the gate of the Chinati Foundation, but those 170 miles are part of what Marfa is. The harshness and the desolate beauty of craggy desert prepares you for an encounter with Don Judd.
(I am certain that to fully appreciate Judd’s complete control over the environments he created in Marfa, you must trek through the desert. I’m sure it’s fashionable to jet into Marfa’s little airport, but anyone who does that is failing to read the introduction to the book.)
Marfa is for Judd what Plains, Georgia is for Jimmy Carter. It’s where you to go immerse yourself in someone, to understand. The only other place I can think of where Americans can go to immerse themselves in an American artist is Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood town of Mark Twain. Hannibal has been commercialized to the point of Dollywood-ization. Meanwhile, Marfa is still the kind of place where a dude will challenge a man to a fight when the dude catches the man talking to ‘his’ girl. (I can bear witness.)
I won’t get into a long description here of what Chinati is and how it happened — as usual I assume art literacy here. I’ll just say that this is the best place to see Judd and John Chamberlain, that it’s a really good place to see Flavin and Roni Horn, and that it’s an OK Place to see Ingolfur Arnarsson, Carl Andre, Ilya Kabakov, John Wesley and Oldenbruggen.
In Marfa, an art-lover can understand that Flavin was right: Judd was a colorist. That the only way to respond to the big sky and bigger desert (or is it the other way around?) is to control what you can control: Make sure that box is machined perfectly. That the only light that matters comes at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day. That as the landscape changes, the art changes. That Judd was generous and unafraid of competition. That looking at an art object is not the same as experiencing an art object… and that experience can only be created by joining art with setting. (This is why we look at art at MoMA, rather than experiencing it.)
Marfa is not a one-trip thing. I was in Marfa last August, and I’ll go back as soon as I can. There always seems to be a reason to go back: This year’s Open House will feature an exhibition of John Chamberlan foam sculptures and a Tony Feher installation in the fort’s arena. (Feher is testing ideas now — in one of the fort’s decaying structures, there are hanging bottles and paper pieces on the walls. Twice I walked toward the building to go take a closer look, and both times rattlesnakes suggested that I let Feher figure out his piece in peace.) Robert Irwin is also working on an installation at Chinati, but it could be a year or two before he figures out what it will be.
I also love the stories I hear in and about Marfa. Just before I left for Texas, Hammer PR boss Steffen Boddeker told me that when he worked there, Anselm Kiefer came to visit. Well, that would help explain why Kiefer is building is own Marfa-like project in a series of 12 underground caverns in the south of France.
Myfavorite story from this trip involves this Richard Long sculpture, which is one of the few Long circles that is outdoors. A while back Martha Stewart visited Marfa. As she approached in a helicopter, the pilot apparently thought that the Long was the landing target. As he approached it, Chinatians ran toward the helicopter, waving it away from the art. The pilot found another place to land.
Tomorrow: Also in Marfa, the Judd Foundation.
Related: Jeff Jahn at PORT.