This May, I had the opportunity to travel to Marfa, Texas, using a generous travel stipend that is one of the fantastic perks of my internship. I’d always wanted to go to Marfa, a small town in West Texas that’s home to site-specific installations by Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Ilya Kabakov, Dan Flavin, and Roni Horn, among others. Seeing art in New York is always a buzzy and exhilarating experience, but I longed to go somewhere relaxed and open, with abundant space and natural light. Marfa more than fit the bill.
In 1973, Judd had similar feelings. By then, he was a successful artist who owned an entire building in Soho, which he installed with his crisp, minimal artwork and furniture. But he was frustrated with the space constraints of New York, as well as what he perceived as a lack of control over the way his work was shown in galleries and museums. He decided to move out of the city and buy land in a place where he could choose and modify his own display spaces, which would work in concert with the desert landscape to bring out the optical qualities of his art. After considering other sites, including Baja California, Judd bought land in Marfa, a town with a significant military and ranching history that he considered “the best looking and most practical” locale in the region.
Upon his initial move to Marfa, he purchased “The Block,” former airplane hangars and warehouses he used as art spaces and studios, now maintained by the Judd Foundation. Between 1978 and 1979, as part of a Dia Foundation-sponsored project that later split off to become the Chinati Foundation, he acquired buildings at Fort D.A. Russell, a sprawling former military compound that had been used in World Wars I and II. There, he installed the epic 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982–1986) in two former artillery sheds used during World War II to house German prisoners of war. Each work has the same dimensions, but they differ in significant ways: some are divided by internal sheets of aluminum, some lack a side, and others contain floating cubes or sunken surfaces. The sprawling, sunlit view from the large windows reflects off the aluminum, causing the works to appear translucent, shining dimly like prisms or unmelting blocks of ice. The installation would lose this essential spark in a tight, white-walled gallery, and it’s obvious why Judd wanted his art to be seen in such a distinctive setting.
This was my favorite work at the Chinati Foundation, an intriguing expanse that also includes Oldenburg and Van Bruggen’s Monument to the Last Horse, a tribute to the long-serving cavalry horse Louie; Kabakov’s seemingly abandoned, richly narrative School No. 6; Flavin’s candy-colored light tunnels; Horn’s powerful Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There; Carl Andre’s poems Words 1958–1972; Richard Long’s druid-like arrangement of volcanic rocks; and Judd’s untitled concrete structures, unmoving and substantial in the low, dry grasses by US-67. Outside of the fort and back in the main center of Marfa, Chinati owns the former Marfa Wool and Mohair Building, now filled with pieces by John Chamberlain, and sponsors temporary installations such as Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura, 100 North Neville Street, located at the Marfa Ice Plant.
Judd was unexpectedly diagnosed with lymphoma while traveling away from Marfa in 1993 and died a few months later, never returning to his adopted home. The Judd Foundation, which maintains the artist’s estate, preserved his home and workspaces as he left them. The meticulously arranged items he left behind point to an excruciatingly exact mind: tools are organized by type, paint chips are placed in rainbow order, and even kitchen knives are lined up by size. The impressive array of books in pair of spacious libraries at the Block point to Judd’s diverse interests and vast art historical knowledge.
In addition to taking inspiring tours at the Judd and Chinati Foundations, I met with Chinati CFO and Director of Institutional Advancement Kelly Sudderth for an illuminating conversation about the Foundation’s growth and future plans. With only 18 to 20 full-time staff members, the Foundation has managed to grow tremendously in recent years, hosting over 30 educational programs for local youth and adding influential international and Texas-based art aficionados to its board and support groups.Other highlights of the trip, which I took with my friend Lucy Gellman of the Yale University Art Gallery, included eating “Marfalafels” from the Food Shark truck, attending the CineMarfa film fest, chatting with locals at the weekly farmer’s market, and exploring the Hotel Paisano, where the cast of Giant stayed during filming in 1955. On a related note, we visited Ballroom Marfa to see Sound Speed Marker, a suite of three films by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler that explore West Texas’s relationship with film. One of the films, Giant, cuts between an imagining of a glamorous Warner Brothers secretary typing the location contract for the film in 1955 and the set as it currently exists in nearby farmland, a striking wooden ruin that supports cycles of animal and plant life.
For me, the film encapsulated the way all human interventions into the landscape, Judd’s art first among them, are subject to the unstoppable forces of time and nature. Before my trip, I had only viewed art within large urban centers, where it is often confined to enclosed museums or clearly demarcated public spaces. I was stunned by the powerful vastness of the West Texas landscape and how it affects everything around it, creating an environment ripe for artistic experimentation.