The Marfa Diaries

by Sandra Orellana Sears

April 2012

The pilgrimage to Marfa, Texas is not a journey for the faint of heart. Three hours from El Paso, it is dry and dusty, bizarre and expansive, showered with sweeping light that changes with the temperamental weather patterns of the Southwest (searing sunshine, thunderclouds, lightning rays and hail all within the three-day duration of my visit). This tiny town is as mystifying as it is austere. I can’t say I ever saw the paranormal Marfa Mystery Lights (supposedly, a body of ghostly lights that only appear on clear nights after a strong rain), but there were plenty of other puzzling oddities that kept me asking questions of this strange, one-horse town. The ubiquitous presence of U.S. Border Control is disquieting, and the screaming cries of passing trains were enough to rattle my bones. There are a few lone cowboys wandering about town, a trailer park complete with teepees and wild turkeys roaming Marfa’s empty streets. A leisurely stroll through the neighborhood presented all sorts of abnormalities: a geodesic dome home, patio furniture carved from giant tree trunks and art installations housed in parked vintage cars.

Even today, more than forty years since Donald Judd came to town, Marfa’s skyline remains relatively unbroken. Besides the central townhouse and watershed hovering above the horizon line, the wide Texan sky dominates the low-rise architecture. Judd was attracted to this particular plateau of the Chihuahua desert because it was unfrequented and underdeveloped. Despite the land’s inhospitable nature, he settled down with his family in 1973 and remained until his death in 1994. During those years, Judd established the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum founded in collaboration with the Dia Foundation to permanently install large-scale works. This institution, along with the Judd Foundation, has put Marfa on the map for contemporary art lovers. Today, the town hosts resident artists, galleries and destination restaurants, all of which pay respect in one way or another to Judd’s minimalist aesthetic. At times, Marfa appears to be a mirage. In the middle of a bone-dry desert, Judd has managed to leave the imprint of his own legacy of minimalism and the avant-garde.

The heart of this art Mecca is undoubtedly the Chinati Foundation, named for the nearby Chinati Mountains. This circuit of buildings was originally meant to exhibit the work of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain, but has expanded to include several other artists over the years. Installation was always one of Judd’s founding principles as an artist, and the environment and exhibition of each work at the Chinati has been carefully considered. For every artist there is a designated building on the museum ground, the former military site of Fort D.A. Russell.

The permanent collection consists of Judd’s piece, 15 Untitled Works in Concrete, which is installed along the perimeter of the previous military ground, amidst the overgrown yellow grass surrounding it. Produced between 1980 and 1984, this work is as striking up close as it is from a distance. Depending on the time of day, the large sculptures are illuminated at various angles, displaying a continuous modulation of outdoor light in unencumbered space. I visited the work twice—once in the morning and again following the afternoon. I was lucky: it was a clear, cloudless day. Accumulatively, this piece is one kilometer in length, and walking along each massive component is a kind of meditation on space, volume and environment. The installation is oriented towards the mountains in the distance, emphasizing Judd’s determined desire to unify art with nature.

The series is visible from the former artillery sheds which house Judd’s second piece in the permanent collection, 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum. The Lippincott Company of Connecticut fabricated the works over a four-year period from 1982 to 1986. This work embodies coherence not only with nature, but also with the existing architecture preceding Judd’s art practice. Judd endeavored to maintain the basic form of the former artillery sheds, but added several alterations to improve upon the proportions and aesthetic of the buildings. The sides of the long sheds have been replaced with reinforced glass windows that are squared and quartered, which permitted the surrounding scenery to penetrate my peripheral vision even within the natural architectural confinement of the buildings. The tall windows allow light to pour into the space, producing prismatic reflections of the shimmering aluminum material.

The one hundred works have the identical exterior dimensions of 41 x 51 x 72 inches, however the interior of each is uniquely distinct. The aluminum boxes are positioned parallel to each other in three long rows extending the entire length of the buildings, and to make sense of their internal structure, I was forced to move around the sculptures. This piece epitomizes the phenomenological effect minimalists like Robert Morris promoted, demanding visual and physical participation from the viewer, and integrating the architectural and natural environment into the perceptual experience as well. Judd cuts up, over, in and out of the boxes, leaving their sides, ends or tops exposed. But somehow he avoids fragmentation, and the installation of the continuous forms strike a balance with the architecture, creating a powerful gestalt sensation—that magnificent feeling of a whole.

Following the artillery sheds are the army barracks occupied by Dan Flavin’s permanent piece, Untitled Marfa Project. This work is comprised of Flavin’s signature fluorescent light sculptures which are installed in six separate U-shaped buildings. Within each structure are two parallel corridors leading up to a fence constructed from pink, green, yellow and blue light tubes. The negative space between the tubes permits the colored light from the installation’s opposite side to flow through freely, producing a mind-bending color bleed of complimentary colors that starkly contrasts with the arid desert’s pale whites and sandy yellows. Though housed in separate buildings, the dialogue between Judd and Flavin’s work is evident. Painstaking attention has been paid to the installation of the work—an essential part of the experience is ambling down the promenade, listening to the electric light buzz and carefully observing the architectural design generating the dizzying optical effect. The fracturing of chromatic luminescence is repeated within each structure, but is slightly altered by the position of the windows, the angles of the walls and, of course, the varying colors selected by Flavin. Each repeat view is no less imposing. Seeing pink and green, yellow and blue wrestle with one another and ricochet off the long walls sent vibrations straight to the base of my optic nerve.

The collection’s work by John Chamberlain can be found in the center of town in the former Marfa Wool and Mohair Building, whose architecture was modified by Judd before installing the series of twenty two large-scale, chromium-plated steel sculptures. Originally, Judd planned on his own series of one hundred aluminum boxes in this space, but Chamberlain’s sculptures won out in the end, and look stunning in the tripartite architectural progression of the exhibition space. Each building is slightly unique with high ceilings lined with wooden beams, divided by Judd’s signature square doors that swing open on a rotating axis, requiring no handle of any kind. The Mohair Building is the ideal environment for a large family of Chamberlain’s widely known crushed car sculptures. Terlingua, Roxanne Loup, Broken Toe and Gondola Ezra Pound compete with one another, but harmoniously so. Ultimately, the building’s ample space allows for each work to settle into its own visual rhythm while still engaging in an overall cohesive visual effect. The single greatest moment of impact was when I reached the end of the lot, and looked back at all twenty-two vividly mashed-up collisions of auto-body parts in a single, sweeping glance.

The last installation I will mention here from the permanent collection was admittedly a favorite. Carl André’s Poems highlights his written works, instead of the deadpan, linear sculptures he is usually recognized for. The bricks in André’s floor sculptures are not laid like bricks, but situated in a poetic pattern to inspire an alternative understanding of material. His poems operate similarly. Each word is treated as an autonomous compositional element, free of structural and grammatical restrictions. There is something painterly about the series of one hundred sonnets, which are meticulously written on a manual typewriter and installed in wooden vitrines designed by the artist himself. On each sheet of paper the artist has typed a small block of text that consists of a single repeated word, beginning with I, then moving through parts of the body (knee, calf, heel, toe) and eventually dissolving into the landscape (rock, sand, wind, earth, rain). They are loosely narrative, but like his sculptures, do not necessarily adhere to an orthodox design. André’s words are free to be the shapes of letters, space and sound—exquisite drawings that can be read vertically or horizontally without relying on a particular base orientation. Though tucked neatly into lettered boxes, their beauty lies in their complete abandon of a conventional literary framework.

The Chinati Foundation also has a rotating temporary exhibition program that complements their outstanding roster of artists on permanent display. Recently on view, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Five Elements in Optical Glass, an elegant installation of twenty-four sculptures by the world-renowned photographer in celebration of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The Chinati is the first institution to display this series, which consists of a sequence of pagodas constructed from stacked glass geometric shapes. Each is six inches high, constituted of a sphere, cube, pyramid, semi-orb and, finally, a tear-like droplet. Each form represents the five elements—earth, water, air, fire and emptiness—that make up the gorinto, a sculptural container symbolizing the cosmos of Buddhism in pure geometric form. Contained within each sculpture’s sphere is a sealed black and white photograph of a small-scale seascape, which Sugimoto has been photographing for over thirty years. The pagodas occupy both the east and west wings of the temporary gallery, and refer to an assortment of Sugimoto’s Seascapes photographed by the artist since 1980. The titles themselves bring an array of aquatic bodies to mind: Bay of Biscay, Bakio; Black Sea, Ozoluce; Marmar Sea, Silivli; Dead Sea, En Gedi; Gulf of Bothnia, Holic. The sunlight refracts sporadically off the curved glass, covering the room and miniature photographs in spackled light beams radiating in all directions. The ethereal union of photography and sculpture is refined and invigorating, a reverie of light and space.

Sugimoto’s highly Japanese aesthetic lends an enchanting quality to the exhibition, contrasting with the unwieldy industrial material from which the greater part of Chinati’s buildings and artworks are constructed. Each pagoda is mounted on a tall, slender pedestal made from Japanese wood, a beautifully delicate detail that lifts the small crystalline sculpture into even more dappled light. Outside, Sugimoto installed “the simplest Japanese art garden,” and indeed it is. A shallow bed of smooth purple pebbles, this minimalist sanctuary is composed of a single element, a perfect homage to Judd’s restricted refinement. The stones have been scrupulously raked to create subtle troughs in the material that match the corrugation of the building’s rooftop with absolute precision. Sugimoto had a special rake made for this very purpose. During my visit, the fierce sunshine happened to cast a crisp shadow of the roof’s undulations that perfectly aligned with the garden’s curved texture. I had to pause a moment to consider if this was part of Sugimoto’s master plan or just fortuitous timing. I was never able to make the distinction.