Minimalist Art on Maximum Scale

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North America » United States » Texas » Marfa
November 5th 2011
Published: December 30th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

At first glance, Marfa Texas is like most other towns around here.

It contains an elaborate beaux arts courthouse surrounded by a small business district, and then dry plains stretching to the horizon.

Spend some time here, and the arty vibe other communities lack becomes apparent.

That surreal building from last night, for example, was created as a piece of installation art, Prada Marfa.

The scene is all due to minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who founded a museum here called the Chinati Foundation in 1979.

His ambition was to display his work and those of artists he liked on an unprecedented scale.

The foundation is far from any large city, and has limited tour hours, so it had better be worth planning a trip around.

Chinati Foundation

The entrance road leads to a gravel parking lot in front of weather beaten brown stucco buildings.

They were built as part of an old army base, Fort D.A. Russell.

Walking in the one marked ‘Office’, the environment immediately changes to white minimalist walls like many art galleries.

The transition is jarring, and occurs throughout the complex.

The foundation can only be seen on guided tours, which must be reserved in advance.

Photographs are prohibited.

The guide first discusses why Judd came here of all places.

He had long dreamt of a location where he could create art on a grand scale.

Judd had also lived in northern Mexico for several years and fell in love with the wide open landscapes.

When the army closed the base in Marfa, an area with similar landscapes, Judd decided he had what he wanted and bought the base.

The Dia Foundation , who had supported Judd early in his career, helped set up Chinati.

Donald Judd

The tour starts off with something special.

We saw a long series of outdoor concrete boxes, arranged in different groups, and then placed in a line, 15 Untitled Works In Concrete.

Like all Judd works, this series is about dividing and arranging space.

Every group of boxes is unique.

The scale, as promised, is huge.

Next is something even better.

We went to two long buildings with walls made entirely of glass and pitched roofs.

These buildings used to be an artillery manufacturing plant.

During World War II, captured German soldiers were held here, and forced to make shells for their enemy.

The walls still have a few signs in German.

Our guide stated Judd deliberately kept them during the renovation as a link to the buildings’ past.

Now, the buildings are filled with metal boxes.

Each one has the same outside dimensions.

Judd changed the internal design of each box to divide space differently.

One will be missing a side wall while another is missing its top.

One will be divided in half top to bottom while another is divided left to right.

One will have another hollow box inside it while a different one is a solid box, and so on.

Judd made a hundred of these boxes in all, and every single one is unique.

The sculpture is called 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum.

We had almost twenty minutes to wander around these boxes, seeing how things changed from box to box.

Thanks to all that smooth metal in one place, the two buildings also have ethereal acoustics, with faint metallic echoes appearing everywhere.

The noise is so unusual sound artists have recorded in these buildings.

The sun also shone brightly through the windows, making some boxes reflect yellow fire.

This is an incredible work, the largest Judd ever made.

Other Artists at the Foundation

Unfortunately, those two are the only large scale pieces by Judd at the foundation.

The rest are by other artists.

Judd bought some personally and the foundation bought the remainder after his death.

First, we saw School Number 6 by Ilya Kabakov, a Russian artist.

It’s contained in one of the few unrestored buildings in the complex.

Judd invited Kabakov to take over an old army barracks and make it into an installation.

He turned it into what looks like the ruin of a Russian schoolhouse, with decaying posters and blackboards on the walls, and piles of books in corners.

It’s meant to represent how socialist schooling imprisoned young minds and ultimately fell apart.

The artist originally specified that it should be allowed to decay naturally, but the dry Texas environment did so much damage that museum staff has to maintain it.

We saw six large horseshoe shaped buildings.

Every one contains what initially looks like a long white corridor, lit only by ambient light shining on the wall at the end.

Close to the bend of the horseshoe, the light breaks into bands of color.

At the bend, we saw that the light is generated by long florescent tubes of various colors.

The colors combine on the opposite wall to create the final effect.

Every building contains a version of this effect with different colored tubes.

The work is about how light influences perception of space.

Personally, I found it repetitive after the first two.

It’s the last work personally commissioned by Judd, Untitled (Marfa Project) from Donald Flavin, a minimalist famous for working in neon.

The work was not completed until a decade after Judd’s death.

Another building held Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There from Roni Horn, which shows minimalism at its most theoretical and severe.

We walked into a space the size of a large studio apartment.

It held two sculptures of conic sections made of brass on the floor, and nothing else.

This work was way too theoretical for my taste.

Yet another building, an old storage shed, held a set of typewritten papers on long tables by Carl Andre.

Reading some of the text shows that it is complete nonsense.

The work attempts to use typography itself as the medium, with the arrangement of the words on a page having an aesthetic effect.

One building held a complete surprise, paintings by John Wesley.

This artist was a personal friend of Judd.

Most of the canvases were pop art cartoon renderings of birds and animals.

They are supposed to be highly symbolic, but I couldn’t see the meaning behind them.

We saw Donald Judd’s former living space, The Arena, which is housed in what used to be a cavalry horse barn.

Judd designed the entire space himself.

People enter through doors which look at first like wide windows.

They swing on a center hinge to open.

Inside the space is stark and geometric, with pure white walls and a concrete floor.

A long wooden table sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by square wooden chairs that look like Judd sculptures people can sit on.

A high loft holds a bed and table, Judd’s former sleeping space.

Behind the building sits an empty yard surrounded by a high concrete wall, which Judd designed as an empty space to promote calm and contemplation.

Judd collected enough art that the former army base could not hold it all.

He bought an abandoned warehouse in downtown Marfa and filled it with sculptures by John Chamberlain.

He twists, welds, and paints parts of car bodies to create abstract sculptures.

The empty warehouse is filled with twenty two of them, carefully arranged by Judd.

To me, they all looked similar after a while, one of the reasons I don’t like Chamberlain’s work.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the foundation less that I thought I would.

I expected to see Judd’s distinctive work on a scale that mere mortals can barely comprehend.

That I saw, but only two selections worth.

The rest was a collection of work by artists Judd liked and worked with, which make the foundation just another museum on minimalism, albeit on a huge scale.

The ambition is ultimately similar to Dia Beacon (remember that the Dia Foundation helped set up Chinati) but the other museum has a much broader, and better, selection of artists.

The foundation was worth seeing because I was passing through the area, but not worth planning a trip around.


As noted above, Marfa has an arty vibe rare for west Texas.

It shows downtown in part through the Marfa Book Company, which may be the best art bookstore in the state.

They carry other subjects, but art is where the place really shines.

The selection equals what I saw in some of the largest museum bookstores on this trip.

The store also has an attached gallery.

For the current show Charles Mary Kubricht painted geometric patterns over all the walls creating an installation space, The Figure is Always Ground.

The Dutch De Stijl group explored similar ideas nearly ninety years ago.

Art heavy towns tend to have really creative restaurants, and Marfa did not disappoint.

I drove to a building on the outskirts that looks like many around here, labeled Miniature Rooster.

Inside, on the other hand, looks like nothing else; the restaurant is filled with sculpture and installation art.

Even the tables and chairs look like sculptures.

The food is highly creative takes on Tex-Mex cooking.

It was expensive by rural Texas standards, but worth it.

Marfa Lights

Marfa was known for unusual happenings long before Judd showed up.

Before then, the town was famous in Texas for the Marfa Lights.

Since settlers first entered the area, they reported strange lights appearing over a field east of Marfa just after sunset nearly every night.

The lights changed colors, moved in strange patterns, split and combined.

During World War II, when the field was an Army air force training base, pilots reported the lights and tried to bomb them.

People have successfully taken pictures.

Some people think they are UFOs.

The best scientists can come up with is that the mountains around Marfa create an atmospheric temperature inversion that reflects light from the setting sun in strange ways.

I went and tried to see them tonight.

Thanks to their renown, the state has built an official viewing area along the highway, with restrooms, telescopes, and light spotting tips.

In the evening twilight, I saw a single blue light appear in the distance.

It looked exactly like a bright star in the sky, except that it was clearly in the grass.

It just sat there, until it slowly split in two and then recombined into one.

I feel cheated.

After dark, I had another long drive through the desert.

The first stretch to Alpine was easy enough.

I then passed another of those warnings to check gas, because the next station is over sixty miles away.

Good thing, because I didn’t have enough.

If I got stranded empty in this landscape, I may not be found for days.

I finally stopped for good at a cluster of hotels near the Interstate because I was too tired go any further.


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