When Donald Judd came to Marfa in the early 70’s, he was an original. He knew what kind of space he needed for his art, and he knew how the light and the terrain would work together with it. He founded the Chinati Foundation, which we now know is separate from the Judd Foundation. The first is public work. The second is his private work and collection, and that is what is administered by his son and daughter.
We toured Chinati today, but this public work is so protected that you cannot even photograph the exterior buildings, which was almost painful to have to respect. My fingers were itching through the whole tour, which was in two parts, for about 90 minutes each.
The main part of what you see are 100 aluminum shapes designed by Donald Judd, occupying a former artillery barracks on a former Army installation. Many of those buildings have been repurposed and are used for installations, or as living quarters for artists-in-residence, etc.
The setting is haunting and the light must be spectacular through Judd’s boxes on a sunny day. Full disclosure – this was the worst weather day we have had on our entire trip. Rainy in the AM, overcast till we came back over the hills to Alpine, and so cold, you could see your breath! We are not used to these harsh conditions. The only real problem is that we missed seeing the play of light on his installation. That would have made it even more spectacular.
There were also installations by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlin, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Long and David Ravinowitch. I tell you, we have been minimalism-ed to the hilt today.
I admit to stopping on the public highway and taking pictures of the Judd cement boxes outside, and the buildings, fully expecting to have my car impounded when we returned for the second part of the tour. And I also admit to being reduced to photographing postcards just to give you some idea of what we saw. It was a dark day for my camera…
Now, a sidebar about food. We went to a highly recommended Mexican restaurant for lunch, Mando’s. Wonderful food and great atmosphere. However, do note the label on Lone Star beer, which validates my theory of Texas. The National Beer of Texas? Excuse me? I mean, we have the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but do we have the National Beer of Wisconsin? You see what I mean about this state? Amazing they don’t have their own currency.
And then just for fun, we went to the local grocery store, and were blown away by the array of Mexican food related items. Not just a small aisle labeled “ethnic food” like we are used to, no. The abundance and colors were just wonderful.
Okay, now back to Marfa, the town. Places like this that radiate around a central figure are a little strange. Donald Judd came here, and now this is the terribly hip place to come be an artist, or just to be hip and cool. Why? I wonder, do they think his spirit will rub off on them? Of course today the town is highly art-directed and a bit over the top.
You can stay in a yurt at super-cool El Cosmico Hotel – or a mid-century trailer or a teepee or a tent – for the summer and work on a project a la Habitat for Humanity to benefit the local community.
I imagine the local community to be terribly touched by both the caring and the I-live-in-a-yurt smell. Ah, we are just too old for all of this. Guess we had our own silliness in our own youth.
For those ready to spend a bit more money, the super-cool Thunderbird Motel (note bikes) is advertised as only 80 euros a night. Yes, they do come here from all over the world. Of the eight of us on our Chinati tour, two were from Australia and two from Argentina. You get the idea. However, there is a bit of a contradictory chill in the air when you pass the major U.S. Border Patrol Station.
So bye-bye Marfa – you are just too cool for us. But before we leave, here is a wonderful story about how the town experienced Donald Judd.
My Donald met a lady working in the Visitors’ Center and got to talking to her about the art scene here. She is 50-ish and told him that she met Donald Judd often. Her father was the Marfa electrician, and Judd often came into his electrical supply shop. She was 13 at the time of the story, and she, like most everyone she knew, thought Donald Judd was the devil, as evidenced by those cement boxes you could see from the road that suddenly started springing up.
One day she was in the shop when he came in and he turned to her and said, “Why are you glaring at me?” She denied glaring; he repeated his question. Thus confronted, she blurted out, “Because you are the devil!” “Why do you think I am the devil?” “Because of those boxes!”
He then said to her, “Come with me. I’d like to show you those boxes.” Her father gave her permission to go and to make up her own mind, and off she went with Donald Judd.
He sat her down outside, in front of some of those boxes, and asked her what she saw. “Cement boxes!” “Look again.” And she looked again and saw the sage grass moving in the light, framed by the boxes. “I see the grass!” “Yes, and no one else will ever see what you see. What you see is special and unique to you.”
She changed her mind, and has always since firmly believed that he and the other artists who came with him “were important people.” She understood art for the first time that day.
Not bad for a place in the middle of nowhere, right?