Reflection on an immersive CFA trip to Marfa.
Spark Volume 3, Issue 1 | by Logen Zimmerman
Hollywood is a metonym for the film industry, and the art installation/ town of Marfa, Texas could well be for minimalist art. While the reputation of the former exceeds that of the latter, both contain elements of fiction that extend beyond the places themselves.
Take for example the Prada Marfa, an installation by Elmgreen & Dragset in a faux storefront facing the two-lane blacktop of Highway 90 and framed by West Texas desert expanses. Its display is set in 2005 and nothing behind the windows is actually for sale. It is also not located in Marfa, but rather more than thirty miles away. Or consider the Marfa Lights, which have their own viewing station on the other side of town. No one has ever definitively seen them, or at least offered a decisive explanation for what they are. Located within the approximately mile and half square of Marfa is a rich history of minimalist art, supposedly fixed in time, yet like the phoenix, constantly renewing itself—through visitors seeking a personal minimalist experience. From March 8-11, this included a group from BU School of Visual Arts.
During Spring Recess, graduate students from the MFA Painting and Sculpture programs experienced Marfa and its environs on an extracurricular trip organized by Assistant Professor Won Ju Lim and Lecturer Marc Schepens. I joined them. We prepared for the trip by reading and discussing articles on minimalism, including foundational texts by Donald Judd and Michael Fried. We learned that opinions have differed on what exactly constitutes minimalism, and that the term was often eschewed by high profile sculptors whose work had been classified as such. Professor Lim also asked us to consider the trip from Boston to Marfa as part of a journey. For many of us this began with a flight to Dallas followed by a visit to Louis Kahn’s architectural masterpiece, the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth. The next day we ventured some eight hours by car across the plains and through the plateaus to the enigmatic Marfa.
From the outset Marfa was a literal desert oasis with a penchant for metaphor. Marfa is located within sixty miles of the Rio Grande, is the seat of the primarily ranch-landed Presidio County, and has been defined historically as a borderland. Its year- round population is under 2,000, yet this fluctuates like many other seasonal tourist destinations, such as with our visit during the Marfa Myths Festival. Marfa was founded in 1883 as a railroad water stop, and train tracks and a water tower are still dominant features of the town. Legend holds that the town was named by the wife of a railroad engineer after a character in a Dostoevsky novel, but the town’s namesake is most likely a Jules Verne character. The opening of Fort D.A. Russell (originally Camp Albert) in 1911 increased the population, and notoriety also derived from the local Highland Hereford cattle breed1. Prospects dwindled following the closing of the fort after the Second World War.
Then entered Donald Judd in the early 1970s2. Judd, by then a prominent New York artist, maintained several private residences in and around Marfa and worked with the Dia Art Foundation to establish what would eventually become the Chinati Foundation.
On the grounds of the former fort, Chinati became a permanent setting for Judd’s work and that of other artists he championed, ranging from Dan Flavin to Roni Horn3. The separate Judd Foundation also preserves his legacy, with several buildings in town adorned with his sculptures, paintings, furniture, books, and the numerous objects he collected, in many cases left as they were when he died in 1994. We had the privilege to attend guided tours of both foundations, which involved a rigorous process of looking and reflecting.
A particular standout for all was certainly the 100 untitled mill aluminum works that Judd spaced between two former artillery sheds at D.A. Russell/ Chinati. It was a humbling experience to be in the presence of such objects and among travel companions. Judd’s installation maintains its relative position, but we ourselves were changed by the moment, and would be different upon repeat visits. As the recent 2016 Robert Irwin building installation at Chinati – (untitled, or dawn to dusk) – also reminded us, the landscape of Marfa might give the appearance of gradualness, yet the light is ever shifting.
I posited at a group meeting after our foundation visits that whether Judd had intended to or not, by making Marfa a magnet for minimalism, he had also created a performative place. Marfa as a cultural center is rooted in minimalist art of mid-late twentieth century, yet it also has elements of a “happening.” In this sense, Judd could be viewed as an impresario of the Marfa stage. As he claimed in 1965, “A work needs only to be interesting.”4 In Marfa, interest in minimalism has expanded to the monumental.
1) As seen in an old mural in a former bank building now part of the Judd Foundation.
2) For histories of Marfa, see Louise S. O’Connor and Cecilia Thompson, Ph.D., Images of America: Marfa (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marfa,_Texas.
3) A detailed account of Judd’s concepts for Marfa and the history of the Chinati Foundation can be found with, Marianne Stockebrand, “The Journey to Marfa and the Pathway to Chinati,” in Marianne Stockebrand, ed., Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd (Marfa, TX and New Haven: The Chinati Foundation with Yale University Press, 2010), 12-47.
4) Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975 (New York and Marfa, TX: Judd Foundation, 2015), 184.