Destination: Art - Marfa edition
Martha? Marsha? No... MARFA!
In August I took a road trip with two friends from grad school. We spent 13 hours driving across plains, past mountains, and through the desert. We were traveling to Marfa, Texas; a small town (population 2100) made famous by the artwork and vision of Donald Judd. If you're not familiar, Judd was a Minimalist sculptor during the 1960-70's. Have you seen a sculpture that looks like a large cube? Or a stack of shelves going up a wall? That's Judd. Minimalist artwork is more than geometry (or the popular trend of "less is more"). The movement focused on eliminating influences of European art and the Abstract Expressionists' reliance on paint to create artwork free from emotion. Judd took this a step further by producing his artwork with machine-made material to completely remove the artist's hand. Judd actually hated the term "Minimalism," arguing that it generalized the art. For the sake of clarity though, I'm going to refer to the artwork as Minimalist here. Sorry, Judd...
Tired of New York, Judd moved to Marfa in 1977. He was drawn to the desert landscape and the way it interacted with his art. He established the Chinati Foundation in 1986. It was, and is, a place for artists to install their work on their own terms. The Chinati was my main reason for visiting. We booked an all day tour - we toured from 10am to 12:30pm, took lunch, then came back for more from 2-3:30pm. A word of advice: museum fatigue is REAL! The majority of the tour is spent standing and listening. You're surrounded by amazing art, but this tour is the art equivalent to climbing a 14er. We left wondering why all the classes for our Masters weren't conducted while standing to prepare us for these situations.
Tired feet aside, the Chinati collection is astounding. The immersive experience of viewing Judd's 100 untitled works in milled aluminum, 1982-1986, and Dan Flavin's untitled (Marfa project), 1996, could not have been replicated in a museum. The natural light played with the reflective surface of Judd's aluminum and created optical illusions making you question what was really there. Even seemingly simple decisions, like having quarter frame windows, had huge impacts on the artillery shed's interior. The shadows created from the window frames played with the eye just as much as the sunlight. I also discovered new favorites, like Roni Horn's copper sculpture Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There, 1986-1991, and Robert Irwin's untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016. We also got to see a sneak peek of the new Bridget Riley painting being installed for the Chinati Weekend in October.
You could make the argument that the Chinati is to an extent a monument to Judd himself, and that's completely valid. However, there's something magical about a space designed by an artist specifically to display their artwork. It's an experience that few museums will ever be able replicate. Judd didn't like wall text or labels to interrupt the line of sight. This is why, if you're going to Marfa, you have to book a guided tour. If you don't, you'll only be able to see the large 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984, that run the length of the compound. While impressive in scale, they were not my favorite among the collection.
If you're a Judd fanatic look into the tours of his personal residence and additional buildings around town. Those tours conflicted with our tour at the Chinati so we decided to take a pass. It's worth going if you want a better understanding of how Judd's aesthetic was more than a "Minimalist" sculpture, it was a complete lifestyle.
After you visit the Chinati rest and drink a margarita. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and if you're like us you'll probably need a break from art at that point. We started our second day in Marfa by visiting Prada, Marfa at dawn. Prada was designed by Elmgreen & Dragset in 2005. And no, it's not a functioning Prada retailer. The permanent land art installation is filled with only the right shoe of each luxury design from the Fall 2005 collection. Commentary on consumerism? Here's what Elmgreen & Dragset have to say:
Prada Marfa is firmly positioned within a contemporary understanding of site specific art, but also draws strongly on pop art and land art – two art forms which were conceived and thrived especially in the USA from the 1960’s and onward. Many artists, from Andy Warhol with his famous Campbell soup cans to Andreas Gursky with his grand photographic documentation of retail spaces have appropriated and dealt with the visual language of commercial brands. In an increasingly commercialized world, we see the independent artistic treatment of all visual signs and signifies as crucial to a better and wider understanding of our day-to-day surroundings, including the influence of corporations.
Don't forget to check out Ballroom Marfa and Marfa Contemporary while you're in town. Both galleries show a rotation of regional artists. They're much smaller than Chinati and don't require guided tours.
If you're an art lover and a book lover please, please, please stop by Marfa Book Company inside the Saint George Hotel. You won't regret it. The store is an art historian's dream. Tables and shelves are filled with art books, only a few non-art related subject matter make an appearance.
Stephanie's basic rules for Marfa:
- Necessities - sunscreen, sunglasses, and comfortable walking shoes. If you visit during July or August, be warned, it's the rainy season. I was starting to think people had lied to us and that the town really wasn't located in a desert with how much it stormed.
- Check the hours for everywhere you want to go! This is the most important rule. Businesses in Marfa keep odd hours, and you don't want to be hungry when the first two restaurants you try are closed.
- Remember you're in a small town. Because of this a few places you visit might have signs on the door reading "closed for summer vacation!" or "out of town Saturday and Sunday. Be back Monday." Roll with it. This is the Marfa experience.
- Bring cash. Some places are still cash only. It's safer to have some on you rather than not be able to go somewhere.