longform public art

Marfa, TX: Horror Vacui, Amor Infiniti

Marfa is the town that Donald Judd built, an odd little art outpost misplaced in the sands of West Texas. It came of age as a cultural destination during the late 70s, when Minimalism and Neo Dada were in full swing.  The site was an experimental destination for curious artists seeking refuge from stagflation, Watergate, and the mores and prescriptions of the New York contemporary art world.   

I visited Marfa in 2014 to learn about this place, and Judd’s transformation within and upon it. It has a mixed legacy. It has both imported haut couture and a lineage deeply rooted in Texas.  My trip proved to be instructional, a lesson in the nothing and the infinite, and the oddly transformative power of both. Put differently, this is a place that says a lot about the way narratives transfix our identity, inscribe the self into physical totems and mapped spaces, and prescribe our belonging through physical and specific acts of pilgrimage.


Infinite Sky: Endless West Texas

To experience West Texas, you must go by car. It will not always be pleasant. The sun will bounce off the hot asphalt and zap your eyes like a laser beam; the road will be long, and lonely, and flat. But the drive is soothing, the repetition of the greens and browns of the landscape a singular chant. Its so palliative, in fact, that you may be galloping along at 110 miles per hour, expecting nothing but more nothing in your path, and then have to slam on your brakes, because suddenly a tiny town’s Main Street has appeared in the middle of your highway. Out of nowhere, you see: about 10 gray and tan buildings, ominous-looking farm equipment, and the altogether annoying city sign:  “Welcome to Alpine; there are 2,500 people here, and only a few of them are grumps.”

Marfa is, first and foremost, a Texas town of this sort, set against the backdrop of those flat brown fields and a tremendously open sky.  (Fear of begin swallowed up by that sky is a fairly common neurosis for people from this part of the country.) Before it is anything else, it is a space silhouetted by desert, a place defined by the journey required to make it there.  The expedition in question will include: endless rows of short telephone poles; wind turbines, tiny as seen from the road, great white arms clawing at wisps of cloud; fences fencing in nothing in particular (except the occasional cow); penumbral shadows; dead grass, scattered piles of cotton; and a horizon that yields every color at the end of the day, un-obscured by trees or buildings, in thin fuzzy strips. The brown-gray dust spreads out in a line against the blue horizon. It’s a colorfield painting. It can bore, or terrorize. But mostly, it lulls.

If pressed to pick a single location on earth that best defined infinity, approximated it in sentiment and flavor, I would surely select West Texas. Like a senile old grandmother recounting her post-war years, it goes on and on, past the point of banality and even redundancy, into a repetitive trance that approximates the sublime.


Infinite Irony: Recursion and Self Deprecation

Marfa is sometimes derided as a cowboy-themed version of Brooklyn. It does have the artisan food fixation, the post-industrial converted gallery spaces, and the teeming hordes of alt-culture devotees of its New York counterpart. Still, it would be unfair to say that Marfa is just Greenpoint in a ten gallon hat, a sort of copycat cultural program exported wholesale to the desert.  Marfa is not an appropriation of New York so much as it is a parody of Texas. It repurposes the nearly forgotten town, and its dilapidated buildings, futuristic Googie architecture, and former commercial spaces in a way that is best described as ironic.

Donald Judd was the master of this, the light (to the point of being barely perceptible) touch of distanced irony, of detached headiness, that forcibly transforms banality into art through parody. Judd, the American minimalist with a philosophy degree from Columbia and a big chip on his shoulder about the commodification of the New York art scene, came to Marfa in 1978 to make site specific works that would resist both formal categories (sculpture, painting) and absolute interpretation.

Judd and his buddies set to work, and the stuff they made focuses on the goal of duplicating (and validating) the materiality of West Texas. They respond the their chosen environment with a tentative, inquisitive appreciation, and their careful but bemused curiosity shows in the work. Judd’s reclaimed airplane hangers, which are filled with 100 aluminum boxes, or his redecoration of a former military gymnasium with his identifiable minimal furniture, are good examples of this. So too are his opened-ended concrete boxes, which are hardly distinguishable from an incomplete publis works project. They look like wrongly-shaped stormwater troughs, strew geometrically about a site as the general contractor prepares to dig. Is it art, or a detention pond in waiting?   Similarly, the Chianati Thirteener by Carl Andre recreates what looks more or less like the recreational area of the Huntsville prison complex. In reality, this type of material arrangement would work poorly in a prison–loose gravel and rusty, untethered steel pieces. But it simulates the real thing, in glances and pieces, with a nod and wink.

And then there’s the work of Dan Flavin, who repackages the ubiquitous 1960s neon signage seen all over Texas into straight, streamlined forms; the crushed Chevy sculptures of John Chamberlain (and what is more Texan than cars?) or the tongue-in-cheek contribution by Claus Oldenberg: a giant metal horseshoe commemorating the grave of a historic, much-loved four footed creature buried in Marfa during the days of the first transcontinental railroad.




Judd and his friends may have been the progenitors, but the current generation of Chianazis (as the imported art folk in Marfa are called by the locals) keep the hits coming. Case in point: An interactive art exhibit about meth (How meta, in a state with one of the highest meth arrest rates in the country); An art show featuring sculptures made from cow salt licks (a site commemorates the event with images of Texas cowboys, standing in their shit-covered boots, admiring these swirling, abstract mounds, lit and displayed to MOMA-like perfection). How ironically quaint, yet aggressively conceptual. (See also: Ballroom Marfa’s New York performance, which involved a mobile food-cart-like space doling out smells.)

In Marfa, such gestures are not confined to formal art spaces; parody and sarcastic duplication are infinitely recursive, affecting eateries, shops, and even public spaces. My favorite example of this was the Marfa Contemporary Pizza Foundation, a space that is a gallery and a pizza place housed in a former auto repair shop.  My second-favorite example was a rusted white trailer with “Boys 2 Men” scrawled on the side, that served killer breakfast tacos with a pre-emptive, laminated side of sarcasm pinned next to the tip jar.




And on and on it goes. Duplication at a distance.  Copying, but a kind of alienated, self-aware kind. Gas stations that are not gas stations but converted coffee shops; checkout girls that are not checkout girls, but art critics; signs that proclaim a legitimate former purpose (“Ice Plant”; “Hay for Sale”) but remain posted on buildings whose uses have long since changed; stained, water worn walls (is it lack of upkeep, or are they made that way intentionally, like those distressed jeans?). Here, 1950s America is in the process of rusting and yielding to something else, but not quite getting there.

This is why the ironic faux-Prada installation stays, but the completely serious Playboy sculpture (funded by the self-same corporate entity) is driven violently away. It is also why the chain fast food venues and payday loan places that exist as a blight on nearly every other Texas town cannot exist here. This space, this whole town, is recursively curated.  There is a kind of Zeno’s paradox at play here.  Objects and things begin to approximate their real Texas counterparts, but never quite reach full simulation.

Anyway, this kind of self-preferentiality, employed to keep mainstream commercialism at arms length, is what keeps Marfa from being Albuqerque, its artsy neighbor to the south and west. Albuqerque is a craft fair extrodinaire, where bohemian bourgeoisie go to pick up wholesale beads and turquoise jewelry set in silver, to check out the fake adobe architecture, to take in indigenous kitsch.  There is something less celebratory and more dead-serious going on here in this semi-ascetic outpost that spurns advertising more aggressively than the Sao Paulo billboard ban.




Infinite Void: White Men, Minimalism, and the Holy Mediocrity of the Great Beyond

Though much is made of Judd’s personal investment in the town (he moved his family there in the mid 90s) equally key is the investment made by the Dia Foundation, a Houston-based art group created by the Menil family.  It was the Menils who gave Judd the cash to buy the old base, a few aircraft hangers, the town bank, 40,000 acres of land, some commercial buildings, a hotel, a Safeway, and the hot springs; it was they who encouraged him to build the aluminum boxes, to bring other artists to Marfa, and to relentlessly renovate the tiny town and program it from the top-down according to his subjective whims.

The Menils, often referred to as the Houston Medicis (both for their fabulous oil-derived wealth and their willingness to buy art), were major patrons of the Minimalist school. In particular, it was the husband-wife pair, Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, who aggressively pursued Minimalist and Neo-Dada artists.  Friedrich and Philippa had characteristically odd sensibilities; they had converted to Sufi mysticism (Philippa wore the head scarf assiduously), spoke of the promiscuity of mobile contemporary art works (“Art goes up, comes down, goes out the door, gets in the truck, goes to Europe—like clothing! Like chattel!”) and were on the board of MOMA and the museum of primitive art. They dreamed of putting Texas on the high culture road map, speaking mysteriously about “miracles in the dessert.”

In this way, their patronage drove the work of a number of minimalists (mostly white men) to consider working in this particular part of flyover America. Walter de Maria’s Lightening Fields in New Mexico, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, James Turrell’s Roden Crater; all of these were paid for by Dia, whose founders compared Dan Flavin to Michelangelo and Rothko to Giotto.

If that comparison seems hyperbolic, you are not the first to think so. The author Mark Roller, in his wry review of Marfa from 2010 on the culture blog The Millions, suggests that the post-war desire for cultural hegemony in 1950s American led to some fast and loose spending on odd art projects by people with more money than sense. Put bluntly: “In the post-war decades, for America’s art world taste makers, a driving concern was to demonstrate, to one and all, that this country’s culture had come of age.”

This may be so.  Questions of taste and effectiveness aside, the curatorial goals of the Menils are clear. These works are for and about looking into the void.  The desired experience is neither entertaining nor intellectually stimulating; it is, or should be, religiously and spiritually transformative.

This is not unlike the Om moment you are supposed to experience in Quaker churches (that incredibly American yet remarkably Buddhist group) when you contemplate the empty square at the center of the meeting hall, towards which every bench is pointed. Forever as possibility, as the extending wish, the infinite consummation of space, the manifest destiny of the mind. And so on.



Ending Thoughts on the Infinite:

Art often concerns itself with the infinite, in fashions both mechanic and mystical, both modest and transcendental.  The geometrical stars on the roof of the Alhambra were the Nastrid Muslim’s exhalation of endless self-duplication, the perfect carpet of ever-extending harmony. Escher’s tessellations, albeit in a more humble way, express the same concerns.   

The concept of infinity inspired Babylonian astronomers and terrified Greek geometricians. In the Middle Ages, a humanly postulation of infinity sent Giordano Bruno to the Inquisition. Descartes trembled to behold it (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”); Van Gogh exuberantly pursued it (I am painting the inifinite!”); William Blake dreamed of it.

Historically, then, responses among mathematicians and artists towards concepts of the infinite have typically ranged in the extreme: fear or love, incalculable attraction or ineffable repulsion.

Judd is one of those who took infinity seriously; still, his commitment may not have yielded the desired results. Judds concern with ratios, a kind of weird modern numerology, would make even a kabbalist sneer. He lacks the showmanship of Turrell and the playfulness of Chamberlain. His aluminum boxes are subtle to the point of being indiscernible, and repetitive to the point of being dull.

Judd was a third-rate sculptor, but in truth he was at least a second-rate visionary, whose power lay in his curatorial ambitions and sensitivity to place. Judd did not love the desert the way Georgia O’keefe did, but he respected its authority and power, and as far as his patrons were concerned, he knew how to package it. Like a salesman who could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves, Judd was selling the Texas art tycoons on the thing they needed least and got most in Texas; space, emptiness, and time. He even sells it in the libertarian-speak so common to Texans today: “Government is the greatest threat to my work. And the death of an artist increases the value of the art enormously. The IRS recognizes the money; the USIS recognizes the reputation; but they and few recognize the conditions necessary for creating art.” Take that, statist New York elites!

Lets catch ourselves up. Sufi mystics, oil money, American minimalism, and a sarcasm that is uniquely Texan. And a wager that infinitely can be seen in a kaleidoscopic view of the ordinary.

Did Judd’s wager work? And by that I mean, does all the site-specificity, de-commodification, art-as-life nonsense create the desired effect? Is the risk that we are looking at nothing paid off by the experience of seeing into infinity (banal as that experience might be)? How do we as contemporary viewers perceive American Minimalisms as a possible response to the infinite?

With a yawn, and possibly a sigh. Sometimes, the infinite is passé, and also boring. We hardly react to this kind of staring into the void with the gravitas that Judd envisioned. We are wearied by the infinite, and we have neither the time nor the energy to contemplate it with sincerity; we refuse to have a religious experience with the nothing, as the Menils so ardently hoped we would.

Instead, we struggle to tell the difference between a Donald Judd and cheap Ikea furniture (as best evidenced by a recent art-world account of the 6 year old boy who had a spontaneous lie-down on a version of Judd’s plexiglass Stacks in New York in 2014); we recycle Frank Stella and Barnett Newman canvases as forgettable dorm-room interior decoration.  We do not much appreciate simple forms that outsource the hard thinking to us.

And yet many continue to make the pilgrimage to Marfa to pay tribute to the Great Void. It has an ineffable draw, like a black hole, as though its emptiness is a more powerful negative than even the desert around it.  Maybe in nothing there might be something, after all.


Chinati Foundation Photo by:  John Cummings – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24598324.

Marfa Pizza Foundation and Prada Installation by Nan Palmero – CC BY- 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/nanpalmero/

All other photos by author.

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