Art Trip: Marfa | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

NARRATOR: Marfa is
a town in West Texas on the high plains of
the Chihuahuan Desert, at the junction of US
highways 90 and 67. It’s a three-hour drive from
El Paso, an hour and a half from Big Bend National Park, and
an hour to the Mexico border. It was established in 1883
as a water and freight stop along the railroad
and was supposedly named by the railroad
chief’s wife, after the faithful strong-willed
servant in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” It’s a nice idea,
although unlikely, seeing as the novel would
have been released not long before and only in Russian. But no matter,
Marfa’s Main Street, and the buildings
that line it, were commissioned by successful
cattle barons in the area. There’s the Presidio County
Courthouse, a theater, and a cinema, among
other buildings that still stand that have
mostly found other uses. The US military built
Fort DA Russell here before the First World War,
stationing chemical warfare brigades, an airfield for flight
training, and US border patrol. But since the
military pulled out after the end of World
War II, the population has steadily declined and
now hovers around 2,000. The Coen brothers shot
“No Country for Old Men” just outside of town. And James Dean’s
last film “Giant” was filmed here 50 years before. Hotel Paisano,
where you can still stay and enjoy dinner
and drinks on the patio, housed the actors. “Transparent” creator
Jill Soloway’s new series, “I Love Dick” is
filmed here too. Tourists sometimes stop here to
try to catch the Marfa mystery lights, an unexplained
night phenomenon that has been reported since
the town’s founding. But we didn’t investigate. We were here for a different
reason, the same reason that brings about 40,000 tourists
a year, and that’s this guy– Donald Judd. In the early 1970s, artist
Donald Judd moved to Marfa and purchased the former
military buildings you see here, an
outpost of Fort Russell, right by the tracks and this
still-operating feed mill. There’s the
quartermaster’s house, which Judd adapted for he
and his family to live in, and two army hangars,
which became spaces for him to live, work, and
store and display his art. Here’s the old Land
Rover he used to visit his ranches outside Marfa. And next to that, the pergola
he built with a communal table beneath. He also constructed the pool
and planted cottonwood trees around it for shade. All the furniture you
see, including the grill, were his designs, built
because he couldn’t really find furniture that he liked. Judd hired local adobe
experts to build walls around the complex, following
in the tradition of Southwestern and Mexican homes,
built up to the street with interior
courtyards, providing privacy and protection
from wind and weather. Symmetry was important to Judd. The proportions
of the passageways correspond to those
of the exterior gate. The volume of the
pergola relates to the pool, as well as the
chicken coop and greenhouse. This interior U-shaped
courtyard is in fact an artwork. Judd kept the outer wall
of the complex plumb, but allowed this
inner wall to follow the natural slope of the land. If you’re going to
stray from symmetry, he thought, there
needs to be a reason. It’s here through the pivoting
door, also of Judd’s design, that you can experience his work
exactly as he wanted you to. Permanent installations
in natural light and made to coexist
with the materials and architecture of the space. For Judd, these
weren’t sculptures, but what he called specific
objects, a new kind of three-dimensional art
that was neither painting nor sculpture. For him, these works were
not compositions of parts, but the thing as a whole. In the case of the vertical
stack pieces you see here, he considered it whole because
the space in between the forms is part of the work. The negative space is exactly
equal to the positives. This was an active space
where Judd sometimes slept, and where he lived among the
Stickley furniture he admired. In the next rooms are a
kitchen and a winter bedroom where he kept his collection
of pottery and Navajo blankets. In the other rooms
of the hangars, you’ll find Judd’s
personal libraries. This is the one where he
kept his pre-20th century books, divided by region. He designed the bookcases
with an extended bottom shelf to be used as a step, and the
day bed and table as well, the surface of which is
arranged as he left it when he died quite suddenly
of lymphoma in 1994. It becomes clear in
these spaces that Judd was not just an artist,
but a designer, collector, avid reader, writer, architect,
and in the widest sense a creator of space. And he created a lot more space
around Marfa than just here, which we’ll get to, but not
until we address our greatest need– burritos. After fortifying ourselves at
the delectable and reasonably priced Marfa Burrito,
run by Ramona Tejada, and which you cannot
avoid learning, has also been enjoyed
by Matthew McConaughey, we decided to poke around
town and explore a bit. There are a number
of good venues here for seeing art made by
people other than Donald Judd. And one of these is Ballroom
Marfa, a nonprofit organization and art space based in a
converted dance hall that hosts exhibitions,
screens films, and puts on an array of performances,
events, and festivals. We caught an intriguing show
titled “Strange Attractor,” describing order that
can be embedded in chaos. It features some very
good work, exploring what the curator describes
as the uncertainties and poetics of networks,
environmental events, technology, and sound. The highlight for me was
this large-scale tapestry by Douglas Ross,
which you approach from its abstract reverse side. As you make your way around
it, the intricate weave coheres into an image of a
landscape strewn with rubble and tire impressions. We don’t know where
this is or when it is, but we know it was a digital
image translated into Jacquard weave, a highly
intricate process employing perforated
cards and considered to be a kind of proto-computer. I was transfixed. After that, we walked
over to the Wrong store, an airy, delightful space
that used to be a church and is now part
gallery, part shop. They had prints by
“Art Assignment” alum Nathaniel Russell, the
fantastic painted wood objects of Marfa artist Camp Bosworth,
and a most excellent gun miniskirt from Fancy
Pony Land, which you can rest assured I bought. We stopped by the
wonderful little shop called Freda, which sells
jewelry, clothing, and records, and then checked out the
Cobra Rock Boot Company and admired the expertly
handmade leather goods, made mostly on site by owners
and designers Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck, in this
workshop and on this machinery. Then it was onto the relatively
new and lovely Hotel Saint George, which houses
the Marfa Book Company. They have books of
course, but also interesting and locally
made gifts and flat files of artwork for sale. They also sponsor readings
and events throughout the year and serve as a kind of
cultural hub for Marfa. We grabbed iced coffees
at Frama, a coffee shop / laundromat / ice cream parlor,
before driving northwest of town on Highway 90. It was about a 30-minute
drive to our next destination. And on our way, we passed
this astounding tethered aerostat radar system, property
of the US Customs and Border Protection, and
which we all agreed would be the most
magnificent artwork ever made if it were indeed an artwork. It’s instead a roving
surveillance device, a.k.a., a giant and very
visible big brother that monitors the US-Mexico border. But what we were seeking
out was Prada Marfa, a project by artist Michael
Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. It’s what it looks like– a Prada boutique in the
middle of the desert. But when you pull off the
road to get a closer look, you see that it’s
impenetrable, a seeming relic from the booming years leading
up to the 2008 recession. On display are shoes and
handbags from Prada’s Fall 2005 collection, the
year the work was made. But you can’t get in. There’s no door handle,
no one works there, and what looked to be windows
in the back are mirrors. It’s a pilgrimage site for sure. The collection of locks on
the fencing that surround it show that. And not just for
art tourists, but for anyone seeking out a
curiosity, or a sweet Instagram backdrop. We weren’t alone there for long. As soon as one
group left, another arrived, until we had the
uncanny experience of seeing the Ballroom Marfa
crew that maintains it, and local site representative
Boyd Elder arrive and open it up for a scheduled cleaning. Like Marfa itself, it’s
an unexpected art oddity in the middle of
nowhere, and a befitting locus for contemplating the
reach and the limits of art market forces. That evening, we
had an amazingly delicious and enjoyable
meal at Stellina, a warm, welcoming and
unstuffy restaurant where we rehashed our day
and plotted out the next. In the morning, we followed
these helpful signs to Do Your Thing Coffee,
again, appreciating Nat Russell’s design work and
fueled up for the day ahead. It was time for Chinati. In 1979, Judd and the
Dia Art Foundation purchased the land and buildings
of the de-commissioned Fort DA Russell to see out Judd’s
vision of maintaining permanent installations of
his own large scale artworks and those of his contemporaries. In the years since, the
original buildings, spread over 340 acres, have
been transformed from dilapidated ruins into
the place you can now visit, run by the independent
and nonprofit Chinati Foundation, named
after nearby mountains. We started with the two
enormous former artillery sheds that now house Judd’s
100 untitled works in mill aluminum. And yes, they’re just that– 100 works made of
milled aluminum, each with the same
outer dimensions, but unique in their interior
arrangement of planes. The building determined
the installation. And the installation
determined the building, which Judd adapted
by turning what were garage doors into
windows and adding a vaulted roof on top of the
original flat one that leaked. The space is flooded
with natural light that changes dramatically
throughout the day. And as we walked among
and through the objects and around the space, I marveled
at how remarkably unminimal this is. Judd rejected the description
of his work as minimalist, and is even so strongly
associated with the term. But here there is
so much to look at. These objects reflect
light, cast shadows, and direct your eye
around the room. You notice how their
proportions relate to the scale of the
building, the windows, the concrete divisions
on the floor. Everything is considered. And you can’t take
the works out of here. They’re all made to co-exist– the objects, the
building, the landscape. In many ways, it’s
all just one thing. The art is what
happens between you, these things, and this space. And there’s a whole other
shed full of these works. We broke for lunch and headed
to Food Shark, a food truck that serves Mediterranean-inspired
dishes like lamb kebabs and Marfalafel. They turned some old cars in
this old bus into shaded places you can dine in. And by the time we
were done, we were ready to chinati some more. As we were saying,
Judd wasn’t only interested in the optimal
display of his own work. And he invited a
number of other artists to create works at Chinati. Dan Flavin was one of
these, and his work here is installed in six
former barracks. You enter each U-shaped
building on one side and make your way down
the length of the wing, where you encounter parallel
tilted corridors containing barriers of colored
fluorescent lights. Each fixture holds two
differently colored bulbs, shining in
opposite directions, installed with
space between that allows you to view the other
side, but not pass through. You then retrace your steps
across to the other side of the U, pass from natural
light to artificial light, and explore this
particular interaction of colored fluorescence
from the other side. You’re not quite sure what
you’re seeing exactly. And the cast and
temperature of the light seems to shift as you
orient yourself differently around the space. Each of the six buildings
use combinations of just four colors– pink, green, yellow, and blue. And the experience
of all of them is by turns optically
entrancing, laborious, and then transcendent. After exploring several
more installations by other artists spread
across the enormous campus, it was time to return to Judd. We’d seen these from
a distance and finally approached the progression
of concrete structures that run along the
border of the property. There are 60 units that have
the same measurements, each of which were cast
and assembled on site, a process that took four years. Judd organized the units
into 15 distinct formations, evenly spaced,
and all determined by a firm set of parameters. The entire work spans a
total of about 3,000 feet, or a little more
than half a mile. The thing is, this
shot is beautiful. And the actual experience
was beautiful too. But watching this
footage feels nothing like actually being there. You see the nearby pronghorn
looking at us, yes. And you see how the structures
frame magnificent views of the landscape. But you can’t notice
the plywood grain visible in the cast concrete. You don’t feel the
heat or the breeze or see the dust or the tiny
lizard skittering about. Watching this, you cannot
feel the scale of each volume and relationship
to your own body, to those you’re there with,
and to the vast surroundings. You’re asked not
to take photographs while visiting to
encourage a more direct engagement with the art. Of course, we did
have a camera there. But we didn’t use it until after
we spent some unmediated time with the works first. Let’s be real, it’s a
huge pain to get here. By the time you’re
here, you can’t help but shed some of
the impatience that accompanies our daily lives. And you’re willing,
or you should be, to give these works a small
fraction of the consideration and attention that
brought them into being. We’ve spent a good bit of
our day in and out of the sun and in the heady
space of powerful art, contemplating the
ideas of artists past. And we needed a good
dose of the present, which Marfa, we were happy
to find, generously offers. Our Chinati guide and half the
town were heading to City Hall to witness the swearing
in of Marfa’s new mayor. And so we followed them. Ann Marie Nafziger has
lived in Marfa since 2003, is an artist who makes
paintings that look like this, was formerly the director
of Education and Outreach at the Chinati Foundation,
and also worked for Marfa public schools. You can read a fair bit about
the divide between the art people of Marfa and the
rest of those who live here. You can read about the high
cost of housing, that over 50% of residents live
below the poverty line. But here we saw
with seemed to us as an instance, and
a very public one, of unity between the
town populations. The arts organizations
of Marfa are huge drivers of the economy. They provide jobs,
aid to local schools, and they do waive
admission fees for locals. It’s complicated, and we
don’t know the half of it, but watching public servants
take their oaths of office made us optimistic. Our last stop was the
most recent addition to the Chinati collection– Robert Irwin’s installation
that opened in 2016 and was 17 years in the making. It’s an artwork in the
form of a building, which is new but occupies the site and
follows the footprint of Fort Russell’s former hospital. It’s C-shaped, and in
the middle is a courtyard lined with trees with an
arrangement of basalt columns in the middle. You enter the
building on the left and encounter darkly
painted walls, punctuated by raised windows. With a long expanse
of taut scrim, or semi-transparent cloth
that bisects your passageway, you make your way along
and turn the corner, eventually passing through
successive layers of scrim until you reach the building’s
midpoint, where everything abruptly transitions
from dark to light. I’m a somewhat jaded art viewer,
often measuring my responses. But oh my, this
transition is incredible. I’m regretting all my previous
reckless uses of the word incredible because this
experience far exceeds 99% of art encounters I’ve had. When I was talking to
a local later that day and likened this to passing
from life into death, they said that’s traumatic. But I’m sticking with it. I hope this is
what death is like. But moving on, you
experience the mirror image of the previous corridor,
this time in white. Irwin is often called a
light and space artist. And that actually describes
the work quite well. That’s all this work is, really. Irwin’s very
particular arrangement of space and conscientious
positioning of materials heightens your
senses and compels you to consider
the cyclical nature of time and of the universe. Sorry, I got dramatic again. So the crazy thing is
that Marfa may be tiny, but we didn’t see everything. We’ve shown you but a sliver
of the impact that Judd had on Marfa, and only a portion
of the innovative new work in programming and
food and shopping that the city has to offer. Donald Judd came to Marfa
because the Southwest captivated him, and
because he wanted to get away from the, quote,
“harsh and glib situation within art in New York.” He chose Marfa because
he liked the land, it wasn’t crowded,
it’s near Mexico, and was the best-looking
and most practical. And he focused so
much attention here because he thought that
museums and the usual places we find art
were insufficient. He wrote in 1987, “somewhere,
a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of
what the art and its context were meant to be.” And as unlikely a
place as this may seem, it’s as good an
example as I’ve found. And it’s worth seeking out. The “Art Assignment” is funded
in part by viewers like you, through, a
subscription-based platform that allows you to
support creators you like in the form
of a monthly donation. Special thanks to
our grand master of the arts, Indianapolis
Homes Realty. If you’d like to
support the show, check out our page at [MUSIC PLAYING]


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