Marfa, Texas is a small town in the middle of the desert. It may not seem like much, but it has a rich history, arts community, and ubiquitous reputation worldwide. The town, originally set up as a water stop for the railroad, is now known throughout the state of Texas, the nation and perhaps the world for the mysterious Marfa lights and minimalist art.
Celebrities go to this desert West Texas town to escape and ranchers begin the day at dawn. Anthony Bourdain dined in Marfa. It’s where Giant and There Will Be Blood were filmed. There’s land as far as the the eye can see. The stars at night are big and bright and plentiful.The drive itself is long but as you head west towards Marfa the land opens up and the vastness of west Texas becomes visible. Your mind goes back in time as you see the highway seemingly goes on forever. Gone are the nuances of suburbs and big cities. Heading into west Texas is what road trips are all about you, the open road and the biggest sky you’ll ever see. If you ever feel confined and claustrophobic, a trip to west Texas will cure that for you. This tiny town perched on the high plains of the Chihuahua desert is nothing less than an arts world station of the cross, like Art Basel in Miami, or Documenta in Germany. It’s a blue-chip arts destination for the sort of glamorous scenesters who visit Amsterdam for the Rijksmuseum and the drugs.
Marfa has been reinvented many times. From a stop on the rails in the 1880s to being the site of the massive Marfa Army Air Field. Built at the onset of World War II, the Marfa Airfield was where thousands of pilots trained by flying in the vast sky over limitless desert. When the war was over, the military installations were closed and Marfa’s population once again dwindled.
The History of Marfa’s Art Scene
My knowledge of Marfa began when I read Chris Kraus’s famous, amongst some, book entitled “I Love Dick”, referring to famous cultural theorist Dick Hebdige. Set in a colorful academic community in Texas, the book turned TV series follows a frustrated filmmaker named Chris and a writer, Sylvere, who are in a troubled marriage, and their fascination with a charismatic professor named Dick. The story is told Rashomon-style, where shifting points of view reveal contradictory interpretations of the same events. Kevin Bacon plays the titular role, a renowned, macho scholar who infuriates Chris but also unleashes her artistic awakening. In reality, Dick Hebdige is a professor at the University of Santa Barbara, but there is a real life version that made a real influence on Marfa: Donald Judd. The esteemed minimalist was a leading force in transforming the desert town into an arts mecca, and Dick’s institute serves as an analog for Judd’s own Chinati Foundation, which does, indeed, have an artists in residence program, as well as a lengthy list of past participants. According to its website, the program was founded in 1989 with the “aim of supporting the development of artists of diverse ages, backgrounds, and disciplines” and “provides an opportunity for artists from around the world to work in a striking, natural environment.”
Judd wanted to escape the art scene he claimed to disdain. In the midst of his Marfa project Donald Judd was offered a blank check. The Dia Foundation promised to fund almost any work he wanted to make there, toward the goal of establishing a permanent museum by allowing a handful of artists to fill the town’s abandoned buildings with Minimalist installations. Judd signed a contract for “certain sculptures, the number and nature of which shall be determined in the artist’s sole discretion.” The only proviso was that the works had to be “a unified aesthetic entity of works and space,” which was all Judd wanted to make anyway. Judd acquired an entire Army base, and before he died in 1994, he filled it with art, including light installations by Dan Flavin and Judd’s own signature boxes. This was an opportunity for the artist to distill all of his ideals into massive projects that would stand the test of time in a context completely under his own control. One hundred of the boxes, made of silvery milled aluminum, are housed in two old brick artillery sheds. The original site for the indoor work was a former wool store in downtown Marfa, but when Judd decided the sculpture would consist of 100 separate aluminum boxes he realized the storefront would be too small. They sit in perfect quiet rows, glowing or seemingly translucent, depending on the light. The final work is equal parts architecture and art, which might after all be the same thing. Judd ripped out the crumbling garage doors that housed the guns and replaced them with gridded glass windows so that the desert light passed straight through the width of the buildings. They are perfect “specific objects,” the fulfillment of Judd’s 1967 essay. It might sound deathly boring, more math problem than artwork, but wandering through the installation is a constant affirmation of the simple possibility of sensation, all the ways that the human eye can perceive shifts of light and space and the ways that an artist can intentionally shape that perception.
Now, all 400 acres of the site are run by the Chinati Foundation. Docent Sterry Butcher advises visitors to be careful before heading toward the scrubby pasture where Judd scattered 15 giant concrete boxes, as empty and remote as the landscape. Vegan food, straw bale houses and funky bars filled with artsy kids clinking Shiner Bocks with famous painters and film directors. Their pearl-buttoned shirts and cowboy boots can make the place feel like a Western-themed outpost of Brooklyn. And for a town of only about 2,000 people, you can amuse yourself nightly with screenings, readings and, of course, gallery shows, like the one for sculptor Campbell Bosworth. It’s taking place a few blocks from Marfa’s single stoplight in a slightly dilapidated white adobe church. He bought it with his wife 11 years ago in a situation he describes as ideal. Judd did dream about art helping Marfa’s economy, but his ideas were somewhat more pragmatic, says Rob Weiner, who directs the Chinati Foundation.”At one point, even bottling the local water, which is terrific water,” he says. “And he had designed a kind of complex series of bottles that could be turned into bricks once the water was consumed.”Unlike other towns that try to reinvent themselves as arts destinations, it has happened organically in Marfa. No one is even keeping track of how much tourism has increased, including Kaki Aufdengarten-Scott, the town’s one-woman Chamber of Commerce.
Marfa’s Main Attractions
1.The Prada Store
No trip to Marfa is complete until you see the now famous Prada store. Located about 30 miles form the actual town of Marfa, Texas it sits perfectly in the middle of nowhere. Art becomes retail surprisingly quickly. It looks like a retail storefront in an outlet mall though it stands totally alone, a symmetrical glass box with a door in the front. The two shades on the windows proclaim Prada. There are lines of luxury bags on the all-white display boxes inside—the minimalist interior design that all the brand’s stores adopted—but the door is always locked. “Prada Marfa” is actually an installation from 2005 by the Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. It’s an Instagram trap. The “store” itself is in Valentine, Texas, a town of 134 people and is a nice time to stretch your legs before getting to Marfa. It was built in 2005 as part of what the artists called a “pop architectural land art project.” But in case you were wondering, there is real Prada merchandise inside. The store has been vandalized over the years, but it has a tight security system.
2. Dawn to Dusk
Dawn to Dusk is an instillation artwork by Robert Irwin. After years of development, the project — a large, U-shaped construction approximately 10,000 sq. ft. — is the only freestanding structure designed by Irwin and devoted exclusively to his work. The artist is widely recognized as one of the most innovative and respected artists of our time. Irwin’s project is the first major addition to the museum’s permanent collection since the 2004 opening of a gallery devoted to the paintings of John Wesley, another artist long admired by founder Donald Judd. The work itself consists of a courtyard, arranged around a sculpture in the centre, surrounded by concrete walls with large windows. The walls are in fact buildings, with indoor spaces the visitor can walk through, but with nothing inside. The sculpture at the centre is made up of large rectangular stones arranged in a crystalline structure. Up to this point, Irwin’s most well-known installations have largely been temporary works, like Excursus: Homage to the Square3 at Dia: Chelsea and untitled (four walls), which was installed at Chinati in 2006. This work’s permanent nature is therefore quite significant. The artist’s sensitivity to the surrounding landscape, interest in shifting spatial relationships, and treatment of light as material align squarely with the minimalist, light and space artists who have permanent installations at Chinati. The installation’s sequence of windows and corresponding shadows resonates with the Icelandic artist Ingólfur Arnarsson’s untitled works (1991-2), an installation that includes 36 graphite drawings on paper mounted diametrically opposite a row of windows. Irwin’s work also reflects Donald Judd’s iconic 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982-86), in which two of the most significant elements are the illusory potential of light, and the interplay between exterior and interior landscapes.
3. The Boxes
Completed in 1986, Donald Judd’s 100 aluminum boxes offer one of the most exciting locations to study the grace of minimalism. His vision at Marfa has transformed a piece of military history into a peaceful and unique environment for art and architecture. Here, the shimmering material transcends the formal strictness of plain patterns and the narrow concepts of minimalism. The multiple reflections of light and space create an illusionary atmosphere beyond ascetic ideas. The boxes are beautiful to look at, but the word is not exactly appropriate. Instead of being comforting in the manner of a clean apartment or a bare gallery space, they are instead implacable, aggressive, and intimidating. Their emptiness in all its variety is a suggestion not of absolute control but absolute freedom, an opportunity to confront the world as it stands before you. Minimalism is a reminder of our ultimate autonomy, that the next second is an unforeseeable future in which we might do anything, or anything might happen to us. Being comfortable within that freedom is the challenge that Minimalism poses. Instead of perfection, it can mean an absence of judgement or an acceptance of reality. “Art is no kind of Utopia, because it really exists,” Judd said. The industrial aluminum is as polished as a mirror, but the crevices of the boxes collected dead flies and dust; they have to be cleaned once a week by conservators, an endeavor that takes all day. There was also the building itself. Judd could proclaim a kind of post-historical objectivity all he liked, but his structures were still military in origin.
4. The Chinati Foundation
The buildings of the Chinati Foundation are primarily those of Fort D. A. Russell. The important building not at Fort Russell is made of three buildings together, half a city-block, which were an office and warehouses for the sale of wool and mohair. This is in the center of Marfa, across from the Post Office. It contains the work of John Chamberlain. As usual with the buildings of the Foundation, the three were in bad shape and in this case were not well-built. The restoration alone took a long time. Stewardship of Chinati’s buildings is an ongoing challenge for the museum. A key reason for the master plan is to establish standards and guidelines to inform building improvement decisions. In 2001, the Chinati Foundation engaged consultants to identify needs and priorities within its building inventory, resulting in the formulation of a series of Collection Assessment Preservation (CAP) collection and architectural assessments. The artillery sheds and the John Chamberlain Building were both identified as priorities as a result of roof deficiencies and concerns for potential water damage to the artworks. In the ensuing years, additional studies were performed on these buildings in order to further isolate issues and develop suitable approaches to address them. Chinati offers guided tours of the collection as well as an outdoor Self-guided Walking Tour, Thursday-Saturday.
5. Presidio County Courthouse
San Antonio architect Alfred Giles beat out eighteen other competitors to submit the winning bid on designing the 1886 courthouse at a cost of $60,000. Giles modeled the Second Empire style building after the El Paso courthouse he also designed in 1886. When the structure was completed, the county held a celebratory grand ball on January 1, 1887. The courthouse can be seen from almost any location in Marfa. Designed of brick and stone quarried in Marfa, the exterior is of pink stucco with Lady Justice sitting atop the central dome. The tower is spanned by Roman arches. Interiors are designed of pecan wood. Dormers extend over the roof, with triangular pediments and iron cresting. The building has entrances on all sides, meeting in a central rotunda. When designed, the district courtroom took up the entire east side of the second floor. The grand jury room was on the third floor. A remodeling took place in 2001. The building itself is worth visiting as a historical part of Marfa, as well as an interesting piece of architecture.
6. Judd Foundation
Judd Foundation is a non-profit organization that facilitates public access to artist Donald Judd’s permanently installed living and working spaces in downtown Marfa. The Judd Foundation spaces include studios installed with early works by Judd, libraries, and living quarters that reflect the diversity of his life’s work. The Studios visits provide access to a selection of Juddʼs downtown spaces, including the Architecture Studio, Art Studio, and the Cobb House and Whyte Building. These spaces contain furniture by Judd, his early paintings from the 1950s and 1960s, an extensive collection of modernist and period furniture, and works by other prominent twentieth century artists and designers. Judd passed away in 1994 suddenly, while travelling and creating new works of art across the world. For Judd, investigating spatial configurations and geometric forms was a means of distancing his work from symbolic meaning, often associated with Minimalist art, a categorisation he adamantly opposed. His practice was embedded in the qualities of the materials he used, despite the industrial process of their production.
7. Chinati Hot Springs
Chinati Hot Springs, based out of Ruidosa, TX, has been a refreshing oasis for travelers to the Chihuahuan desert for years. Visitors from both sides of the border have enjoyed the warm mineral springs since before there was a border. Over the years, the springs have traded hands.In 1896 the springs and the surrounding 1,200 acres were acquired by Annie Kingston and her husband, Bill. In 1937 they built a bathhouse and seven cabins, and named the facility Kingston Hot Springs, developing it into a public rustic resort with horse-trough soaking tubs. The property was owned by minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, and later bought and operated as a non-profit entity. The current owner, a Texan, has invested the necessary resources to turn the springs into an international destination. The hot mineral water emerges from the spring at 113 °F / 45 °C. The water contains minerals that allegedly help conditions such as arthritis, skin problems and stomach ulcers. While it used to be a public site under the ownership of Judd, it is now only for paying guests.
8. Fort D.A. Russell
Fort D. A. Russell is the name of an American military installation that was active from 1911 to 1946. Its namesake is David Allen Russell, a Civil War general killed at the Battle of Opequon, September 19, 1864. It was established in 1911 as Camp Albert, a base for cavalry and air reconnaissance units sent to protect West Texas from Mexican bandits after the Pancho Villa raid. The base was expanded and renamed Camp Marfa during World War I. In the interwar years, the base became the headquarters for the Marfa Command, which replaced the Big Bend District. In 1924, a patrol called the Mounted Watchmen was established to deter persons from crossing the Rio Grande into the United States.
In 1930, the base was renamed Fort D. A. Russell. The name had been used on a previous military base in Wyoming; the name became available when that post was renamed Fort Francis E. Warren. The base was briefly abandoned during the Great Depression. On January 2, 1933, the Army closed the post, and reactivated it in 1935 as the home base of the 77th Field Artillery. During World War II, the post was expanded and used as an air base. In 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, the fort was closed during America’s demobilization. On October 23, 1946, the base was transferred to the Corps of Engineers. The Texas National Guard assumed control of the base shortly afterward. In 1949, most of the base’s land was divided up and sold to local citizens. In the late 1970s, under the auspices of the Dia Art Foundation, Donald Judd acquired the former fort and began converting the buildings to house permanent large-scale art installations. Originally conceived to include works by Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin, the museum was later expanded to include works by Carl Andre, Ingolfur Arnarrson, Ilya Kabakov, Roni Horn, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley. Judd’s museum opened to the public in 1986 as the Chinati Foundation.
“It was a series of small apartments filled with plastic-y faux-mid century furniture ringed around a gravel courtyard with trees shedding pink petals onto the sidewalk. The inn had opened not so long ago and I suspected I was the only occupant until late in my trip when some neighbors arrived. Elsewhere the few blocks of downtown were dotted with clothing boutiques selling cowboy hats and leather boots; a sleek new hotel with an upscale restaurant and pop-up bookstore; a single Whole Foods-esque market stocked with vegan sandwiches and Topo Chico seltzer, and, of course, rustic-chic coffee shops like Do Your Thing, where I visited almost daily to get the almond-butter toast. Everything shuts down early in the week but by Thursday tourists start trickling in, breaking the companionable silence of the cafe regulars. The original ranch-town vibes still peek through with goofy food trucks housed in Air Stream trailers and plentiful UFO kitsch, but it’s getting paved over with contemporary minimalism.”
While I have yet to visit in person, it seems that due to the art there, the place has been slowly and quaintly commercialized. Judd himself left after some years, because he felt overwhelmed by the bustle of the small downtown with tourists. There are now coffee shops and book stores, as well as plenty of modern art. It still seems a wonderful place to visit, as long as you can accept that it is no longer so much of a hidden gem, and more of a well known spot. That being said, the crowds are sure to pale in comparison to most tourist locations, given the niche nature of the crowd it draws. Marfa is still a unique place, filled with a rich history and cultural scene, definitely worth a visit!