Marvelous Marfa, where minimalism and abundance dance together
Marfa, Texas, reportedly named in 1883 by a railroad executive’s wife who was reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, is a city built on history, art and ghost lights.
We rolled into town on a Tuesday, and parked near the historic courthouse for the evening.
The next morning, we walked past the Hotel Paisano, a focal point of James Dean’s final movie, Giant, and stopped at the visitor center, where a lovely girl whose family had run cattle near Marfa since the 1800s, told us we were too late for the morning tour of the big attraction, minimalist artist Donald Judd’s installations on Fort D. A. Russell. We decided to explore the town while we waited for the afternoon tour.
We parked on a side street to look at a map of galleries, and ran into Tom Jacobs, an investment adviser and co-author of What’s Behind the Numbers?: A Guide to Exposing Financial Chicanery and Avoiding Huge Losses in Your Portfolio. He was eyeing The Epic Van, so we invited him in for a tour, and found out we had much in common with him and his partner, Vilis Inde.
Vilis, whose family roots are in Latvia, and who runs their gallery, Inde/Jacobs Gallery, had traveled with Tom, his Tom, to Lithuania, which is Tom, my Tom’s, mother country. Tom, Vilis’s Tom, (I know, it’s confusing) gave us great tips for galleries to visit, and said it was good we were visiting on Wednesday, because the town is sleepier on Mondays and Tuesdays, and many shops and galleries are closed. Tom, Vilis’s Tom, went off to work to help his clients manage their money, and we headed off to look at art, warm with new friendship.
Vilis met us as we walked through the Inde/Jacobs Gallery door, and we shared stories of the old country, including how Tom, my Tom’s, grandmother left Lithuania because she said the women there had to pull plows through the fields.
Vilis showed us around the gallery, pointing out a fascinating string piece of exquisite artistry, with black string wrapped around a frame, sometimes twisted, in a way that appeared, trompe l’oeil-like, as machine-scored metal.
We moved on to another gallery Vilis’s Tom recommended, Exhibitions 2D. Exhibitions 2D is run by Dennis, another friendly art connoisseur, a Southern-California boy who began as a collector and presents only artists he loves. He showed us one piece, nearly six feet long on Japanese paper, a lovely abstract line, a line of life, thicker and bluish in the beginning, thinning and thickening along the way, turning red, then black, then gray, and finally, near the end of the paper, disappearing. It was breathtaking. The artist, Dennis told us, takes great care in selecting the paper, ordering it from Japan, and creating his pieces.
In another room, I was entranced by the wildly innovative art of Ken Morgan, whose artist statement tells of growing up with a father, a self-trained acrobat, who liked to perform and pressed his entire family into the act, “Al Morgan and the Toy Boys,” which performed in bars and on Don Amichi’s televised (International) Showtime. After 20 years, Ken Morgan ran away to art school.
“Reducing everything to a dot and a line, I had finally come to reach – nothing – and at that point I was ready to begin,” Ken Morgan writes. “I looked and I looked. My father died. It’s funny that I started to see things – I saw riggings, trapezes, sway poles and in time I saw us and in time I saw the audiences. “new tricks” “side shows” “girlie shows” I returned to my father’s love and would carry on the act on my own terms.
“A door became a symbol for me, allowing entrance – into the arena”
Our brains filled with line, shapes, color and form, we headed for Marfa Burrito, recommended by the visitor center cowgirl.
At Marfa Burrito, two Spanish-speaking women were dishing up tacos and burritos to locals out of a ramshackle old house on the dusty main drag. I had tacos filled with potato, beans, cheese, and flaming, I mean incendiary, salsa. Tom had the Primo Burrito, an aptly named meal too big for the plate. The head-sized flour tortilla, golden from the grill, was filled with cheese, beans, chili peppers, tomatoes and onions, all sizzled to perfection. Cost for two meals: $12. While we waited, they brought us each a delicious bowl of lentil soup, and we read about the Marfa Ghost Lights, seen by the earliest settlers and still today dancing across the foothills of the Chinati Mountains. An enigma wrapped in riddle.
Fortified, we were ready for the star of Marfa, Donald Judd.
Fliers at the visitor center tell his story:
Judd, after serving in the Korean War, earned a philosophy degree from Columbia, then studied painting at the Art Students League in New York, returning to Columbia for graduate school in painting. He later came to believe painting was “finished,” and became an art critic, followed post-Abstract Expressionists and became fascinated with the formal qualities of art-shape, color, surface and volume.
He began experimenting with precise cubic and rectangular pieces and became a leading figure in the Minimal Art movement, and showed in galleries in New York, Houston, Rome, London and Germany. But some critics called his work “radically depersonalized” and scoffed that it was only designed by him, but fabricated by others.
Judd believed that art installations should be permanent, that people needed to visit pieces more than once to begin to grasp their meaning, and started looking for a place to permanently house his works. He found Marfa in the early 1970s, acquiring first a ranch, then an abandoned army base, Fort D. A. Russell.
Troops were stationed here as early as 1911, during the Mexican revolution, to protect residents from Mexican forces they thought would ford the Rio Grande. At that time, the fort was named Camp Albert, and housed cavalry and biplanes from the Signal Corps flew reconnaissance missions out of canvas hangars. Later the name was changed to Camp Marfa, then Fort D. A. Russell. During World War II, German prisoners of war were held in the artillery sheds. The fort was closed in 1946.
Judd converted the hangars and sheds into galleries, and started erecting his works. A well-known character in town, he threw a yearly art opening and party, complete with Mexican food and bagpipes, but threatened to sue the Dia Foundation in New York for failing to fund installations. Eventually, the works and base were turned over to the Chinati Foundation, and Judd died of lymphoma on Valentine’s Day in 1994.
You can visit Judd’s gallery spaces on the base and downtown, his studio and office, as well as the studios of other artists housed on the base.
We visited his piece, 100 Untitled Works In Mill Aluminum, perfect silvery boxes, all 41 x 51 x 72 inches, all set in perfect lines in two of the converted artillery sheds. Only the insides of each box are different, each one segmented differently with aluminum walls, some angled, some floating on pedestals. And all of them reflecting the stark Chihuahuan Desert just outside the glass walls spanning the columns.
The boxes were fabricated by the Lippincott Company of Connecticut and are monitored for degradation and repaired where feasible. On our tour, an aluminum manufacturing worker marveled at the precision and gleaming surfaces. He told us how aluminum, pressed in big rollers, wants to curve, how difficult it is to keep it straight. Our group of about eight wandered through both buildings, circling different boxes, bending down to peer into the unending variety of rectangular interiors, seeing our own faces reflected back among the reflections of green cactus.
I’m not sure what Judd was trying to say, but I loved his exploration of form and space and light. Released from the building, we wandered down the hill to Judd’s series of concrete boxes, 15 Untitled Works in Concrete, all 2.5 x 2.5 x 5 meters, a similar exploration in larger, less-reflective form.
Later, as we drove the road toward Presidio, as Vilis’s Tom suggested, we stopped to photograph the Texas Bluebonnets just appearing along the side of the road, and I wondered at the many forms of beauty we have seen in our travels.