Monday, March 31, 2014

MARFA, TEXAS: A Travel Log


Thursday, March 27

We indulged in the luxury of a car from home to the airport—well worth the extra expense over the long drive, the remote parking, the bus to the terminal.  We left at 6:45AM and arrived in comfortable time to check in and enjoy a leisurely airport breakfast before boarding our American Eagle flight to El Paso.  We had a three hour plus layover at this surprisingly big airport, but were soon joined by fellow travelers on the ArtTable tour.  Amazing, how we manage to spot each other in a crowd!

The bus awaited us outside the airport at shortly after three.  (Ellie followed the crowd to board, chatting away as usual—and realizing only as we approached the bus that she had left her suitcase and hand luggage at the spot where the group had assembled outside the Starbucks café.  Fortunately, our soon-to-be new friend Julie had spotted it and stood on guard until Ellie came rushing back.  I, meantime, was recalling all those familiar cautions about “unattended luggage” and injunctions that it be immediately reported to security; and was soon imagining robot IED sniffers, bomb squads, and a long delay for all of us…  (Ellie adds: I hope this will not be the way I’m remembered!)

It’s a three-hour bus ride from El Paso to remote Marfa.  We made a stop along the way to view “Prada Marfa”, a permanent installation by the team of Elmgreen and Dragset.  This wayside art work is a tiny, freestanding building way out in the middle of the desert…

 
(My pictures, as are all others, unless otherwise indicated)

 ...a half hour’s drive from the nearest  habitation and neatly, if sparsely, stocked with fancy Prada accessories—handbags and shoes—in the narrow space behind a non-functioning glass door and store front windows.  A nice, witty concept, an ironic social comment on the marketing of high end merchandise to the privileged few, and more than a little absurd in the context of the endless vista of Texas wilderness, where such items would be worse than useless to even the wealthiest traveler. 

Unfortunately—though perhaps, in a sense, appropriately—the piece has been badly vandalized with spray paint and other offensive stuff; its windows obscured, its awnings slashed...


The vandalism itself might seem like an ironic comment on an ironic comment, a street-level gesture of protest against social elitism and the elitism of the art world—an elitism that our group, to be honest, might be accused of representing!  (We learned later, from our well-informed waiter over dinner, that the vandal was actually the employee of a rival shoe company!  Nothing more than business competition, then, and perhaps a little product envy!)

From Prada Marfa we drove another half hour to reach the small town of Marfa itself, driving through the rather unkempt outskirts to the center of town with what seemed, through the bus windows, to be a handful of boutiques/stores and the kind of restaurants one would not expect to find in so remote an area.  Our hotel, the Paisano


  ...has a large, old-Western style reception area, with stuffed buffalo and longhorn cattle heads adorning the walls…


 ...along with textiles and basketry, traditional paintings of Western scenes, and beautiful tile work ascending the stairs.  Comfortable rooms, and a friendly atmosphere.  We were granted a half hour to unpack before heading downstairs to join the gang for a short walk through the now darkened streets to dinner at Cochineal.  It was still warm enough for a number of us to eat outside at a long line of round tables, under the cheerfully-lighted trees.  We ate well, drank well (cocktails, and two bottles of Sancerre) and enjoyed the chance to get to know each other. 




Friday, March 28 (The Longest Day!)

Having eaten late and indulged in a cocktail (Perfect Manhattan: others tried James Bond’s Vesper!) as well as wine, I slept poorly and woke late.  Breakfast was, frankly—not just my opinion but by consensus—awful: a choice of packaged cereals and rather stale-looking pastries, odd pieces of fruit and hard-boiled eggs (no toast, not an English muffin in sight)—but complaints were few.  We’re not here for the breakfasts…

Our bus left a little after 9AM for the Chinati Foundation, where Donald Judd’s vision converted a former military base into a mecca for contemporary art.  We were greeted graciously by Jenny Moore, the current executive director, who passed us on into the hands of two docents, both of whom proved to be expert guides.  We split up into two smaller, more manageable groups, and the first stop for ours was one of the two huge barracks buildings that once housed German POWs…

(Judd was particular about preserving the original spirit of the building, where he could)
 ...and now are home to a hundred of Judd’s milled aluminum boxes, fabricated at Lippincott in New York and shipped here for permanent installation at what must have been vast expense.  Outside, a splendid vista of Judd’s concrete works amongst fields of golden grass, and beyond, cattle grazing in the distance.   

For those who, like me, have based our opinion of Judd on what we have seen in museums and galleries over the years, I can promise you an eye-opener if you visit these installations.  Judd’s vision, supported in the early years by the Dia Foundation (and Schlumberger oil and gas money), was to show his own art—and that of a handful of others whose work he particularly admired—in an environment chosen and created by the artist; and not for the duration of an exhibition here or there but, more or less, in perpetuity.

Okay, sounds (again!) elitist, maybe a little bit precious.  But the outcome of this vision opens up an entire new reappraisal of everything you might have thought to know about Judd’s work.  Minimalism, schminimalism.  Both these two vast spaces, with natural light and opening up to the natural environment beyond the windows, align the aluminum boxes in long, precisely parallel rows.  


Deceptively simple constructions in themselves, clever interplays between positive and negative space, they are milled and assembled with incredible precision; their matte, brushed surfaces change as you walk amongst them into bright, silvery reflections; between them, surfaces and reflections create a magical optical complexity, where you are never sure whether what you see is reality or illusion.  Gleaming bursts of light, reflected from the sunshine beyond the windows, alternate with sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic shadow in an ever-changing, infinitely complex geometric dance that enchants the eye and dazzles the mind. 

One of my fellow art tourists suggested that the installation summoned for her a kind of melancholy; the word that came up for me, I said, was serenity.  There’s something compelling about the juxtaposition of the sheer physical weight of these objects, lined with such precision, and the light that engages our perception and endows them with a quasi-spiritual presence.  To my eye and mind, their shape and volume suggest lines of hi-tech sarcophagi…


… creating of the ambient space a resting place that transforms the mortal, physical, mutable, into a deeply human—and therefore unattainable—bid for permanence in an ever changing universe.   (Curiously, it has been discovered that these monoliths have shifted, minimally, over the years; and will, at some point, need to be realigned to reestablish Judd’s call for absolute precision.  A strangely comforting thought.)

Thus surprised, delighted, and in honesty somewhat chastened in my previous assessment of Judd’s work, we moved on to a u-shaped barracks building with a Carl Andre installation at its center, alternating narrow rows of the artist’s familiar oxidizing steel plates with dark gravel in a manner that reminds one irresistibly of a Kyoto Zen garden…

(Thanks to Nuzhat for this picture!)
Entering the surrounding exhibition area devoted to Judd’s prints, I discovered more that I had not previously known about Judd in the deeply saturated colors and simple, geometric forms of the artist’s years-long work with woodcuts and lithographs, responding to each other eloquently, often through a simple process of reversal. 

I was mulling over these thoughts about Donald Judd as we stopped on our way to lunch at the barrack that houses an installation by the Russian émigré Ilya Kabakov.  It was a surprise to find the work of this socially-engaged artist in the purview of otherwise mostly purist Chinati, but we heard from our guide that Judd appreciated Kabakov’s courageous rejection of the Soviet-approved social realism—and indeed was instrumental, along with other American artists, in facilitating his defection.  The Kabakov installation is a reconstruction of the schoolhouse of his childhood, long deserted and suffering the effects of neglect and decay, as though abandoned in consequence of some Chernobyl-like disaster.  The ghosts of childhood friends and fellow-students haunt these spaces, surrounding a central yard where nature has been left to go through its own process of wild growth and entropy.  A lovely, if pervasively sad evocation of a vanished past…

Nadine mailed this beautiful picture to the group
Our lunch was served in the vast space of the “Arena”—a one-time military gymnasium reminiscent of Vienna’s famous riding school…

Nadine's picture
...converted first by a local rancher into a roping arena, and later by Judd into a reception area characterized by the simplicity of a Quaker meeting house…

(…and this one) 
Here we enjoyed an excellent picnic meal prepared by Food Shark, veggie and turkey bacon sandwiches with sides of carrot and bean and potato salads.  We were offered a choice of iced tea or lemonade, from which Ellie and I concocted Arnold Palmers. 

Then back to work.  We walked back through the campus to a complex of six buildings selected by Dan Flavin out of the generous eleven originally offered him by Judd, his close friend of many years.  Here, the simple principle of reversal that was evident in the Judd prints we’d seen before lunch formed the basic premise of the light/space installations for which Flavin is known…


(My pictures--not so great as Nadine's.  See below…)
Here's one of her spectacular images!
He explores a single concept sequentially through six of the spacious, two-wing pavilions, where his trademark neon tubes are used to create magical, mystical environments of color and light.  Four colors, pink, green, blue and yellow are enough to allow him to conjure light into a palette of colors whose counter-intuitive complexity sets the mind spinning in confusion.  Blue and yellow together create… green, right?  Well, no.  It seems that in Flavin’s cosmos they create pink.  Or orange.  Or mauve.  Or …? You walk, mystified, through these spaces, and eventually realize that what you believed to be the logic of color simply does not apply. One astute observer suggested that it was the difference between the physical properties of paint and light that caused the unexpected effects, which may well be true  Still, what you must do eventually is surrender to the profound pleasure of moving through those environments and allowing the sheer beauty of color, light and shadow to keep ringing its subtle changes in your mind.

We finished our Chinati tour with briefer stops at installations by other artists Judd admired: Roni Horn, whose two truncated, enormously heavy solid copper cones…


...laid out at a charged distance from each other on a barracks floor made me think of that line from “Ozymandias” (“two vast and trunkless legs of stone…”) There followed a whole space devoted to the extraordinarily fine, barely discernable graphite drawings on small white sheets by the Icelandic artist Ingolfur Arnasson, displayed in a single line along one wall; and, at each end of the space, a small painting by the same artist, grey on white on concrete.

(This picture doesn't do it justice.)
Next, a building devoted to the display of paintings by John Wesley, cartoonish, satirical…


...and strangely out of keeping with most other artists honored by inclusion at Chinati.  And finally, an entire space with display cases featuring row upon row of the typewritten word works created by Carl Andre—akin to the “concrete poems” by certain members of the Fluxus group back in the 1960s.  More there than the eye and mind could take in, in a single visit…




Our last stop at Chinati—as I suppose it must be at any museum!—was the gift shop.  Many of us, myself included, left the for the bus sporting brightly colored Chinati baseball caps: mine is purple, Ellie’s turquoise, nice souvenirs of a spectacular day spent at this very special place…

But there was still more to be done.  The bus delivered us next to the huge downtown building purchased with Dia money to house a permanent shrine for twenty-two major works by John Chamberlain, whose sculptures composed of the crushed parts of junked cars and trucks are monuments to a culture dominated in so many ways by these symbols of our means of transportation…


They are also, as I see them, bold, gestural three-dimensional AE paintings, converting the seeming intractability of metal panels into surprisingly flexible form.   And finally, after Chamberlain, a short bus ride to another large, abandoned industrial building, this one converted into a huge camera obscura by the artist Zoe Leonard.  The inverted image of the urban scene on the opposite side of the street was projected by natural light from a hole in the wall…

Thanks again to Nadine
… to occupy the full length of the far wall in the darkened space.  Up close, the surprise was to find the extraordinary detail of the image, the branches, even the tiny twigs of trees seen swaying in the breeze.

We returned to Paisano to enjoy a brief respite from a very busy day’s activities, before setting out again for a return visit to Chinati at sunset.  From the bus, we wandered down into the shallow valley where a row of Judd’s concrete blocks stretches for the length of a full kilometer, inviting constantly shifting interaction with the walker, dwarfed by the enormous weight and bulk of the dozens of massive objects…



Art and nature, playing off against each other, with the great vistas of the natural landscape eventually winning out.  Again, I thought of Ozymandias: “Look on my works, yet mighty, and despair!” 

Finally, as the sun set, we were invited back into the magical spaces of those two great pavilions that house Judd’s hundred aluminum boxes—a special moment to see them in the glow of dusk and the gradually fading light. 


What a day!  Eyes exhausted and minds wearied by the intensity of looking, we assembled for a late dinner at Future Shark, self-service style: beef stew, potatoes and leeks au gratin, roast vegetables, in a diner style environment; and wine served by charming young people who were themselves surely artists, or musicians, or poets…  And, after dinner, as though that were not yet enough, we joined a convivial gathering in the hotel lobby around a bottle of single malt Scotch generously laid on by our friends Julie and Fred.



Saturday, March 29


This won’t take so many words as yesterday, I promise!  We started out with breakfast in the hotel (though some were wise enough to scout the area and discovered a better opportunity elsewhere).  Someone must have approached the management on our behalf, because today the menu was enhanced by the addition of scrambled eggs and bacon—but still no toast!  Breakfast has become something of a running joke.

A leisurely walk to Ballroom Marfa, where our group arrived before opening time and dispersed for fifteen minutes of personal time.  Ellie and I stayed on, at the street corner, to pursue a political conversation we had started over breakfast with Steven and Sharon.  We come not only from opposite ends of the country, but also from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I, for one, most often find myself preaching to the choir when it comes to political discussion; and we are so split in our opinions, as a country, that discussion is generally reduced to the exchange of polemics.  So it was refreshing to be able to listen, and speak frankly, find common ground where we could find it, and agree—agreeably!—to disagree where we could not.  Our discussion continued over lunch, and intermittently throughout the day. 

The cofounder of Ballroom Marfa, Virginia Lebermann, and its deputy director, Melissa McDonnell Lujan were on hand to greet us when the doors opened, and we enjoyed a brief, informal question and answer session about this not-for-profit institution that, in addition to exhibits of contemporary art work, promotes various performance, musical and other cultural events for the citizens of Marfa and its environs.  The converted dance hall provides generous exhibition space, with an adjacent open area ideal for exterior three-dimensional work (on this occasion, a whimsical piece comprising single pole at the center with a bulbous yellow light fixture at the top, and a lost cat poster attached below)


... and an office space across the other side, currently installed with an exhibit detailing plans for an ambitious new facility, a “drive-in” for movies, concerts, and so on.


Amazing that so small a community can support an organization of this kind, even though aided by government and foundation grants.

The current exhibition, “Sound Speed Marker”, includes three works by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, who also co-curated the show.  “Giant” (2014), a 30-minute loop, is a beautiful, slow-moving exploration, on three adjacent wall-sized screens, of the site where the last of James Dean’s movies, Giant, was shot near Marfa in 1956.  All that remains of the great ranch house featured in the picture is the frame, with the remnants of the rest of the building scattered at its feet.  (“Ozymandias”, anyone?) The video studies the natural environment, from grand  horizon to individual plants and blades of grass, the effects of the constant wind, the persistence of nature and the impermanence of the man-made. “Movie Mountain (Méliès)” documents the dwindling residual memories of aging cowboys of a small Texas community, where a movie company (perhaps Gaston, brother of Georges Méliès?) rode into town years back to shoot a film.  It’s a poignant study of fading memory, of ambitions thwarted, of a community itself in decline.  Regrettably, I was unable to see anything of the third part of the show, a dual-image documentary video based, as I understand it, on the making of Wim Wenders’s “Paris, Texas.”  Seating was limited, as was the supply of needed earphones, and the 60-minute length of the video allowed only a handful of our group to see it.

With some free time on our hands (in contrast to yesterday!) Ellie and I wandered back along the main street back toward the hotel, with a brief stop at the book store where we found a nice show of paintings by Martha Hughes


… tucked away at the back.  I hope that others chanced upon it as we did.  With Ellie more interested in the shops than I, I headed on with our fellow Californian, Marcia, to check out the local coffee shop, where Ellie joined us after a while and shared a latte.  At noon, we all met back at the hotel for another bus jaunt, this time to the outskirts of Marfa for lunch at Mandos, a local Mexican diner jam-packed with local families. 

Lunch was followed by the short bus ride to the Judd Foundation, where we warmly greeted and, again, split off into two groups, each with its own guide.  (Photography of any kind is forbidden within the confines of the tall adobe walls that set the foundation’s campus—a whole city block—off from the surrounding area; I’ll see if I can glean some images from the website, but I’m thinking they’re likely to be protected.) Our group began the tour in one of the two large studio buildings, sited parallel to each other and with, in between, a wide open space defined by the inner wall of a version of the “Pulitzer Project”—consisting of an outer wall, built level, that surrounds a three-sided inner wall whose height follows the topography of the ground on which it’s built.  The difference creates a challenge to the viewer’s sense of orientation and draws attention to the overall architectural structure of the site. 

The studio buildings were designed to provide working/thinking/planning space for the artist.  Each is divided by a central cut-out—in one case a kitchen/living area, in the other, a library.  To say that the vast, high-ceilinged studio spaces are sparsely furnished would be an understatement.  Each houses a number of Judd’s finished works—in the first we visited, an impressive display of four of the “stacks” for which he is justly famous—along with a free-floating bed, no more than a futon on a platform, where he might choose to sleep if he happened to be working in that particular space; and a few items of the plain furniture he liked to collect, all of which reflected some aspect of his aesthetic: Shaker and Stickley both well represented.  Evidence of Judd’s pleasure in collecting objects of all kinds was everywhere, from Native American textiles and basketry to fossils, tools and …  The library covered a vast range of interests, from ancient philosophy to the history of art, novels and poetry, technology and science.   Judd, it seems, was also a voracious reader.

Hard to imagine, though, what kind of man this was, judging from the environment in which he spent a great deal of his time.  One building on the campus is what was once the family residence, not open to the visitor except for glimpses through the windows on all four sides.  Here, the artist’s love of simplicity and symmetry is evident yet again.  Everything is hard-edged, geometric.  Most of the furniture is plain wood construction, with barely a curve or a soft touch anywhere in sight.  Everything is order.  Even the children’s rooms have virtually nothing in the way of adornment.  I was shocked, looking into one of them, by the sight of a red rocking-horse, as angular as the rest of it.  Only the rockers had a grudging curve—and I’m sure he would have preferred them straight if that were possible!

From the foundation campus we were led on to a tour of three quite different buildings that occupy the length of a nearby city block, purchased by Judd to extend his realm in Marfa.  The center building—the first visited by our group—has the architectural appearance of a group of tiny cottages.  Aside from the by now familiar sparse furnishings, the walls in these seem small, clean spaces are devoted to the exhibition of Judd’s early work, as a student at the Art Students League in New York and as a young painter looking for a place in the art world of his time.  A number of these early works are quite accomplished abstract paintings, though clearly, given the history, they failed to satisfy his developing aesthetic.  That he wanted to preserve them, however, in an environment he created especially for their display, is an indication of his desire to not completely disown this aspect of his work.

We visited next the neighboring bank building acquired by Judd to house his public, architectural and design work—work that he sought to keep separate from his art.  The interior space of the former bank has been stripped down to its raw structure.  To stand there, surrounded by the angularity of concrete pillars and flat walls, seemed to me what it might be like to stand inside one of the artist’s boxes.  The two floors above were split up into numerous small offices, with work desks, wall space for blueprints and drawings, and outstanding examples of furniture design, especially desks and chairs, created not only by Judd but other avant-garde 20th century artists. 

Our final Judd Foundation stop was the third building in the block, a store-front space converted into the artist’s working studio for his art.  Here we found numerous works in progress, some rejected, some left unfinished, along with samples of materials, paints and tools of all kinds.  Of special interest were the gifts Judd received from Barnett Newman’s widow, at his death.  Judd was a big fan of Newman’s work, and the original print and the painter’s palette, still encrusted with that artist’s paint, must have meant a great deal to him.

Reflecting on Judd as I walked back to the hotel for a brief, one-hour respite before the evening’s activities, I found myself wishing we had seen the foundation and its neighboring spaces first, before Chinati.  The early paintings, the studio spaces, the design work and the work in progress all had their interest, as did the insight into the artist’s living environment and his life style.  Still, all these felt like something of an anticlimax when compared to the great, transformative experience of the magnificent installations at Chinati.  Still, hindsight affords a view that planning can’t always anticipate, and we ended up our art tour at Marfa well rewarded for the long journey to get there.  It has long been an intended destination, and we were more than delighted to have had the opportunity.  Kudos to ArtTable for a great trip, and to our fellow travelers for the well-informed and friendly companionship.

Still, we were not quite done.  There was one further treat in store.  After a convivial dinner at Maiyas, we piled into the bus for one more journey, this time a twilight drive up into the mountains an hour distant from Marfa to visit the MacDonald Observatory.  It was already dark by the time we arrived, and we joined a much larger crowd for an introduction to the night sky by a member of the University of Texas astronomy faculty.  There appeared at first to be an unpromising weather condition, with clouds obscuring much of the sky, horizon to horizon.  After a first, rather foggy glimpse of Jupiter…


... and a fascinating planetarium show inside the Observatory, we found to our delight that the clouds had cleared.  We stopped by one of the three domes for a clear telescope view of Jupiter and its moons; and other telescopes for views of the Pleiades and another star cluster.  Art, we decided on the way back down the mountain, has a hard time competing with the incomparable majesty of the universe.


Sunday, March 30

The last hurrah.  Much chatter amongst new friends on the three-hour bus ride back to El Paso for the airplanes to our scattered destinations.  I can’t speak for others, but Ellie and I, I know, will be looking forward to another ArtTable trip some time in the future.  Meantime, our gratitude for this one, and greetings to new friends throughout the country.  

SOMEONE PLEASE SEND ME A BETTER PICTURE THAN THIS ONE!


3 comments:

V Wilcox said...

What a wonderful trip, I'm so glad you shared that with us! I spent a couple hours just going off and researching some of the related artists and references you gave. I've always thought it would be nice to go see Marfa and all, but now it's bumped up a few notches on the list. I'm enthralled with the aluminum boxes and the light that plays on them. Thx for posting all the great pics!

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