Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rejecting the metaphor: Discovering modern art in West Texas

Posted By on Wed, Dec 22, 2010 at 1:29 AM

“The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.” —Paul Gaugin

One of two identical copper cones (1986) by Roni Horn, located in a former military supplies storage building at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX
  • One of two identical copper cones (1986) by Roni Horn, located in a former military supplies storage building at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX

I transcribed my travel notes of the past several days from a downtown hotel in Roswell, New Mexico, home of alien encounters, on the night of the winter solstice and the lunar eclipse. To our surprise, there was no parade, no convention of abductees, and no massive influx of UFO enthusiasts. We stayed anyway, enjoying the irony, only two hundred miles from our final destination.

My husband George and I are spending the holidays this year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. On our road trip we once again crossed Texas, this time lingering for a few days far west, in a town called Marfa, named in 1882 for a Russian heroine in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The tiny town is also a movie buff’s destination, since hosting the stars and set of Giant in 1955.

Marfa_downtown.jpg

Texas appropriates the biggest and best for itself, whether grocery stores, bar-b-que, or two-inch thick toast (all George’s choices), and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find an expansive beacon of modern art, an almost cult-like destination for New York Modernist enthusiasts, in a town of only two thousand residents, a place so remote that the nearest airport (El Paso) is a three-hour drive.

Yet perhaps it all makes sense, if one thinks about the dichotomy that was the New York art scene versus the rest of the country during the 1970s and 1980s. In the age of Disco, Dynasty, and Dallas a small group of New York artists focused on the pure form, the simpler the better, including a complete lack of meaning or metaphor. In direct contradiction to the excess prevalent throughout American culture during this period, Minimalism did not relate to the general public.

John Chamberlain (1927) crushes cars; I read somewhere that people follow him around his hometown of Shelter Island, New York and retrieve his discarded coffee cups from the trash, because no one crumples like Chamberlain
  • John Chamberlain (1927) crushes cars; I read somewhere that people follow him around his hometown of Shelter Island, New York and retrieve his discarded coffee cups from the trash, because 'no one crumples like Chamberlain'

Founded in the 1880s as a railroad stop, Marfa did not choose modern art. Rather, modern art chose Marfa. In the 1970s, Donald Judd (1928-1994), a Minimalist artist in New York City, longed for an escape from ‘careless exhibitions that often ignored the art’s requirements.’* He desired large-scale spaces, architecture open to his revisions, and the freedom to create without the demands of museums, galleries, and critics. Finally, he wanted something permanent, so that his installations would remain intact forever.
One hundred heavy aluminum boxes by Donald Judd, located in a former artillery shed at Chinati
  • One hundred heavy aluminum boxes by Donald Judd, located in a former artillery shed at Chinati

“It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully. This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.” —Donald Judd

He found this venue in 1979, far from New York, in Marfa, Texas, first in the form of two airplane hangars that he converted into his residence. He then added three ranches and more than 40,000 acres of land, including a decommissioned military base where he houses his greatest ambition, the Chinati Foundation, a permanent tribute to Judd, his friends John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin, and eight other artists. In addition, Chinati hosts internships, artists-in-residence, numerous workshops and other programs, attracting both contemporary artists and art enthusiasts to the remote Texas high desert.
One of twelve neon installations by Flavin (although in reality, only eight, because some are double-sided in U-shaped buildings); located at the end of long, cold, almost prison-like rooms, with enormous and alarming echoes
  • One of twelve neon installations by Flavin (although in reality, only eight, because some are double-sided in U-shaped buildings); located at the end of long, cold, almost prison-like rooms, with enormous and alarming echoes
The outside of a Flavin installation
  • The outside of a Flavin installation

(It’s interesting to note that neon artist Keith Sonnier, originally from Louisiana and also linked to the minimalist movement, talks of establishing a similar artistic venue and foundation in his hometown of Mamou.)

We found Marfa’s role in the fading American West just as interesting as its late addition of contemporary art. The long-established reality of this small town of mostly working people of modest means who probably never saw a big city, much less New York City and MOMA, is in humorous contrast to the near beatnik invasion that accompanied not only Judd’s project, but also the sprinkling of contemporary galleries that popped up around town in tandem.

A contemporary exhibition space
  • A contemporary exhibition space

Entering the Ballroom, we realized immediately that the idea is to have an exhibition space - nothing more, nothing less
  • Entering the Ballroom, we realized immediately that the idea is to have an exhibition space - nothing more, nothing less


The restaurants fell into line, particularly Cochineal. Catering to the New York artsy crowd, it too embraces Minimalism in both its décor and its signage. Just as on several similar occasions in Manhattan, we walked past the restaurant four times without seeing the entrance. Looking around the concrete dining room, George said,

“Nobody looks like they have a job. We fit in real good.”

Cochineal, where I enjoyed a fabulous organic meal and pomegranate mimosa; where George failed and I struggled to understand our servers disinterested mumbling; and where I tried throughout lunch to ignore the loud and well-annunciated father across the room as he quizzed his young child on Post-Modernism and arugula salad
  • Cochineal, where I enjoyed a fabulous organic meal and pomegranate mimosa; where George failed and I struggled to understand our server's disinterested mumbling; and where I tried throughout lunch to ignore the loud and well-annunciated father across the room as he quizzed his young child on Post-Modernism and arugula salad

A block from Cochineal; where the locals eat-
  • A block from Cochineal; where the locals eat-

The critics and museums embraced Minimalism from the start, as though the art that affects the least number of people must be the best. They make contemporary art loftier and more important by making it inaccessible, both intellectually and, in the case of Marfa, physically.

Indeed, Minimalism is important and unique as a movement, a philosophy and, certainly for Donald Judd, a legacy. Before the contemporary art invasion, this small Texas town was already on the map, along with hundreds of others, as a beacon of the fading American West. Yet Judd’s contribution makes it a place like no other. The historical significance of his Marfa projects may not attract the Mona Lisa crowd, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

Finally, I could post a photograph of the middle-of-nowhere Contemporary Art reproduction of a Prada store in the vicinity of Marfa. However, I choose instead to share with you the storefront of a creative gal who cleverly weaves together the West, a personal artistic vision, and New Orleans —- not as a reproduction, but in reality. Lorna Leedy (pictured below) makes waves in the fashion world from Marfa with her Fancy Pony Land. If you can’t get to Marfa, you’ll find her the first weekend of Jazz Fest in her tent at the New Orleans Fairgrounds.

Fancy_Pony_Land_Marfa.jpg

Wishing you and yours a joyful holiday season!

Dolores Pepper (a.k.a. Wendy Rodrigue)

*Marianne Stockebrand writes about Donald Judd in the book Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd, Yale University Press, 2010

All photographs in this post by George Rodrigue

For more pictures and stories from our visit to Marfa, see the post “New York Art in West Texas”

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