Marfa Moments

Heavy metal art.

For Donald Judd, the sublime was a collaborative condition between an object-reality and our own perceptual desires (pictured: 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, 1982–1986).
  • For Donald Judd, the sublime was a collaborative condition between an object-reality and our own perceptual desires (pictured: 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, 1982–1986).

I was standing in a bookstore next to the actor Randy Quaid — a slouchy galoot in cargo shorts and flip-flops — when he was a wanted man, a warrant having been issued for him and his wife Evi for running out on a $10,000 hotel bill in Santa Barbara. Running, too, from a purported Hollywood hit squad that was targeting movie people, Randy among them, or at least this is what Evi believed. I was standing next to Randy in the Marfa Book Company, in the small town of Marfa (pop. 2121) in the high desert of West Texas, where the Quaids had fled to elude both the assassins and the law. A week later the celeb fugitives were taken into custody and I haven’t tracked their fortunes since.

That was two years ago, when I was spending a month in Marfa on a writing retreat, courtesy of the Lannan Foundation. I was recently back for another such gig and spotted — in various bars and in the garage-size space that does duty as a coffeehouse/laundromat/ice cream parlor — the movie director Larry Clark, who was shooting a picture with the working title Marfa Girl. Clark’s movie Kids, about an HIV-positive high-school boy who intentionally infects local girls, got up in viewers’ nostrils some years ago, and his 1971 photographic essay, Tulsa, featured images of his pals (one of them pregnant) shooting up, having sex, playing with guns, and indulging in other sorts of X-rated behavior, all of which made me wonder if the good citizens of Marfa knew exactly who was in their midst, auditioning their children.

The movies like Marfa. The scruffy landscape and stark mountains have a diffuse energy against which to play out extremities of conflict. And desert light at magic time is an astonishment. The legendary film event was the 1956 shooting of Giant, soon after which James Dean was killed in his green Porsche on a road near Paso Robles. The local glamour-puss hotel, El Paisano, has a cheesy, mildly ghoulish Giant museum. Marfa and its encompassing emptiness were used for Flesh and Bone, a twisted, smart, overlooked father-son story starring Randy’s brother Dennis. The Coen brothers were there for No Country for Old Men, and all but the bowling alley scenes of There Will Be Blood were filmed outside town.

Geographically, Marfa’s not the center of anything. The nearest major airport is in El Paso, a three-hour drive west; the nearest fair-sized town, Alpine, is 26 miles away. (Alpine, for those in the know, annually hosts the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering.) And yet the town attracts a subspecies that a friend of mine calls marfanatics. Some visit to experience the mysterious nonvibratory vibe of the place that can’t be reduced to any single element, such as the movie connection, or the fact that the bookstore where I sighted Randy has a more astutely and quirkily curated inventory than any independent bookstore in San Francisco, where I live, or that this wide spot in the road contains two fine restaurants (and a couple of squawky honkytonks). And every visitor I know has had Marfa moments. One sleepy afternoon, I saw parked on the otherwise deserted main street, as if they’d been abandoned there, six late-model Corvettes. Another day I watched a luxury Humvee SUV rolling, in parade-style crawl, behind a horse and rider. Six wild turkeys that had free run of the town jumped on the porch of the house where I was staying and, when I left the door ajar, staged a home invasion. (Just before I left, they were reported to animal control, so by now the turkeys may be history.) A Marfa moment is when the ponderously portentous and most flimsily inconsequential seem to be occurring at once.

But a great many more tourists, from all over the world, come to Marfa because it’s home to world-class installations of some of the most influential artists of the past half century, thanks to the Chinati Foundation/La Fundación Chinati, which oversees the constellated locales that Donald Judd created. Judd, born in 1928, made his reputation in New York in the 1960s with ascetic abstract sculptures that critics called “minimalist,” a term Judd rejected. His aspiration was to create a rich and lucid visual conversation between planes and space, material and color. He worked elegantly with polymers, Cor-ten steel, concrete, enameled metal, mill aluminum, and other substances, but his art, as he came to envision its totality, wasn’t just the sculptural object, it was the dynamic between it and its installation space and, by extension, its architectural housing or natural surround. He crafted his sense of the beautiful (and the meaningful) in the spatial intervals between volumes. His work trains the eye to see relations between things — any things — in a fresh, inventive way.

Drawn to the desert landscape, in 1971 Judd rented a house in Marfa and, while he kept his Spring Street studio in New York, mostly lived and worked there till his death in 1994. Over time, he bought several buildings that he converted for specific purposes — living spaces, studios, art venues. He expanded his holdings outside town, too, acquiring ranch property in Presidio County. He rehabbed whatever he took over but respected its original integrity. The sculptural and architectural imagination was for him one unified faculty. He made sculptures for specific buildings (and, for his domestic arrangements, designed furniture and interiors) and crafted exhibition spaces for his friends Dan Flavin, who worked with light, and the automobile scrap-metal master John Chamberlain, whom I’ll get to later.

One of the properties Judd acquired was the abandoned Fort D.A. Russell southwest of town (where, riding my bike, I spotted one of the many pronghorn antelope that graze thereabouts). He refashioned the two grand artillery sheds, installing glass walls where garage doors had been, and to occupy them he designed 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum. Judd wanted to integrate the products of the form-making imagination (his) with a given space (the gunsheds) and the natural order (the desertscape visible out those windows). The bright, finely chased boxes — 48 in one shed, 52 in the other, the sheds sited end to end north by south — stand equidistant from one another and proportionally arranged in relation to the windows and floor squares. Each box has the same outer dimensions (41 x 51 x 72 inches), but no one replicates another. Each is differently inflected by interior or exoskeletal planes, and when those planes are doubled up, they are always proportioned four inches apart. Each box readjusts our perceptual apparatus. Look at a box with an interior panel slanting across its upper half and the space filling the interval looks like a solid black surface. Move slightly to the left or right of another box and one or more of its panels, because of refracted light inside the sheds, looks transparent.

For Judd, the sublime was a collaborative condition between an object-reality and our own perceptual desires. (See the trim, dense lyricism of a 1972 shelf, made from anodized aluminum and galvanized iron, that’s hanging in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.) The gunsheds in their entirety — buildings, windows, landscape, light, boxes — comprise an art in which each aspect exists in a calibrated but changing relation to every other. Judd once said to a group of students: “Everything happens together and exists together.” The boxes change. Their surfaces and spaces are washed or scoured or befogged by whatever quality of light is falling on them, and that same light strikes and shines the stone floor, and light bounced off one box ghosts over other boxes. And because of the desert’s ambient temperature, which from noon to midnight can vary more than 30 degrees (there’s as yet no temperature control in the sheds), the aluminum expands and contracts. A former Judd assistant who showed me around said that when the extreme heat cools, the restless molecules can sound like rain falling on the roof. There’s visual evidence, too: some of the boxes have walked a little — you can see where one corner over the course of time has crept six inches.

Until I experienced 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, Judd’s work felt remote to me and I felt indifferent to it. No more. The act of the form-finding mind to create more complex and harmonious and complete fields of relatedness, fields that are also overwhelming pleasure-givers — that act is passionately human and immediate. The sheds are such fields: the mind centers itself on the unity and the continuity of landscape, industrial fabrication (of buildings and boxes both), and Judd’s ratio-driven imagination. Look at the boxes and you see, beyond and upon them, the greasewood, goathead, sagebrush, prickly pear, and desiccated terrain stretching beyond the walls. All these actions and relations stir up a terrific unworldliness totally in and of the world.

Judd first thought to install his aluminum blocks in the empty Marfa Wool & Mohair Building in the center of town, but that space became instead a site — the best I’ve ever seen — for John Chamberlain’s sculptures. Chamberlain (who died last December) is best known for his work constructed of automobile scrap metal. He scavenged fenders, tail-light assemblies, radiators, bumpers, dashboards, and other stuff, put the pieces in a compactor, crunched them to an appropriate dimension (he could control the pressure) then cut or used them whole, tack-welding while he explored the composition. His raucous, industrial flora shouldn’t be as lyrical as they most certainly are. They have Walt Whitman’s rousing energy (as Judd has Emily Dickinson’s rhapsodic severity), and they are magically light, partly because of the way he worked the surfaces: he left the original paint job intact, or scraped and sanded it, or painted over it with a runny, splashy enthusiasm.

In John Chamberlain’s various works (1972–1983), the sexuality is muscular, liberated, jaunty, and nonstop.

In John Chamberlain’s various works (1972–1983), the sexuality is muscular, liberated, jaunty, and nonstop.

Considering their congested volume, the 22 pieces, made between 1972 and 1975, have incredible speed and brevity. They’re built on a human-ish scale, even the regal reliefs on the walls, and they look vaguely “of use,” like the original machines their materials derive from. Consistent with Judd’s aspirations regarding everything, Chamberlain’s works are positioned and spaced in the hangar-like interior at measured intervals, and their forms are modulated by the actions of available light. Nearly every piece — restlessness and physicality never looked so desirable — stand on dainty feet where scrap corners touch the floor.

Chamblerlain was literary and loved giving his work crazy titles. The Marfa installation contains two “gondolas” (as he called them), low-built, long-framed, constructions that stretch Chamberlain’s more usual spheroid bunchings. One gondola, William Carlos Williams, looks seaworthy and anxious to be splashed. It’s a visual equivalent of idiomatic speech turned into a poetic vernacular. The other gondola, Ezra Pound, reminds you of Pound’s poetry: it looks like something broken — a toboggan, maybe, or bed-frame — with messy, sharp edges and barely coherent relations of part to part. Williams believed all poetry could be reduced somehow to sex. Chamberlain, too, had his own ideas about that. In Marfa, you see realized what he said about his work, that it all came out of “sexual and intuitive thinking,” and that “the sexual decisions come with the fitting of the parts.” The sexuality is muscular, liberated, jaunty, and nonstop. The ten-year-old tourist I chatted with, however, had none of that in mind. When I asked what he liked about Chamberlain, he said: “I like how you know how old the car is by its color.” ■

For information about Donald Judd and John Chamberlain: chinati.org; for information on Marfa: marfacc.com.

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Sounds pretty trendy to me, even if remotish.

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