Marfa, Texas: No Country For Old Boxes
"Can you see anything?"
"Just spots in front of my eyes from all this staring into the dark."
Parked in a lay-by and facing out into the desert, our car was occasionally rocked by trucks racing past on the highway. We covered our eyes to protect them from the dazzle of the headlights. It grew darker until the horizon dissolved and land and sky merged. Tonight it seemed that The Marfa Lights would remain hidden under a bushel. An hour passed before we reluctantly drove back into Marfa.
It was lucky that we hadn't come to this small West Texas town just to see the mysterious lights which, it is said, can be seen flickering on the horizon from a point just outside of the town limits, an unexplained, miniature Aurora Borealis. The two day drive from Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, had taken us across a large swathe of the Lone Star state. The scenery had been monotonous and the heat oppressive. Only 'No Trespassing' signs and barbed wire fences punctuated the endless miles of scrub. But as we approached Marfa we came to the high desert. The air freshened, and the scenery opened out to sweeping, arid grasslands. Raw-boned hills lounged on the horizon. A vast sky ranged overhead.
Marfa had little of the straggling, neon-lit development that we had grown accustomed to on the approaches to the other towns we had passed through. Sober white and pastel stucco buildings lined the broad, empty streets; an elaborate, Italianate confection of a courthouse presided at the town's centre. Founded as a railroad water stop in the 1880s, Marfa seemed a place bypassed by the last half century.
Yet there were signs that this was no ordinary Texan country town. There was a cool, uncluttered bookshop with shelves filled with slab-like art monographs, and a café serving organic coffee that was a far cry from the weak, stewed stuff we'd been served in diners across the state. As we walked around the centre we noticed that many of the immaculately maintained commercial properties didn't seem to house any discernible business. Instead, they had a small card in the window on which the name 'Donald Judd' featured prominently.
This was the real reason that we had come to Marfa. In the early 1970s New York-based artist Donald Judd, looking for a place to create permanent installations of work by him and by artists he admired, had begun to buy up property in this small backwater. By the time of his death in 1994 he owned a significant portion of the town. Since then his legacy has been managed by the Chinati Foundation while Marfa has been colonised by other artists following in his footsteps. They have brought with them new galleries, a small boutique hotel, and art-loving visitors. Celebrities have been spotted in Carmen's, the local diner, eating doughnuts alongside ranchers in ten-gallon hats.
After checking into our motel, we walked down to the largest of Judd's properties, Fort Russell, a former military base on the south side of town with a history stretching back to the days of Pancho Villa. At the office of the Chinati Foundation we booked ourselves onto a guided tour the following day, and then headed across a field that lay in front of the fort, towards what looked like groups of enormous culverts abandoned by a civil engineering project. These huge, square sections of reinforced concrete were one of Judd's permanent installations.
One of the leading figures of the minimalist movement, his work often consisted of simple geometric shapes made from a variety of materials. Most of all, he loved boxes: wooden boxes and metal boxes; boxes painted bright colours and boxes left naked; boxes sociably convened in groups, or boxes sulking on their own; boxes lazing on the floor or marching up the walls. Here in Marfa, with space to burn, he had decided to make the biggest boxes he could.
While his gallery-bound boxes have at times left me cold, as we wandered along the gently arcing paths that had been trodden through the bleached prairie grass between the groups, I warmed to these ones. Quietly monumental, they forced us to concentrate on the stillness of the desert air; as their shadows moved with the sun, we looked up to the dome of the sky above and could almost feel the earth turning beneath our feet.
The following day, still muttering about our failed expedition to see the Marfa Lights the previous evening, we joined the tour. The first stop was a warehouse near the town centre filled with cars scrunched up like giant paper balls, sculptures by John Chamberlain. They brought to mind the grisly fate of James Dean, whose last film, Giant, had been shot in Marfa.
Walking with the tour group, we passed the high adobe wall that surrounded The Block, the compound where Judd had lived and worked in conditions of almost monastic simplicity to the sound of bagpipe music played at full volume. Back at Fort Russell, we were taken to the Arena, an echoing former gymnasium that Judd had kitted out with a small living area tucked into a corner. Outside, there was a barbecue and a hot tub. The fittings and furnishings were of Judd's own design; all right angles and straight lines, they looked heavy, austerely beautiful, and very uncomfortable. The purpose of the building itself was unclear. Was it a giant party room? An enormous bedsit? No one seemed to know.
As I mused on the tendency of successful artists to display the megalomania of Bond villains, setting up sinister sounding foundations and building vast studio complexes of dubious utility, we were led into a series of sheds filled with one stern, cerebral artwork after another. I began to have that nagging sensation I often have around contemporary art: I felt underwhelmed, eager to move on. Surrounded by the magnificent West Texas landscape and anticipating the natural grandeur of our next destination, Big Bend National Park, these artworks seemed pinched things to me, hermetically sealed from their surroundings by a dense web of self-reference and the impenetrable language of art theory.
But then they took us into the artillery sheds.
Long windows ran down both sides of the two long, low buildings. The ragged, threadbare Chinati Mountains could be seen in the distance. One hundred large, rectangular boxes were laid out in even rows. All had exactly the same external dimensions, but were constructed from planes of polished aluminium elaborately arranged, never repeating themselves. The desert sunlight flooded in, setting off chains of reflections; as we moved among them, the boxes appeared to shift and melt and re-form like quicksilver mirages.
Returning to the town centre it became easy to see why Judd had been drawn to Marfa. The town seemed an exercise in pure geometry set against the emptiness of the desert. Buildings formed low, regular shapes against the ever-changing sky; the wide streets and the railway tracks that passed through the centre of town marched towards vanishing points on the horizon. The artist, who had been an argumentative, often cantankerous figure on the New York art scene, had found inspiration living and working in this austere town, and his severe, stripped-down art had found its natural home in the elemental landscapes of West Texas.