Marfa, Texas may seem like an odd place for a trip for 45 architects and designers but the small town in the West-Texas desert is something of a dream trip for any lover of modern art. Home to the Chinati and Donald Judd Foundations, the small town is home to some of the greatest examples of the late artist’s work.
Arriving in Marfa I was reminded of the beauty of small towns. Its history was tied most notably to an army base that was active starting in 1911. The town exploded in the 1920’s and is strongly evident in some of the Art Deco details in some of the buildings.
We made our way to the Chinati Foundation to tour the unparalleled collection. Robert Irwin’s “Dusk to Dawn” blew me away. I was so excited to see the work of Donald Judd I wasn’t even thinking about this building. Irwin placed his scrims in black and white around the former Army Hospital. We started in the dark side, walking down the long axis in the dark painted wall flanked by the long black scrim. Upon turning the corner, you’re greeted by a progression that is the closest to a sunrise I’ve ever experienced in a man-made space. Saying it is a nearly religious experience is an understatement. The utter simplicity of the installation combined with the subdued light on the day we visited created an experience second to none.
Among the other artists that dot the Trans-Peco desert in the abandoned barracks is none other than Dan Flavin. His piece, Untitled (Marfa Project) 1996, is made up of six tunnel installations within six adjacent former army barracks. The light tunnels are installed in the central end of the U-shaped barracks allowing the viewer a long view of the most impressive part of any Flavin. His ambient light. The color of the fluorescent tubes alternates between warm and cool tones constantly begging your eyes to adjust to the brilliant colors and always leaving the world looking a different hue as you leave each barrack.
The simple Architecture of the barracks buildings (and frankly all the other buildings) compliment the art perfectly. The fit into the town and the surrounding landscape in a way that doesn’t feel like a military installation.
In the only rotating exhibit, Bridget Riley installed a wall painting that she calls an abstract landscape. Based on the time she spent in Egypt, the colors and lines are reminiscent of the landscape she witnessed there in her visit during the 1980s. She installed this piece in this location due to the similarities between the Trans-Peco desert landscape of Texas and the landscapes in Egypt. It’s amazing how much these horizontal bands of color move you through the space and draw your eye around the corners.
The one part of this trip that I was most excited about was finally getting a chance to see Donald Judd’s “100 Boxes in Milled Aluminum.” The craft and incredible simplicity of this piece blew me away. Judd was one of the first artist to use other craftspeople to help realize his vision. Using a fabricator in Connecticut, he was able to create objects that are a close to perfection as one can get. The pieces are finished just as they came out of the mill. No polishing or protecting has been done. The only piece that had to be replaced after being shipped was one that was accidentally polished.
These boxes are an exercise in simplicity. They are an exploration in a small set of rules that resulted in 100 boxes, set in no particular order fill two former artillery sheds surrounded by the west Texas desert. These pieces have served as a huge source of design inspiration for me and they did not disappoint. This series of boxes was the highlight of the ‘pligrimage’ to this small Texas town.
Another stop was the Chinati Foundation’s collection of John Chamberlain sculptures. Housed in 3 former warehouses that Donald Judd connected for Chamberlain, I noticed something I’ve never seen in any of the works that I’ve see of his before. They appear to float. The pieces appear to effortlessly touch the ground on the smallest of points.
Not far from Marfa is the instagram-famous Prada Marfa. It’s certainly a strange site to see on the side of the two-lane highway. It was a wonderful welcome and goodbye on the way into and out of Marfa.
For anyone who loves design or contemporary art, Marfa is up there as a one of the sites to see at some point in your lifetime. I can only describe it as a pilgrimage because of the nearly religious quality of the art and its legendary status within the art world.