Marfa’s Two-Step: The Uneasy Landscape of Minimalist Heaven

James Evans, "Prada Marfa," 2005. Courtesy Ballroom Marfa Shop.
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I was lured by the promise of a sepia-tinged ideal: west Texas golden hours and wide-open spaces. A visit to Marfa had long been on my bucket list, though admittedly I booked my ticket with little more than a rough idea of the town beyond its abundance of Judds, Chamberlains, and of course Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa (2005).

What I was not expecting was a town that, in its maximalist approach to celebrating Minimalism, underscores many of the acute disparities of our present political and economic moment. Marfa, as a concept as much as a physical site, stages the cultural cleft between the jet-set “haves” and locally bound “have-nots”.

Concrete work by Donald Judd at Cinati Foundation, Marfa.

The town’s charms consolidate around a yin and yang of two primary attractions: the preservation of Donald Judd’s presence and the promised absence of anyone else. This contrast tinges the town with an aura of pilgrimage, which is thickened by its relative remoteness. With the nearest city about three hours away, Marfa’s location presents a gauntlet for would-be visitors. If Marfa is Minimalist heaven, it seems unlikely that its patron saint, the famously prickly Donald Judd, would suffer the presence of devotees by convenience.

Our plan was to fly to Ciudad Juarez and cross to El Paso by car before driving the final leg of the journey. Waiting in line at the border, sheltered from the sweltering desert heat by rental car aircon, we were informed by a wispy newspaper vendor that the Bridge of the Americas was closed due to the arrival of a migrant caravan, and that a military convoy was being deployed. The appearance of Mexican Marines made it clear that this bridge would be hopeless for the foreseeable future. Best to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

The wait at the next bridge was punctuated by rolling down the window for the occasional furnace blast of updates from other newspaper vendors, and checking the El Paso Border Patrol’s Twitter account for news. Every so often a car would give up and reverse centimeter by centimeter out of traffic by jumping the curb over the sidewalk, causing a small wave of fellow defeatists to follow, squeezing their way out in impatient solidarity. When we arrived, finally, at the inspection station, a butch border patrol officer lamented the wait while checking our passports and visas. Sympathetically, she explained that a few days earlier she had taken her elderly uncle to a medical appointment in Juarez, and, on her way back, had been stuck for hours because of another caravan. Her frustration broke the performative barrier of deputized authority and built a sort of camaraderie of common privilege; despite the inconvenience we, at least, were free to move across national lines. But the question lingered: what was happening at the other bridge?

On the US side of the border we sped along the Rio Grande as the spent day flamed out into the blackest, starriest sky in the US. The sputtering neon glow of a lone highway gas station signaled that we had, at last, arrived.

***

The Chinati Foundation and The Judd Foundation are the twin engines of the town’s essentially Judd-based economy. In 1968 Donald Judd began to acquire a number of properties in Marfa, including three ranches and a total of 90,000 square feet in and around the tiny downtown. Eventually these holdings were all consolidated under the umbrella of the Judd Foundation. Judd used each of these buildings for contemplative reflection toward its own singular purpose. The Block, a former military property, was his personal residence, library, and where he contemplated his own finished mature works from a number of self-designed day beds. At the old bank, he contemplated architectural projects as well as his collection of art and design pieces. A nearby single-family home was allotted for him to digest his university-era paintings, and a former grocery store at the end of the block to consider materials for his new works. At each property everything is left as though the artist had just stepped out, which isn’t far from the truth, given his sudden succumbing to undetected cancer. Read as a whole, Judd’s real estate portfolio amounts to an indisputably dominant presence in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town.

Elmgreen and Dragset, “Prada Marfa,” 2005.

The nearby Chinati Foundation is a multi-building museum in a former military base, which Judd established with funds from the Dia Foundation for the purpose of commissioning and exhibiting large-scale artworks. Judd himself repurposed the existing military structures to suit his idea of what constituted ideal art viewing conditions. Six large neon works by Judd’s best friend (and his son’s namesake) Dan Flavin each have their own U-shaped edifice. A conceptual installation of a fictional abandoned Soviet-era schoolhouse by Ilya Kabakov is installed in a former barracks. Typewriter works by Carl Andre have their own building, as do delicate crosshatch pencil drawings by Ongólfur Arnarson. Oldenburg’s outdoor Monument to the Last Horse (1991) manages to merge Western equestrian and socialist imagery. Robert Irwin’s architectural-scale scrim installation merits its own new construction. A sculpture of two massively dense copper forms by then-emerging artist Roni Horn, in a building so small visitors can only enter five at a time, represents the only work by a woman on permanent display.

Yet amid all this high formalism in allegedly ideal settings, borders and internment remained an insistent shadow. Judd modified the two large ex-artillery sheds with domed ceilings and broad windows to frame his hundred aluminum boxes with a vast landscape and shifting light. A dedicated conservationist, he left a German notice painted on the wall above the works, which translates to “It’s better to use your head than lose your head.” The sign is a relic of the space’s former purpose; During WWII it housed German POWs captured in North Africa, owing to a quirk in the Geneva Accords of 1929 recommending that prisoners of war be held in a climate similar to where they were captured. Discussing WWII internment camps unsurprisingly triggered associations with the present crisis along the US’s southern border. Our guide mentioned that a border patrol helicopter had touched down across the street from the Chinati property a few weeks prior, with a group of undocumented people under arrest. “People here feel terrible. Sure, this part of the country is Trump territory. But folks wanted a secure border, not this.” He sighed.

Judd’s perfectly machined boxes of course haven’t changed. But standing in front of them, I wondered how our reception is mutating now that the landscape where they’re set has become emblematic as a site of suffering from the militarized implementation of cruel foreign policy. If Marfa is Minimalism’s mecca, how does the social context surrounding this holy spot of untitled rectilinear forms shift our understanding of the ideas that Minimalism offers? With only one woman and no artists of color featured in Judd’s curated view, which of his tenants square with reality today?

***

After days of looping hermeneutic voyeurism, it was a refreshing relief to experience work that engaged more directly with our time. Ballroom Marfa has been curating contemporary exhibitions and commissioning large-scale public works since 2003. Elmgreen and Dragset’s iconic Prada Marfa, located in the neighboring town Valentine, was their first major commission. Stone Circle (2018) by Haroon Mirza is their latest large-scale project. On the night of a full moon, the riff on Neolithic stone circles produces light and sound from energy collected by solar panels built into massive black marble boulders. Set in the isolated, open desert, by day the piece’s evident potentiality gives it a mysterious ritualistic quality. Its enigmatic incongruity with the surroundings reflects the privileged improbability of our own touristic presence.

Haroon Mirza, “Stone Circle,” 2018.

At Ballroom Marfa’s gallery space, the exhibition Candelilla, Coatlicue and the breathing machine brought together works by Beatriz Cortez, Candice Lin, and Fernando Palma Rodríguez, bound by a curatorial gesture to invoke a psychedelic futuristic imagining of the region, grounded in Indigenous and natural histories.

Beatriz Cortez, “Shields,” 2019. Installation view. Courtesy the artist, Ballroom Marfa, and Commonwealth and Council.

Palma Rodríguez’s robotic pieces animate Nahuatl folklore with herky-jerky Hal-like otherness. They seem to relate, consciousness to consciousness with Cortez’s The Infinite Mixture of All Thing Past, Present and Future (2019) robotic plant sculpture and mirror-mosaic fortune teller The Untimely Conversation box (2015). On the latter, I pressed a button upon a mirrored apparatus and it printed a small receipt with a new-agey phrase: “Life is all about entanglements. La vida es sobre enredos.” I pushed it again: “Life is cosmic energy, simultaneously empty chaos and absolute speed or movement. La vida es energia cosmica, simultaneamente caos vacio y velocidad o movimiento absolutos.” Both slips cheekily directed me to her artist website. In the back room, On the back of syphilis mountain, candelilla grows (2019), Candice Lin’s installation of a desert acid-trip horror scene animates her research into the plant candelilla (euphorbia antisyphilitica), named for its purported anti-venereal disease properties. Featuring a wax body melted into an eerie adobe landscape, the piece connects the biopolitics of illness, remedy, and otherness in the border area.

The robo-psychodelic-Indigenous-dystopian aesthetic that the show looked to cultivate felt more novel than urgent. No doubt the local context – wealthy tourists and casual-chic airstream ambience – contributed to it all feeling slightly off. This begged the question: when you want to root for a work, how much can you discount its surroundings to arrive at the desired read?

***

When Judd bought his first property in Marfa, it was a sparsely populated town with a number of vacant buildings available on the cheap: ideal working conditions for a famously shy artist looking to escape the cynicism and frippery of New York’s art scene. Isolated as it is, Marfan industry is dominated by services that cater in one way or another to art-related tourism, nearly all of which can trace a lineage back to Judd. The artist remains the town’s primary industry, even after his death.

Among the local upstarts are Inde Jacobs, a secondary market gallery specializing in work by artists shown at the Chinati foundation, and contemporary gallery Eugene Binder, which we never actually managed to enter due to its observance of the local custom of highly eccentric opening hours. The cryptic Ayn Foundation, located between Marfa and New York has shown a “temporary” presentation of Andy Warhol’s black-and-white large-format last supper paintings in Texas since 2005. As of 2019 Marfa Invitational joined a new breed of art fairs based on an experience-driven approach to luxury retail.

The town is so small that residents greet each other in the street with nostalgia-provoking frequency. Even as tourists we soon encountered the same faces again and again on similar sightseeing circuits, making us feel like short-term locals. But it’s not all rose-colored sunsets reflected in tidy aluminum boxes. As in so many cities, gentrification caused by the vacation rental market has fueled real estate speculation; the resulting spikes in property values and a new adobe property tax have raised cost of living and made it difficult to eke out a comfortable existence.

“Creative placemaking” or “creative reuse” as the National Endowment for the Arts and property developers have termed this kind of urban strategy, is essentially gentrification’s elevator pitch. Its focus on economic value creation fails to account for the violence that communities suffer when they are split by displacement, often occurring largely along racial lines. Remote as Marfa is, its close proximity to Mexico means that the town’s population is 44% Latino, yet the town’s economy and services are largely oriented toward a wealthy and predominantly white tourist population. This mismatch has real, if unintended, effects for community members. “They call it the Marfa two-step, few jobs here are full-time so everyone has to cobble a living together from multiple part time jobs or seasonal work,” said our guide at Chinati. “People burn out and have a tendency not to stay more than a few years.” The cleft between “new here” and “grew here” grows ever wider.

***

We’re standing in a vacant lot near the edge of town with artist Matt Scobey who is showing us his work, small stacked marble and resin forms glowing in the slanted afternoon light atop cast-earth pedestals wedged between chaparral scrub plants. The lot slopes gently down and beyond the sculptures a handful of rambling houses give way to a wide-open landscape that even the hardest heart would struggle to ignore. He’s playing with ideas relating form, materiality, and nature, all of which clearly nod to Judd.

Scobey explains that he’s hustling a Marfa four-step: working at the Chinati Foundation, studying to work at the Judd Foundation, and juggling occasional work for a gallery in town, and projects for various vacation rental hosts. Marfa suits him because he has freedom to focus on his work, and access to interesting people with rigorous practices. It’s not easy making ends meet, but with grit and resourcefulness the town affords certain luxuries, like this lot of land that he can use as a laboratory to test his ideas.

Installation by Matt Scoby, 2019.

We talk about the political climate and I mention a strangely cute blimp that we saw when we were driving into town. He explains that it’s known locally as a “spy balloon” – part of the Tethered Arostat Radar System (TARS), a network of six radar blimps watching over the entire southern US Border. Again, that nagging shadow.

In 2019 Marfa strikes me as a solarized portrait of itself in which lights and darks are reversed; an uncanny reading of a once-familiar scene. The haunting, sparsely populated landscape that once served as clear backdrop to Judd and his exercises in high Minimalism is now pushing forward – vying to become the central protagonist. The resulting battle for foreground may very well cast the strongest critical reading yet of the legacy of Minimalism and its mecca.

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