If you get off a plane in Houston, Texas and drive nine hours west (think Aberdeen to Cornwall), you will find yourself still in Texas. Specifically, you’ll be in the Chihuahuan desert, in a small town called Marfa. Marfa is probably the only town in the world to have one dollar store, one high school, and two competing internationally-renowned minimalist art foundations. Both, The Chinati Foundation and The Judd Foundation, are centered around minimalist artist Donald Judd.
Much to the confusion of the town’s residents, Judd moved to Marfa in the ‘70s to escape city life and bought the deserted Fort D.A. Russell, filling it with his own pieces and those of his friends, artists John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin. Judd envisioned the space as his personal ‘anti-museum’, installing very site-specific works: his own large, metal cubic pieces, Flavin’s compelling coloured fluorescent corridors, and Chamberlain’s gargantuan sculptures of wadded-up automobile parts. It’s now The Chinati Foundation, the mammoth 340-acre complex that has come to also boast pieces by Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Roni Horn, and multiple others.
With all of its pieces, the foundation continues to focus on Judd’s original goal of creating sculpture inseparably linked with environment. It is this tenant that makes the collection so powerful. As an eager second year art historian I learned all my Judd slides and thought “huh, okay, these are some pretty cool galvanized iron boxes”. It wasn’t until I, like so many before me, made my art lover’s pilgrimage to Marfa that I truly got it. I am now the art lover equivalent of that annoying girl at a party who insists “you just can’t say you don’t like Grateful Dead until you’ve listened to them on vinyl”; don’t knock the giant, minamalist boxes until you see them just like Judd intended: juxtaposed against the sweeping desert and never-ending West-Texas sky, with the Davis and Chinati mountains rising in the distance. The same can be said for American Minimalist Carl Andre’s large installation of flat, equally spaced metal strips or British land artist Richard Long’s mesmerising stone circles on a disused tennis court – photos just don’t capture them as the interplay with their environment is integral. Touring the Chinati is not for the faint-hearted, with a long scheduled march through the many campus buildings in the unforgiving Texas sun. But it is worth the sweaty discomfort to see the stunning collection, meticulously maintained and expanded according to Judd’s specific artistic theories.
No one can visit the Chinati without experiencing the eclectic mix that is the actual town of Marfa. I’d bet money it’s the only small Texas town where you might have to choose between multiple gallery openings, a touring contemporary dance company, and a Bon Iver show at Ballroom Marfa on a Friday night. Honest-to-goodness cowboys and New York socialites lunch next to each other happily in the many trendy coffee shops. The Prada Marfa art installation boasts bullet holes, something I’m sure few public sculptures in London or New York could claim – it’s definitely a place like no other.
Photography – Marian Casey