Marfa is a State of Mind. Art Mecca Step 2: Imagine

Marfa is a State of Mind. Art Mecca Step 2: Imagine

Marfa’s big economies have been cattle ranching, war and art. Fort DA Russell’s closure after the Second World War, followed by a devastating drought in the 1950’s, took their toll and the town had a rough spell. Many credit its revitalization to Judd’s investment in the place and that of his legacy foundations (the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation), and the concomitant adaptive re-use of old buildings whose drivers were no more.

The result of these different socio-economic forces — pioneer ranching, military industry, abandonment, drought, and now art installed in repurposed buildings — is visible in Marfa’s aesthetic. Second Empire courthouse meets industrial shed, with a lot of spare and simple adobe structures in between. The result is sparse and humble: a mix of industrial maker spaces and optimistic civic gestures, desert expanses connecting the amenities housed within. 


Photos by Bruce Damonte. Second from top, Molly Thomas.

While landscape is deeply embedded in the experience of wander, adaptive re-use is integral to imagining the possibilities in Marfa. Getting to know this town through art is also about knowing its myriad past and present, the people who’ve come through, those who’ve stayed and made it theirs, and the buildings ­— like an old army fort originally constructed to control the turmoil brewing at the border during the the Mexican revolution and then used to house German prisoners of war after World War II — hold these histories and cultural underpinnings.

To find out what’s happening in Marfa you have to talk to people, notice the details, take paths and open doors that may lead to nowhere but may land you somewhere great. It’s a testing-things-out mindset that reminds me of my post-free-write, wonderfully shitty draft phase of writing. In Marfa, you need to use your imagination, much like Judd must have when he touched down here and took stock of the buildings he might inhabit. 

What could possibly be happening in here? Photo by Bruce Damonte

My friend Alison using her imagination: what is behind door #3? Note the “Judd” sign in the background. The Judd Foundation’s holdings throughout town are low-key and ubiquitous. Photo by Molly Thomas.

Judd’s take on architecture, from what I understand, was rooted in minimalism and re-use. Apparently he didn’t like the word “minimalism” and so I use it in the architectural sense: form from function, beauty in usefulness, the qualities of space determined by proportion, scale and light, and simplicity. Judd must have recognized the value (beyond the cost efficiencies), in re-using the old buildings of Marfa, much of them spare and simple, concrete or adobe structures with high ceilings and good light, well-suited for a new kind of fabrication. Over the years, he purchased a number of buildings throughout town, turning an old bank into an architecture studio, a Safeway into a place for fabrication and prototyping, houses into galleries, and of course a military fort into a world class art museum. In all, the Judd Foundation now holds and maintains 15 spaces throughout town that display his art collection, the work of fellow artists, his libraries and living quarters. All of this re-use seems to have been done quietly, revealing a sensibility, which, aside from its environmental merits (sometimes the most sustainable thing to do is build nothing at all, right?), is about imagining how you might make the best with what already exists, built and un-built, touching lightly on the land.

Whereas some cities might be understood through the lenses of platted out real estate development master plans (Savannah, Philadelphia) or through military history (Charleston, St. Peters) or Cow Paths (Boston, Providence), I wonder if modern day Marfa might be understood through the lens of creative re-use — a sort of anti-Bilbao Bilbao effect with the same catalytic, arguably more contextually and culturally appropriate result: economic solvency through art. Were Judd’s adaptive re-uses the appropriate response to respecting and advancing the unique and existing qualities of Marfa, despite intentionality? From an outsider’s perspective, the place doesn’t appear to be dominated by art, a good thing I think, and yet its influence is apparent in the highly curated “found” moments, such as the Food Shark Museum of Electronic Wonders and & Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour, which would seem contrived anywhere else, but somehow feels “of” Marfa. 

Whether it’s a contemporary art museum or a grilled cheese shop, Marfa’s creative re-use aesthetic seems both highly curated and ad-hoc. With art or artistry layered into existing, humble structures, these “found” spots feel authentically Marfa.  Photos by Bruce Damonte.

The Chinati is perhaps the most obvious example of successful creative re-use in Marfa. Located on 340 acres of a former army base, the museum houses the permanent installations of contemporary artists like Dan Flavin, John Wesley, John Chamberlin, Roni Horn, Carl Andre, in dedicated barracks of their own. The concrete artillery sheds, which house Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986, were originally built between 1936-1938. Judd artistically transformed them (one might argue that these sheds are his largest “installations”) by doubling their heights with vaulted roofs in galvanized iron; the heights of the curves are the same as the heights of the base buildings, creating a beautiful symmetry. He thought there was no pulling apart the architecture from the art from the landscape. It was all one experience. Art should be experienced in its installed place. In his own words, “The buildings, purchased in '79, and the works of art that they contain were planned together as much as possible. The size and nature of the buildings were given. This determined the size and the scale of the works. This then determined that there be continuous windows and the size of their divisions.” 

"Art and architecture — all the arts — do not have to exist in isolation, as they do now. This fault is very much a key to the present society. Architecture is nearly gone, but it, art, all the arts, in fact all parts of society, have to be rejoined, and joined more than they have ever been." –Donald Judd, 1986. Photos by Bruce Damonte

Read “Art Mecca Step 1: Wander,” here 
Read “Art Mecca Step 3: Immerse,” here