Immortality, art, and tilting at windmills at the Chinati Foundation, America’s most impossible museum.
First we are told there will be no water here, in the middle of this particular South Texas desert nowhere, one town over from the Cowboy Poetry Festival, in a room whose walls are the same white as the Guggenheim’s. It’s the first of many dislocations we will experience in the middle of a town named after a Jules Verne character, where we have come to witness the impossible made real, to finish a pilgrimage that has taken all of us an eight-hour drive from the nearest city. Welcome to Marfa, Texas, population 2,200, home to the Chinati Foundation’s collection of minimalist and conceptual art, housed in the former Fort D.A. Russell.
Marfa’s magic is the kind created by the badass wizards of yore, the level fifty mages with eighteen intelligence and an extra D6 of charisma. Marfa’s wizard was named Donald Judd, who gained art world mega stardom with works that used simple shapes to explore form, space and context. After abandoning painting in the 60s, Judd — as everyone refers to him here — embraced a new form that he simply called “three dimensional work,” minimalist pieces that eschewed representation, that were the thing itself rather than a evocation of an object or emotional state. He even refused to call his work sculptures, as the term referenced a European figurative tradition that he wanted to upend.
As a young man, Judd was stationed at Fort D.A. Russell, the military base that gave Marfa its sense of purpose in the 1940s. The Fort began as a pilot training ground before becoming a work camp for German Prisoners of War, whose graffiti and cartoons still survive in some of its buildings. When Judd tired of New York’s art scene and built the kind of money and reputation that allows eccentric wizards to do whatever they want, he made Marfa his personal and artistic home. With the help of the Dia Foundation, he purchased the now-decommissioned Fort and established a foundation here, called Chinati, after the nearby hot springs. Since then, Chinati has repurposed the buildings in the fort to serve as showcases for minimalist and conceptual artists. Together with the Donald Judd Foundation, which manages tours of Judd’s home and studios, Chinati channels the magic spell of Marfa, transforming this small city through art tourism.
Chinati can only be viewed by guided tour, which is free for residents of Marfa, and will set pilgrims back a cool eight dollars. The tour meets in the gift shop, where vertical stacks books and magazines and The Collected Writings of Donald Judd sit at exact right angles to the edges of their tables. We are a loose crowd of mostly strangers, leafing casually through deluxe hardcover catalogs, waiting for the magic to start.
I am holding hands with my fiancé, Anne. We are in the middle of driving across the country from Brooklyn to Portland with our intrepid beagle, Ramona, who is back at the hotel. With us is Rob, a photographer from Oakland we met at a coffee house in the back of a laundromat just that morning. Rob is also driving across the country, fleeing a painful divorce. His tan skin stretches taut around his face; he looks like a handsome, long-limbed skeleton, an effect heightened by his buzz cut and dagger smile. He speaks the language of the newly-singled, stumbling to replace we with I, gravitating towards discussions of sex, highlighting each experience rendered newly possible. Marfa isn’t a decade-old dream to Rob. Instead, it’s a newborn glimmer. “I just heard about this place a day or two ago and decided, fuck it! I’m going to go!”
Learning all of this, Rob’s name, life story, what he looks forward to, his love of dogs and bitter divorce, takes less than thirty minutes. This is the nature of a pilgrimage. An instant intimacy arises out of the common cause. We’re already sharing an experience we’ve traveled hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles to get to. Who has time to bother with things like privacy? We’re fellows in arms. The life story cements the bond. We’ve known this at least as far back as Chaucer.
Also in the room with us are a terrifyingly attractive couple from Berlin sporting low-slung jeans and designer sunglasses. The man has a shaved chest and sculpted stubble. His blond, American girlfriend is so thin and so strong-looking that her bones might be laced with Adamantium. There’s a photographer named Glenn, a pushy, charming New Yorker who lives three blocks in Williamsburg and resembles a stylishly dressed bowling pin. Wandering the bookstore are a large man in late middle-age with his college aged son. The man is old-school Chicago; heavy, brash, funny, opinionated, with cigars for fingers and a broad trumpet of a voice. His son — dressed in a backwards white cap and baggy athletic shorts — tags along for the male bonding.
There’s also a gaggle of older women, all possessed of a sexy, red wine in the afternoon grace. They are there as a group. Two of them have smokey, vaguely European accents. There are hints that they’re all wealthy divorcees. Rob starts flirting with them immediately.
We are divided into two groups. Rob gets shunted into a group led by a freckled red-head. We get Emma, a poet whose voice betrays a Midwestern fear of claiming too much, a wry smile undercutting all of the Serious Art Talk. Our group is comprised of Anne, myself, half of the older women, Glenn, the beautiful Berliners and Chicago and Son.
Emma reminds us that there will be no water. Not on the morning tour. But we can bring water in the afternoon, so long as we leave it outside of each outbuilding we visit. The reasons for this are never explained. We all gulp our soon to be forbidden agua while Emma informs us that the core values of the Chinati Foundation are artistic intent and conservation.
“In fact,” she says, “if you turn to the left, you will see a series of concrete cubes dotting the perimeter of the property. Judd built those specifically to go here. We won’t be covering them on the tour, as they’re about a quarter mile away, but you can see them yourself when we’re done. As they stay exposed to the elements, conservation is quite a challenge. We just finished repainting them so that they look like they did when they were first installed.”
I wonder to myself if a repainted work of art is really the same work of art while Emma fills us in on the history of Fort D.A. Russell. When Judd died, the Foundation only showcased a few artists here. As Chinati reclaimed more buildings from history’s scrap heap, the stable of artists increased.
Chicago Dad asks again if this is what Judd would have wanted, and Emma answers in the affirmative, her voice curt enough to signal that this question will always be answered yes.
We start the tour in earnest with School No. 6 by the Russian artist Ilya Kabalov. Emma tells us that what started as one of DA Russell’s many u-shaped bunkers has become, in Kabalov’s hands, a mock-decrepit Leninist elementary school. Standing outside the building, she warns us that everything in the room, including the dust on the benches and the balled up paper on the floor, is intentional.
She pauses and smiles, “There are kinda obvious paths through the debris that you can take.” As we enter, she takes up a sentry position at the entrance, making sure the visual cacophony remains unsullied.
Inside, broken bookcases vomit their contents onto the floor. Shattered display cases stand in a frozen tango with bent, unplayable musical instruments. Propaganda posters cling for dear life to the sickening green walls. The intentional dust is everywhere. Emma is right, however, there are clear pathways through the space, marked by crumpled pieces of decaying paper. We Hansel and Gretel our way through School No. 6, taking non-flash photos of the Cyrillic lesson plans, trumpets, action figures and faded certificates of merit. We even photograph the dust.
I sneak over to Emma and introduce myself. I explain that I used to work in theatre, and that School No. 6 seems, to me, like set design. “Any set designer could tell you how to affix dust to a bench so it looks good but will keep its shape. Why didn’t Kabalov do that here?”
“I’ll tell you the truth,” she replies, “When Kabalov first installed the School, his intent was to let it decay further. It was a ruined building, so he wanted it to degrade and collapse, to be impermanent.”
“Well, ten years after he constructed it, we sent him photographs of what it looked like and he freaked out a little and had a change of heart. He told us that his intent had changed and now we had to start conserving it. The building as you see it wasn’t designed for conservation. We had to figure out a way to conserve it ten years after its construction.”
“That’s, uh — “
It is, indeed, uh. Chinati, we will come to learn, is a temple devoted to Things That Make You Go Uh.
The uhness derives from Chinati answering every thorny question about art with “The Artist.” Whose intent matters? The Artist. Who controls a work of art and its context? The Artist. Who is art made for? The Artist. Whose opinion of the art matters? You guessed it. Virtually nowhere else on Earth is so dedicated to the idea of artistic control. At the MoMA, for example, curators arrange and rearrange the art. It is not Picasso’s intent to have his work displayed around the corner from Kara Walker’s. To a museum that operates the way the MoMA does, such a concern would be ludicrous. At Chinati, this concern is fundamental. Only the artists are curated, the rest is up to them.
Perhaps this is why, should you tour Chinati, you will come to feel like a trespasser rather than a customer. This goes beyond the constant warning not to touch any of the tantalizing surfaces or the arbitrary rules about water bottles. The viewer is extraneous here. Chinati does not cater to its customers, it caters to its artists and to a vision of conservation whose end goal is art that will live forever. If no one came to visit, the foundation’s employees would be viewer enough.
There is something both noble and absurd about this. After all, if art conservation is so important to your museum, sticking it in the middle of the desert in a series of non-climate controlled buildings so long abandoned they could double as the setting of a horror movie is an odd way to go about it. Yet the relentless devotion to their quixotic goal makes the place loveable, in the same way your crank uncle is loveable, even if you occasionally roll your eyes at the things he says. If Chinati had a sense of humor about itself, it wouldn’t be so beguiling. The absurdity is part of the wizard’s spell.
As our morning walk from building to building continues my head swims, overcome by the combination of art and setting, of cold genius, harsh terrain, and my awe at the will it took to envision and build the place. Before we’re even halfway through the tour, I whisper to Anne, “I can’t wait to come back some day. This place, it’s incredible.”
The highlight of the morning’s tour is a converted hanger filled with one hundred milled aluminum boxes designed by Judd himself. Each box’s outer dimensions are the same — 41 x 51 x 72 inches, if you’re keeping score at home — but the inside of each is unique. One of them is an empty frame. Some of them have another milled aluminum slat at a 45 degree angle joining two of the exterior sides in different places, or multiple interior shelves creating mind-bending forced perspectives. Some of them are partially closed off by aluminum walls.
The aluminum boxes stand at attention in carefully organized rows, equidistant from their neighbors, a regiment awaiting orders. The piece’s title, 100 Untitled Works in Milled Aluminum, points to the triple nature of the work, which is made up of each individual box, the whole phalanx of boxes, and the entire hanger, whose roof Judd replaced as part of a renovation to make it the perfect home, all at the same time.
The boxes themselves are breathtaking. The milling has transformed the metal into such a delicate substance that the sun interacts with it. Depending on the angle of the eye the boxes appear silver or shimmer like glass. When I crouch to view one straight on it disappears, only a faint, inverted reflection reminding you that it exists.
The trickster metal beckons. Touch me, it whispers. You know you want to. Emma tells us that, in a rare sop to viewer pleasure, Chinati has provided a piece of milled aluminum for us to rapturously molest on our way through the hanger.
The quantity of boxes is the key to the work’s genius. One of Judd’s boxes would be an awkward bench crafted as a public art scheme by a local community board. A hundred of them creates a relational dynamic that makes each individual one more interesting. The exhibit is a triumph for Chinati’s core idea: that context matters. That if you discover the correct way to display a work of art, the art is transformed, elevated, bitten by a radioactive spider and turned into something more powerful. Couple this with the conviction that artists might know what that context should be, and you have Chinati at its best.
The two tours combine to finish out the morning. We venture back to town and enter the Marfa Wool and Mohair building, a large room filled with sculptures molded from crushed cars. These are the work of John Chamberlin. A singular Chamberlin feels violent. Taken together, however, they lose their car-ness, somehow. As we walk among them, the Chamberlins begin to look like multi-colored fabric draped on stalagtites or metal postmodern jellyfish floating in the dry Texas heat.
We are overwhelmed, bewildered, art-drunk after only a couple of hours. We break for lunch, which for us pilgrims means felafel or pizza. We choose felafel. In keeping with Marfa’s impossibility, the felafel truck gives me my change in two dollar bills and 50 cent pieces featuring the smirking profile of President Kennedy, may he rest in peace.
After lunch, the tour groups suffer Donner Party losses. Chinati decides to combine our two tours into one. We are now Glenn, Rob, Anne, myself, Chicago and Son, the older women and a writer named Sarah. Sarah is in Marfa finishing up as-told-to-ing the memoir of an 80s sitcom star who is famous for the catchphrase that bears his character’s name, his sexual exploits, his time spent dealing drugs, and a stint in prison barely avoided thanks to Johnny Cochrane.
Gone is Emma, replaced by the red-haired, freckled intern who led Rob’s group in the morning. We introduce Rob and Glenn. Both photographers, they size each other up, becoming uneasy new friends. Rob shows Glenn the telescoping phallus of his camera. Glenn responds by flashing his iPhone. “This is all the camera I need for this trip.”
Our first stop — six U-shaped barracks transformed into one piece by Dan Flavin — takes up the bulk of the afternoon. Flavin, who died in 1996, was so tight with Judd that one of Judd’s children is named after him. They later had a falling out, as Judd seemed to have had with pretty much everyone, including the town of Marfa itself. Flavin’s Untitled Marfa Project was designed and proposed while both he and Judd were still alive, but completed after both men had shuffled off their mortal coils, which in their cases were likely made from metals that a docent kept anyone from touching.
Flavin made his sculptures out of commercially available fluorescent light tubes and color gels. His sculptures are both the tubes themselves in their arrangement in space and the light cast by the tubes, the color and shapes formed by the placement of lights against a wall. In all six of the barracks, the lights are positioned in the shorter corridor that connects the two halves of the U together. Each wall of light projects two different, deeply saturated colors, one towards the viewer, one away. Which color is which depends on which side you’re on. In order to see each of the six barracks to completion, you must enter one half, walk down to the end of the corridor, look left, walk back, exit, cross a small courtyard, enter at the other side, walk down, look right, walk back, and exit again.
The first couple of bunkers are mysterious and beautiful, and like Judd’s boxes change as you move around them. From afar, all that registers is some colored light tossed against white walls. Step into the walls of color and the tubes become visible, a Technicolor lightsabre armory, glowing with alien sleekness. The light cast by the sculpture changes as well. Up close, the lights cancel certain frequencies out, allow others in. Turning away to look at the white walls again, you will see colors instead of white because your eye’s perception of light has been altered for a short time. Approaching each piece from the other side reveals new colors. What was once purple with a yellow background halo is now yellow with an infinite purple drop-shadow extending behind it.
As we move among the barracks, I ask the Chicago Dad what he thinks of all of this. “Do we really need six of these?” he asks, “I get the fucking point, you know?”
By the end, I sympathize with him. One or two of these barracks is remarkable. Six of them, each of which must be viewed twice over forty five minutes and a quarter of a mile, is a bit wearying. By barrack #3, we all know what’s going to happen next. In response to the repetition, our group stops taking them seriously, and something of the piousness of the pilgrimage begins to leak away. Anne and I pose for photos in the verdant greens and blinding reds. Glenn uses his portrait-photorapher’s patter to get us to give him the perfect face.
“Anne,” he starts, “how did he propose to you?” Before she can answer, he fires off the next question, “Isaac, what do you love most about her?” It works. He summons the natural, sincere smile out of us in the midst of all this high art cool.
The last hanger finally provides a moment of surprise as one side reveals a soft, fleshy pink instead of the sci-fi blues, deep purples and post-it yellows of the other hangers. There’s a short intake of air, a gasp that comes when each person sees it.
Next, we wander to a small house to look at the work of Ingolfur Arnarsson. The tour guide stops us before going in to tell us that Arnarsson was a resident artist at Chinati, but Judd so liked his work that his series of graphite works on paper became part of the permanent collection. She recounts this story with reverence and awe, preparing us to be amazed.
Inside, we discover that the “series of graphite works on paper” are identical, untitled squares of white that someone has rubbed with the side of a pencil until they are coated with a whisper of grey. I force myself to look at each one, expecting a significance to be revealed to me. It never happens.
Outside, Chicago Dad is furious. His whole body turns beet red. “But this is… this is,” we all hold our breath as he searches for the word, “bullshit! This is bullshit. I mean, I admire Judd, you know? You got to admire the balls of someone who sticks a bunch of art in the middle of the desert and says, `I don’t give a fuck if you come and see it’. But this? And the lights? What the — I mean — what is this?”
Fifteen minutes later, Anne tell ms that the father-son duo have wandered off the tour. We never see them again.
Not that there aren’t further highlights to the day. A series of poems by Carl Andre presented under glass are delightful. One of them contains instructions for three people to perform the poem with a mixture of unison, over-lapping text and hand-claps. Rob, Anne and I attempt it with hilarious results. Glenn looks on, demuring when I ask him if wants to join in. One building contains bona-fide representational paintings by John Wesley. Amidst all the sculptures and more conceptual pieces, these dozen paintings in a comic-book style feel like a cool drink of water.
Rob also makes a pass at our tour guide. “I bet you guys all get together after work and get drinks and tell stories about the crazy people you have on your tours.” She doesn’t so much rebuff him as completely miss that she’s being asked out, replying that it’s her fourth day and as far as she knows, the interns lead solitary lives.
The day ends with us wandering around the Judd sculptures that dot the perimeter of the Chinati property. These are the concrete ones that were being painted earlier to resemble their original shades of taupe and beige. Like most of Chinati, these works exist in the realm of pure experience. It’s an odd paradox that objects so concrete — so concrete that they are made of concrete — can be so elusive at the same time. There is nothing to wrap your mind around, no interpretations to be made, yet you want to keep staring at them.
As we walk to the car, I think that there’s little I fear more than not knowing, and here Donald Judd went and built a temple to it. Building after building filled with space and objects that interact with space, people hired to serve things instead of the other way around, the unknown reflecting off every bit of polished aluminum, written in courier on dozens of pieces of paper, sculpted into copper tubes, shining from fluorescent lights.
After the tour, Anne and Glenn and Rob and I all agree to meet up for dinner at Blue Javelina. We meet Rob at the fountain outside of our hotel, where he regales us with his failed attempts to hook up with any of the wealthy, older (but super hot!) ladies on our tour.
“I don’t get it, man,” he says. “They’re all single. I’m reasonably good looking. We drank some wine. I put it out there. I think they couldn’t get beyond that whole `old enough to be my mother’ thing.”
“Are they really old enough to be your mother?” Anne asks.
“Honestly,” Rob says, grinning, “I have no idea.”
We are the only ones present at Blue Javelina, a converted filling station on San Antonio Street that serves American Creative cuisine at New York Prices. Glenn and I remark on how everything in Marfa seems to be sold at New York Prices. Glenn and I — two pushy, opinionated Jews — trade tips on the best places to eat, the best places to drink, the best places to do whatever it is that you want to do within the 212 and 718 area codes. Rob keeps looking down and shaking his head. “The way you guys talk, it’s hysterical.”
The waitress shows up with our chickpea fries and asks if we could help her. “I have this apartment? I own an apartment here in town. And I want to rent it out, to tourists who come. So could I, like, describe it to you? And tell you my price? And you could tell me if it’s reasonable or not?”
She describes the apartment. It’s a large one bedroom, with both living and dining rooms. Fully functional kitchen, and it’s furnished. Pets are okay. It sounds lovely, and at sixty-five bucks a night, it’s cheaper than our hotel. We try to convince her that she could get more for it, she demurs, saying she doesn’t want to be greedy and asking if she should craigslist her place. Apparently, you can craigslist an apartment in Marfa.
As she leaves, I consider the uncomfortable possibility that I am in a tourist trap. Like most tourists I know, I want to be secure in the knowledge that I’m not like those tourists. I want to be the one that blends in, the one who seeks out the little known wet market in the streets of Singapore where gwai lo fear to tread, or shops at the secret book store on the Upper East Side. The waitress’s question shatters this fantasy. We stick out so much that we might as well have been another species. There is nothing special about me. Tomorrow, I’ll be gone, replaced by some other vaguely arty hep-cat with enough time on his hands to drive to what appears to be the surface of Tatooine.
I am not what matters. The art is what matters. For all its absurdities, Chinati was ultimately right about this. The foundation understands something of the nature of pilgrimage that reaches back in time to art’s roots in the religious: Pilgrims do not voyage to the holy land because it needs them. They voyage to the holy land because they need it.
And there is something holy about this place, about the wizard Donald Judd and the spell he cast. Judd backtracked through his autobiography to find the perfect place. There, he built the model environment for his art. He created the no-place, the u-topos, through sheer force of will, and it actually worked.
Nothing is like Marfa. Maybe, sometimes, you can charge the windmill and win.
Now it’s late at night and we’re on Rob’s balcony back at the hotel, our beagle Ramona adding one more to our weary number. Rob’s porch looks out onto the fountained courtyard and has its own fireplace, where a burning synthetic log provides more atmosphere than heat. There is too much alcohol for us to drink and the flickering light of the fire is the only illumination. Rob is so excited to see a dog that he glows like the stars in the light-pollution-free sky above us. Glenn stands, lit by remnants of the fire’s glow, on a ledge that runs behind the fireplace. He looks like a computer rendering of himself. There might be coyotes around.
We’re telling stories, Glenn, Anne and I, as Rob asks questions. Stories of New York, of the smoking day our skyline changed, of the Great Blackout a year later, and the day the island smelled like chocolate. Rob sips his beer. Anne tries to keep things light. Glenn recedes into the darkness, standing next to the fireplace. He looks like he might turn into a hawk at any moment and fly away. Soon, he has grown silent, recused himself from our disclosures. At the end of this day together, I realize I know little about him.
There’s a sadness in the air. It’s the sadness of the lost decade we’re about to finish, the first ten years of what was supposed to be a golden age. It’s the sadness of Rob’s failed marriage. It’s the sadness of the end of a pilgrimage to the middle of the desert, of friends who will soon be abandoned. The day is fading. No art conservators are going to show up with photographs of our easy-going camaraderie and reconstruct it.
Chinati stands in rebellion against this transience. The lust for immortality lurks behind the sculptures forced to never age and the bending of civic, natural and foundational will to the vision of one man. Chinati’s art looks so impersonal because it aspires to something beyond the human, which is another way of saying beyond death. Immortality and humanity were never compatible. In folktales and horror films alike, the moment you live forever is the moment you become a monster.
Tomorrow, Anne and I will load Ramona and our belongings into our car and drive past The Marfa Prada, a fake store situated between two ranches, on our way to Tucson. The Texas sun will color in the tan line on Rob’s finger where his wedding band used to be as he traces our drive in reverse, voyaging to New York to forget an old story and learn a new one. Glenn will also return to New York, where he’ll Facebook us in a couple of days. It will be our last correspondence with one another.
At this moment, however, one of us is looking down into his cerveza and saying, “Anyway. I got to drive in the morning.” As we rise, Ramona perks up and shakes her head, her collar jangling like an alarm clock’s ring. Our time is up. We’re done.
Isaac Butler is a writer living in Brooklyn. He just finished his first book, currently titled The Thousand Natural Shocks: A Father, A Family, A Crisis of Faith.