Judd, Flavin, and the origins of the Marfa mythology

From the Domus archive, the light installation with which Dan Flavin consecrated the small Texas town, chosen by minimalist Donald Judd as his residence, to a cult destination for the art world. An escalation in notoriety with not entirely predictable results.

Marfa was a declining, slightly unknown town in the Texas desert when Donald Judd, one of the fathers of minimalism, decided to settle there in the 1970s. The following decades would be marked by a takeoff of its notoriety, to the point of creating a mythology that is also a topic of discussion today. First Judd's activities, then his Chinati foundation and, after his death in 1994, the development of the myth of Marfa as an art city attracting iconic works even in the surrounding territory – Prada Marfa, the fake boutique in the middle of the desert with only right shoes, destined to dissolve but photographed by Beyoncé – have consigned it to contemporaneity as an urban reality that is now also facing problems of excessive price hikes, an art-people-driven gentrification coming from other metropolises in the States. Judd instead had thought about turning his presence into a generator of prosperity and services for Marfa, as well as a catalyst for works and artists. From the 1980s he thought of a large installation entrusted to another big name, Dan Flavin: however, the realization turned out to be very long, and was completed in 1996, after Judd’s death, reaching its inauguration in October 2000. Two months later, Domus presented the installation on the 832 issue, where it would also be elected as the cover image.

Domus 832, December 2000

Marfa, Texas: Judd and Flavin’s dream

Marfa is a long way from anywhere. There is, for a start, the eleven hour trip in a Boeing 747 to Houston to deal with. It is followed by a connecting flight over the empty sand coloured wastes of west Texas to El Paso, and even then, you are still 300 miles away. It is one of the diminishing number of places in the world, which, without actually being positively inaccessible, is much more than a simple plane ride away.

You need a definite reason to go. And that remoteness was one of the attractions for Donald Judd, who established a home there; more than 20 years ago. That, and the light; and the fact that land was cheap. Its still available at less than $100 an acre. El Paso is the rich twin of Ciudad Juarez over on the Mexican side of the border. It boasts an airport decked out in adobe colours, with a green copper roof, in a forlorn attempt to create some sense of place. But it is ringed by giant advertising signs and a litter of commercial strip architecture. Its has the raw, temporary feel of a boom town. And its still four hours drive across the high plains, following the Rio Grande, to Marfa. 

Domus 832, December 2000

El Paso’s sprawling multiplex cinemas, and drive in sushi bars and road side firework stands; clinging like barnacles to both sides of the highway finally give way to a landscape of emptiness, huge skies, and a road lined by telegraph poles that unfolds dead straight as far as the horizon in a manner celebrated by countless westerns. Every so often there are traces of human habitation. A mobile home now clearly mobile no more, and surrounded by the detritus of trailer park life, rusting washing machines, ancient refrigerators and car graveyards. You have to run the gauntlet of the border patrol, a paramilitary force which maintains regular checkpoints on every road that illegal migrants might conceivably be expected to take, and which has turned into one of the region’s biggest employers.

Finally there is Marfa, a town of 2424 people, established in the 1880s, around a handsome courthouse that is the focus of a town square typical of Texas settlements of the period. There is a bar, a couple of motels, and a high school. This is the nearest thing to a town in a country that covers more than 6000 square miles. But this is the opposite of sprawling strip America. There are pavements, and and you can walk from cafe to convenience store, even though few people do. And there is nothing like a shopping mall here. There is too much land, and too few people. This is a town whose brief moment of fame came in the 1950s when James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor spent ten days here filming The Giant. But it has really been sleeping since the 1930s when the spark that saw the town established in the first place just about gave out. 

Domus 832, December 2000

Marfa, its urban grid laid down with the same pioneering vigour that was enough to turn many once equally remote outposts into sprawling metropolises, began with a railway. It stands in wide open ranching country, on the road to Mexico. There are silver mines in the hills to the south, epic scenery, and a huge national park. But the city building spirit didn’t take. You sense a town struggling not to slip into the same oblivion that overtook the mines and turned them into ghost towns.

And yet, despite its remoteness, Marfa has an unexpectedly cosmopolitan character. There are its Spanish and Mexican roots. And the curious matter of its name. Marfa is the name that Doestoevskij gave the family servant in The Brothers Karamazov. Supposedly it was suggested by the unusually well read wife of a railwayman when the track stop turned into a real town at the end of the 19th century. It was here that the United States Army established Fort Davis, and where during both world wars, it interned German prisoners. You can still see traces of German grafitti in the fort.

Domus 832, December 2000

This is also the town that Donald Judd chose as the setting for one of the most remarkable artistic projects of the twentieth century. He lived and worked here for at least part of every year since 1979. He acquired an extraordinary range of property, houses, ranches, and Fort Davis itself, and it was here that he brought his own collection of art, everything from Rembrandt drawings to sculpture by his contemporaries. And it was here that he made art, as well as came the place in which he came closer to making architecture than any artist of his generation. He had in his mind a blindlingly clear idea of creating a place which could serve as an absolute point of reference for his art, and that of a group of his contemporaries, that would, as he liked to say, survive as a standard measurement that would define art outside the museums, and outside the commercial gallery system.

It involved working with the landscape, and with the existing buildings of the fort, transforming some buildings inside and out, planning completely new buildings, designing furniture, and painstakingly making and placing his own art. The truly remarkable thing is how well he has succeeded, and how much, six years after his death, it continues to grow. The barrack huts and sheds scattered artlessly over the landscape have become a kind of Stonehenge. A pilgrimage site that creates the truly surreal sight of the Border Patrol packing pistols and bullet proof vests and crackling radio hand sets sitting down to tuck into Burritos at Carmen’s alongside the quintessentially metropolitan figure of the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. This is no Aspen; a ghost town that became a counter cultural retreat, that turned into a playground for dot.com millionaires and Rupert Murdoch; although back at the start of the 1950s it might have seemed equally remote. 

Domus 832, December 2000

Judd completed a great deal of the work he planned in his life time. In the scrub outside the base, where antelope really do roam, he set up a kilometre long strip of concrete units, boxes aligned in permutations of three. He transformed the two largest sheds by knocking out their side walls and replacing them with glass and giving them new barrel vaulted roofs in aluminium with an understated directness few architects could match. Inside is a landscape of milled aluminium boxes that is an ethereal response to the concrete boxes visible outside. Here it is the response to light and landscape that is the issue. At some times of day, they seem almost to disappear, at others they turn flame orange in blazing sunsets and in moonlight they glimmer. Judd died in 1994 but the project was yet not complete. He had from the beginning brought in other artists to make their works here too. Claes Oldenberg made a giant totemic horseshoe. Richard Long made a stone circle. The Russian émigré Ilya Kabakov turned one of the army huts into a haunting recreation of an ancient soviet school with books and desks left to rot in the elements. But by far the most ambitious project was a work he persuaded his friend Dan Flavin to undertake in the string of U shaped barrack blocks that look out toward Judd’s two great works. Flavin was Judd’s great friend, so much so that Judd named his own son after him, but they had a disagreement that meant they didn’t speak a word for the last four years of Judd’s life.

Domus 832, December 2000

Marianne Stockebrand, director of the Chinati Foundation recalls that “in 1979 it was crystal clear that it would be John Chamberlin, Judd and Flavin. There were models for Flavin, always six buildings, construction began in 1983, but halted again after disagreements between Judd and the Dia Foundation”. The disagreements were finally settled in court, with Dia providing enough cash to start the project. “When I first knew Judd in 1989,” says Stockebrand, “there were a couple of meetings with Flavin, and there was always talk of the project. Don would ask ‘Dan, when are you coming to Marfa’, and he would say, ‘we will see’. After a couple of years of this Judd wrote a letter to Flavin, and as Stockebrand says, that was the end of that, they never talked again. She set out to see the work realised after Judd’s death. She first had to cajole the far from eager Flavin to crystallise his ideas for the work. It took several visits, and months of waiting. One particular late afternoon at Flavin’s Long Island home, “he started talking, he started releasing information, first about the placement of the fixtures, then the colours and then to produce one of his certificates”.

Shortly after he signed it, Flavin died, leaving Stockebrand to raise the money – almost two million dollars – and to work with Judd’s assistants to complete the project. Unveiled finally in October, it is an extraordinary powerful work, a hypnotic series of installations in which seem to provide an echo of Judd’s explorations of solidity and void. They are the most architectural installation Flavin conceived. His specifications involved the creation of special slanting walls, which both shield the fluorescent light, and provide a surface on which they are revealed. It is a work on a scale unimaginable in any conceivable conventional museum, shed after shed after shed, the pattern is the same, you walk in, find your self at the end of a white tube, overwhelmed by the intensity and beauty of the light, retreat out, back into the landscape, and on to the next element.

There is nothing like it, and they stay with you as you make your journey back from Marfa, exactly as Judd had intended it to.

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