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Marfa Open House; or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Donald Judd

I’m not sure if during the Open House is the best time to visit Marfa. But then, I’m not sure when a best time might be. It definitely can be worth the trip.

Marfa landscape.

The question, beyond what to expect, is why? Why make the Herculean effort to get to one of the most remote parts of the nation to see… Judd World? As I sit in the El Corazon cabin at the Chinati Hot Springs after another Open House, my third visit here in 12 months, I muse over The Marfa Experience.

Looking again at the hysterical "Visit Marfa" ArtForum cover ("Eat Food All the Same Color!" "Win a Date with John Chamberlain!"), it stabs right to the boxy little heart of the enigma that is this strange bastion of (nose-bleedingly, altitude-sickeningly) High Ahhht culture smack in middle of the Permian basin. It also sends up the American habit of spectacle and the global itch for tourist dollars that’s implicit in traveling to a town that, until recently, had not much happenin’ save drug traffic and illegal immigration. How else would an artist (in the 70's!) be able to buy most of a town, and a lot of land nearby?

I always go to the springs, which is wonderful, and I have to admit that to me Marfa has become almost sort of a side note to this other thermal pleasure. Judd himself actually used to own the springs. He closed them off to the public and capped them (possibly the worst in the list of megalomaniacal offenses ascribed to him), as he probably didn’t want too many folks coming out and spoiling "his" desert. This single action may have instigated his demise. Apparently there’s a Native American belief to the effect that to turn away folks from this sacred, not to mention significantly wet, place in this parched land is to seal one’s own doom. Well, Judd did just that…and didn’t live much longer. Oh well. It’s open again now, run by Dallas refugees David and Krissy Sines under new ownership. They’ve been busy the last year building new cabins, a new communal kitchen, new pools and a great welcoming vibe. Stay away if you’re afraid of dogs, the desert, or the occasionally washed-out road. The two-hours-beyond-Marfa distance and the nine-mile-long rutted dirt driveway keep away the riff-raff, begging the question of what Judd was worried about in the first place. Earlier today some tall skinny German women, presumably curators or something, were seen striding naked up the hill to the cold pool in the rain. Germans always seem so eager to take off their clothes.

Raychael Stine and I came to Marfa this year in particular because she has a painting in a show curated by John Pomara opening at Eugene Binder’s gallery. It was also recently seen at the UT Dallas gallery in Richardson. Everyone agrees it looks better in Marfa. The weekend began with dinner (barbeque) at the gallery with the other artists and friends, with a lot of familiar faces from Dallas/Ft Worth. Nick Knight has a nice installation in the backroom at Binder’s, grammatical maps of short, carefully chosen texts, from Lou Reed to Roland Barthes. Like Joseph Kosuth, but lighter, without the neon and less pretentious. His wife Joy does giant paintings of bugs that take a year and then doesn’t show them, which is intriguing.

Eugene Binder’s got this detached, stare-you-down, I’ve-seen-it-all-before-don’t-hand-me-any- artsy-bullshit manner, not world-weary seeming, but really very good-natured and funny. He used to run a gallery in Dallas, and also in Cologne, but now just in Marfa and Long Island City, which sounds far from Manhattan and lame, but is actually really close and seeing rampant high rise development, like everything else just outside The City. He drives a great mint-green ‘56 Ford pick-up, and also a nice old Porsche, both faded tastefully by the desert sun. You can’t really tell how the original colors would’ve looked. His image, with the truck, boots, ponytail, and four-gallon Stetson, is a good one.

Last year for the Open House I drove to Marfa from Los Angeles in one non-stop shot. It was a helluva long trip. After a languorous day recovering my sanity in the 20,000 year-old mineral water at my first trip to the hot springs, I got into town too late to see much art — I’d just seen the Ken Price's and the Kabakov installation when we got kicked out of the Chinati Foundation. Subsequent trips found the collection difficult to see due to the newer rigid tour schedule, leaving me determined to see every friggin inch of the Chinati Foundation grounds this trip, the rest of the weekend be damned. To get a leg up, we got there around 1:30 on Friday (prepared to see at least half, on the tour!), and were once again turned away. There had been a morning tour, but they were now preparing for the Open House. Holy mother…I’d half-expected it, and we just cheerfully pushed on to the springs, and returned with plenty of time Saturday.

There’s an artist each year that is showcased during the
weekend, some crony or favorite of Judd’s, and this time around it’s John
Chamberlain, in particular featuring his little-known foam-rubber constructions
from the 60s, and his photographs. I liked them. The watercolors he tossed on
some of the foam pieces simply don’t work at all and reduce them to student-y
looking studies, but others are fabulous, monumentally erotic, as he admitted
he sees them. As good as Eva Hesse’s more lauded rubber works of the same era,
but arguably more sculpturally interesting. I’ll be thinking about these
doo-dads for awhile. The photos are fun, taken with some large-format camera
that he described Dan Flavin or some other famous art-star cohort giving him.
He said he just sort of waves it around, and gets these quite Chamberlain-esque
images, of a neon-colored world torqued and melted. He spoke about these and
other matters artistic Saturday afternoon at the big public talk/discussion
with critic Klaus Kertess. John C. has a great image too, with his famous
mustache, cane, and a hat that he incorporated with great effect into his
shtick. He proceeded to turn all the technical glitches (which were legion)
around and have everyone laughing and actually enjoying themselves at an
artist talk
– without even showing a slide (lord knows what A/V Pandora’s
box that would have opened). I say everyone, but some folks were overheard
saying as we filed out "I can’t believe his complete lack of criticality,
and anti-intellectualism. He can get way with that with a Texas crowd,
but never in New York!!" Whew…I can’t even muster a comment on
that. But then, I had my black turtle-neck and stylish horn-rims revoked
long ago. Personally, I left thinking he’d be great to hang out
with, implying often as he did that a good time was as important as art,
and usually involves whiskey.

Just before the talk we had seen the Chamberlain building in town, filled with only natural light and his art, in one of the most extraordinary installations of a single artist’s work in the country. I spoke to a number of people who shared with me that they had dismissed his work or never much cared for it until they saw it en masse like this. And this is certainly true of Judd, and perhaps it is the great contribution of the whole Marfa endeavor. It’s a rare thing to see the best of a number of artists’ work, displayed as they wanted it to be seen, with little distraction. Flavin is the other obvious one. There are six complete buildings of what are probably his best works. If you weren’t convinced after the recent Ft Worth retrospective, get to Marfa. You will be. (In one of the airplane-hangar-sized Cathedrals de Judd, Raychael almost killed a kid in a green fatigues, Birkenstocks, and a bright new rainbow tie-dye that read "Keep Austin Weird," who busted out his "hippie lute" (an oud or something) and started playing. She fled, but you know, I thought it was kind of nice, a human intrusion into the grid, the middle-eastern ambient twang actually sort of suiting the desert atmosphere and all that right-angled steel. And anyway, I was just happy it wasn’t the flute I’d feared from the narrow case he’d carried in. There would have been hell to pay.)

To really see Judd at his best, you may have to make the trek out to his Casa Perez ranchero, not far from the hot springs. I imagine at the very least reservations are necessary, but even better is to just get out there on the Sunday of the Open House weekend for the lunch (barbeque) sponsored by the Judd Foundation. The brisket is rightfully famed throughout Presidio county and you get to see this small house, deep in the desert surrounded by mountains, full of his furniture, a couple of great small Judd sculptures in their natural habitat, and a vision of what you imagine he wanted everyone to taste in some way while seeing his work — a clarity, a crispness, a certain inner solitude: mental, if not always physical, spaciousness. And also there is a great cowboy singer every year who looks just like Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski and has a wicked yodel.

John Pomara

If that was a highlight musically, then Yo La Tengo disappointed. I’ve seen them many times, but not for years, so I was psyched. Art and Yo La Tengo! Earlier, we had dinner (barbeque) and enjoyed the Mariachi bands on the main drag. I wondered if it saddened them to see the 14 gringos flailing around at the foot of the stage, all knowledge of how to dance as couples seemingly lost to our culture. We poked around to see what galleries were still open. Not many. Those Texas Tech sculpture kids keep showing up, but it’s some pretty standard first semester 3-D design fare, and in a space with wood paneling and rotting musty carpet that’s not helping their cause. Around the corner was some presumably Austin-hipster art, caught between skateboard design and painting. Lots of cheap Frederick’s canvases with staples on the sides and thin acrylic paint. There was a great installation of 70's mod Clockwork Orange TV sets, and Lloyd portable 8-tracks that had me in a reverie. As a demonstration of consummate thrift-store collecting it was impressive, but the fact that the TVs just had images of eyeballs blinking on them was not.

So, we still had two hours to kill before the show (the whole weekend suffers from a problem of timing). We went early to the Thunderbird Motel, the newly renovated site of the concert. Its been turned from a run-down flea bag into a tres-chic bastion of Palm Springs mod hipsterness in the desert. Didn’t see the rooms, but imagine them cool and overpriced, like the t-shirts, odd knick-knacks, and bath products in the office lobby. Hope to stay there sometime, which would’ve made it possible to stay and see YLT through to the end. They were supposed to come on at 10, but when the roadies started a sound check and tuning guitars at 10:15, I knew our plans to be in bed by one were history. They finally came out about 11; Ira Kaplan said not very sincerely "I hope you’re having a nice…"Open House," then played one song and stormed off stage. I’ve seen it before. He has tantrums, and may not come back for an hour, by which time the place clears out and you get to enjoy a great YLT set with your friends. But I’m not 25 anymore, and in this context it seemed really ungracious and crappy. Other folks from NYC said "We came all this way from New York to escape this shit."[Note: we did hear later he got shocked from the equipment and that’s why he walked.] So determined was I not to have come all this way again and miss out just because I’m old and antisocial, we did wait 20 more minutes overhearing about everyone’s drives from Austin before saying "fuck it" and making the trek to the springs, listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and John Legend. I heard later that they came back out just after we left, and decided to play songs they didn’t know so had the house lights turned up and read lyrics from sheets, etc.

Cowboy singing

Now I’m sure that there are as many Marfa tales as there were attendees, many perhaps more scintillating or poignant than my own, though there sure seemed to be a lot of bored people milling around, making me wonder "if this is all they come for, are they pissed?" We have a great time coming down here, but I think largely because we lean no weight on the experience directly involved with the Open House. The permanent installation stuff at Chinati is great to see, and will certainly and rightfully become a holy art pilgrimage for generations to come. The experience of seeing this art, presented this way, can change you, in a subtle (dare I say "minimal") way. Coming back and seeing these things over time changes you. I loved hearing John Chamberlain say that after he viewed a DeKooning painting over a number of years how different it seemed each time, and how it obviously wasn’t the painting that changed. I hope to return again over years and see how I reappraise these works, which thankfully aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — how will it all be seen in 50 years? 200?

One accomplishment of Chinati may be just generating that question in this era of transitory sensations. The Open House is a nice affirmation of the existence of some of the better parts of this "art world," that you are clearly somehow invested in if you make the necessary effort to go to such a thing. But as an event, it’s kind of, well… lame. As if the ghost of Judd hovers ever near, making sure that things don’t get too convivial or Fiesta-like, and that the patina of art-seriousness isn’t too disturbed. And maybe this is how it should be. You can’t exactly bask, tanning in the glow of the Flavins, have lunch on the Judds (though some have tried, and worse) or martinis in the Kabakov, and simulatenously experience the art in an authentic way – or at least not as the artists intended. The alternative is to come the rest of the year — but then you’re stuck having a guided tour, with what I can only imagine is an excruciating exercise in follow-the-docent, having your experience timed and witnessed by someone whose job it is to tell you what and how to see. I’ve never been a headphone-tour kind of guy. My advice if you haven’t been and want an excuse to see the place, plan to meet friends here, get out to the hot springs, go camping in Big Bend, seek out the oddities and adventures of this sprawling sparse landscape with its high per capita eccentricity. Just get your schedule straight ahead of time, prepare to eat a lot of barbeque, and don’t expect to see the Marfa lights (though Raychael thinks she did once). The sound will probably suck at all the events you go to, and you’ll be underwhelmed by a good portion of the art. You will encounter obnoxious New Yorkers and nice New Yorkers, annoying hippies and…annoying hippies, plenty of 22 year-old Austin hipsters, and hopefully some of the baffled and slightly resentful long-time locals — their town has been overrun by High Art World People after all. And upon whom in God’s name would we ever wish that?


Post Script: We spent another day or two at the springs with no art functions to commute to. I read a stack of magazines Krissy had saved with features on Marfa: Vogue, Vanity Fair, Dwell, Brilliant (with Judd’s daughter Rainer as cover model), and on and on. In them, I saw locals dressed up in fancy duds they could probably never afford (or actually want) for fashion spreads. I saw the interiors of little Marfa houses now tricked out Haute Moderne for Houston collectors’ twice-a-year weekend escapes (imagine what that’s doing to real estate values.) Our final night was spent with some of the people who run other art venues in Marfa, and we heard about a whole other side of the weekend experience: mescaline being cooked-down in kitchens, days without sleep, gangs of artsy city folk gone wild (now there’s a video waiting to happen), all final shreds of urban propriety evaporated in an existential crisis brought on by the vast space and poor cellphone reception. The road to Alpine and most of the hotel rooms and restaurants must be some sort of ride of doom each night, all these tanked, drugged-up art world hoi polloi driving drunk, hysterical, naked save for cheap straw cowboy hats bought at the airport, screaming into the silent desert night air. Is this what Donald Judd imagined 30 years ago, sitting calculating his Fibonacci-sequenced, meticulously constructed, painstakingly surfaced boxes? Is it maybe better this way, more real? Where will it all go? Will they ever actually get the rice cooked at the big dinner? Will they get nicer interns? Will it all turn into some chi-chi Burning Man for the black-clad hair-gelled set? Is it that already? I imagine I’ll be back though, and maybe try to get to some of those parties. I’d better make reservations right away for at least a night at a place in town so I don’t have to make that drive. They start booking up now.

Chinati Foundation

Titus O'Brien is an artist, writer and teaches at UTD in Richardson.

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