Field Report: Marfa
Distance: 464 miles
Elevation: 4,685 feet
Named For: Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff
To borrow a word used by Peruvian artist William Cordova to describe a wall-sized projection of open ocean in a screening room within his show, I think of Marfa as a portal. A tiny town centered on an intersection locals refer to as “the blinking light,” Marfa offers a window into several worlds that are otherwise inaccessible in rural West Texas: the contemporary art market of New York, the coffee and food cultures of Austin, the exorbitantly curated shops of San Francisco. And it will not escape the New Mexico resident’s eye that much of Marfa’s cultivated aesthetic—cactus motifs, the whiff of dried sage, herbal tinctures, and casual astrological awareness—has been borrowed or outright appropriated from one state further west, as though all of New Mexico and its plural cultural histories could be shelved cutely on a handmade table in a storefront window. Marfa strikes me as a young person’s daydream of the West and what it has meant and might mean today: handmade cowboy hats, vintage western pearl snap shirts, gestures toward the cosmos. It’s a place of scale, a small town and a big space—big enough for Donald Judd to install his works, big enough for a music festival one weekend and a Solange show the next. Yet the community remains as isolated, as far out, as ever. When I visited this past August, the whole town was out of ice.
In the ten years I’ve been coming out to West Texas, Marfa has changed dramatically, while not really changing at all. It continues to be a challenge to find lunch; the rules and hours of Chinati events are impenetrable; visitors will run into the same strangers at every stop of their day. Chinati Weekend, which began as an open house at the Chinati Foundation and has now spread to most galleries in town, is Marfa’s version of bustling, with out-of-towners at their seasonal peak. It’s a weekend for art, and it’s a weekend for people watching.
What follows is a collection of artworks, performances, and experiences I had in Marfa during Chinati Weekend in October 2017, some of which you can recreate if you visit in the coming months. Some, however, will never occur again.
Rafa Esparza, Tierra. Sangre. Oro.
August 25, 2017 – March 18, 2018
As in his rotunda at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, adobe bricks shape the space of Rafa Esparza’s Tierra. Sangre. Oro. Passing beneath the adobe archway, made of bricks built by adobero Don Manuel Rodriguez and brought over the border for this sculpture, into Ballroom Marfa, a gallery I’ve visited numerous times, I had the distinct feeling of being suddenly somewhere else. This was no accident but an intentional reorientation of the path through the gallery so that visitors move from north to south, toward the Mexican border. What Esparza calls a “Brown Laboratory” contains several adobe columns, hung with Star Montana’s photo portraits of female-identifying people in Los Angeles and Marfa, an outdoor adobe plinth where Eamon Ore-Giron’s wool poncho awaits picnickers or performers, and a coffin-like adobe box topped with Nao Bustamante’s Kevlar soldadera’s dress and gloves. The show does not always offer itself up for explanation, as in Carmen Argote’s wall covered in cardboard boxes, collected from Marfa residents, but rewards lengthy perusal and revisiting.
Robert Irwin, Untitled (dawn to dusk), 2016
We walked up the hill early Sunday morning and found the hallways of Robert Irwin’s installation activated by light and other visitors. I recommend going in the “dusk” side and then, when you get to “dawn,” reversing your path.
Briget Riley, Royal Liverpool University Hospital, 1983, revised as wall painting, Bolt of Colour, 2017
Riley adopted the color palette of an Ancient Egyptian tomb painting for her 1983 vinyl installation at Royal Liverpool University Hospital. At Chinati, the 83-year-old Riley reprised the Liverpool project with the same colors of ochre, turquoise, lavender, black, and gold, and local Marfa artists executed the work in paint directly on the walls of the Judd-redesigned army barracks. The result is a work that harmonizes with the southwest desert and recalls the deserts of Egypt.
Ice Plant, Donald Judd, Untitled (U Channel), 1980 and Untitled (V Channel), 1982
Off the beaten path of Chinati, the abandoned ice plant houses two of Judd’s works in aluminum that are, to my eyes, far more exciting than any of those boxes. I wish I could tell you when it will be open. To get there, turn right at the John Chamberlains, and it’s on your left past the Marfa Public Library.
Solange Knowles Ferguson performance, Donald Judd’s 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-84
October 8, 2017
Imagine, if you can: 30 black performers, bedecked in magenta, processing across the field alongside Donald Judd’s works in concrete, shadows of trombones, the voices and music and subtle modern dancing of Solange and her troupe swelling skyward and reflecting as the sun sets on a veritable shrine to white masculine minimalism. Be still, my heart!
Eugene Binder Gallery
Raychael Stine, How Now Snarly Yow
October 7 – December 2017
Balloon animals, vague affinities with Mickey Mouse, deconstructed as tactile gestures of thick paint. The paintings made me (personally) laugh, even as I marveled at the deftness of the paint handling. Certain images we typically see only on our screens—smiley faces and hearts—take on a new emotional heft when applied with gobs of paint to canvas.
Rotating gallery installation
Rotating artworks by eleven artists, including New Mexico’s own Gloria Graham and Susan York, inhabit every inch of Exhibitions 2d, spilling down the hallway and into the office. I always visit Exhibitions 2d when I’m in Marfa to see the ever-changing swirl of graphite and charcoal. This old Marfa house is continuously recharged by new artworks embedded with delicacy into the space itself. York’s graphite sculptures perch at the apex of a room’s corner, in the doorframe, on a table, and Graham’s drawings of molecular structures cover the walls. In the back you’ll find a set of Jonathan Dankenbring’s sculptural versions of smart phones and tablets nestled under a glass cube, like taxidermied creatures.
October 2017 – January 2018
Wood sculptor Munson Hunt brings an obsession with organic materials and processes to bear on pieces that seem at once living and manufactured. In each work, whether she uses the shape of a tree trunk to cast aluminum or rubs marble dust into the wood itself, Hunt transforms the organic into the quietly sublime, playing unexpectedly with sheen and luminosity. Her show alongside the other works at Inde/Jacobs comfortably places her contemporary sculptures in conversation with Chinati stalwarts like Carl Andre and Roni Horn.
La Mansana de Chinati/The Block
If you are a closet voyeur, a snoop, a peeper of artists’ spaces, you will be enamored with Donald Judd’s preserved home at the Judd Block. I asked one of the foundation guards if the two-story house on the property is where Judd actually lived and was delighted by the answer: in addition to the house, which had two (!) king-sized beds pushed together on its second floor, the studios on the property each had beds of their own. Perhaps the artist—like this writer—liked to work while reclining, to imagine his works while horizontal. If you make a pit stop at the public restrooms, you might even be able to sneak in a quick soak in Judd’s bathtub. Or simply relish the existence of his poured-concrete above-ground pool.
William Cordova, ankaylli: spatial and ideological terrain
October 6 – December 22, 2017
My first question when I entered William Cordova’s show at Marfa Contemporary was about my body in space: which way do I go? The answer is much simpler than it seems. The gallery visitor is free to go anywhere, any way she pleases. Though two stories of plywood scaffolding wind around and through much of the space, what initially feels like a designated path reaches a dead end. Suddenly it is obvious that you are meant to walk under the scaffolds, between them. You were following a path that was meant to confound and then release you. Cordova’s works are all playful in this way: a minimalist-seeming, right-angled concrete sculpture outside reveals itself to be a stack of molded boom boxes; a gold collage is partially concealed behind scaffolding; ad hoc Brancusi-like sculptures perch on the center of the scaffolding—shelves where, at first, you might not even think to look. At every turn, Cordova’s manipulation of the space brings you closer to the work, makes you slow down and retrace your steps or come to a dead halt.
The Wrong Store
Kelly O’Connor, Modern Future
through November 26, 2017
At dinner my first night in town, everyone kept telling me I had to meet Buck. In her gallery and shop called the Wrong Store, Buck Johnston and Camp Johnson have a show of Kelly O’Connor’s collages on display that I was thrilled to find. In the middle of an artscape otherwise dominated by the serious and the unmarred, these collages are pop-culture inspired and whimsical, brightly colored and pleasantly scrappy. Glitter! Meryl Streep!
Sleep out in a tent, a yurt, an RV; cook in a big communal outdoor kitchen; bathe under the stars in outdoor showers and bathtubs. Let me know if the sneaky orange cat is still around.
My longtime favorite place to stay in West Texas, the Paisano is old and creaky, full of James Dean Giant paraphernalia and unmanufactured charm.
Hotel St. George:
Honestly, you can’t miss it: it’s the largest building in town.
These days, the Thunderbird has taken minimal to cell-like proportions. If you need any amenities—a phone, a coffeemaker—better bring your own. The pool is lovely.
Do Your Thing:
Could also be called “take your time,” but it’s worth the wait for toast, quiche, coffee, and a place to work and eavesdrop on visitors discussing the best time of day/phase of the moon to view certain artworks.
Marfa Book Co:
One of the world’s greatest bookstores, Marfa Book Co. houses a collection of small press fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art writing, in addition to works on paper by local artists. Now located in the lobby of the St. George Hotel, so you can also grab a cocktail and a snack while diving into your new reads.
Marfa Public Library:
Air-conditioned, a wonderful West Texas collection, and the locals tell me they host free movie nights every week.
The Marfa Lights:
My explanation? cows with flashlights.
People in Black, what some Marfans call art tourists.