Previous: Five Favorite Works of Art with April Richardson | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios
Next: Art or Prank? | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios



View count:160,771
Last sync:2024-05-08 11:45
The epicenter of the art world is in Marfa, Texas? We visit this small town where Minimalist artist Donald Judd settled in the 70s, and sowed the seeds for its glorious present, worthy of a pilgrimage. To support our channel, visit:

Thanks to our Grandmaster of the Arts Indianapolis Homes Realty, and all of our patrons, especially Lynn Gordon, Patrick Hanna, and Constance Urist. Further thanks go to the Judd Foundation, Chinati Foundation, and Ballroom Marfa.

Follow us as we visit:
Judd Foundation:
Marfa Burrito:
Ballroom Marfa:
Wrong Store:
Cobra Rock Boot Co:
Marfa Book Company:
Prada Marfa:
Do Your Thing Coffee:
Food Shark:

Subscribe for new episodes of The Art Assignment every other Thursday!

Follow us elsewhere for the full Art Assignment experience:
Extra Credit Group:
All responses tumblr:
and maybe Reddit?:

 (00:00) to (02:00)

(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Marfa is a town in West Texas on the high planes of the Chihuahuan desert at the junction of US highways 90 and 67.  It's a three hour drive from El Paso, an hour and a half from Big Bend Natural Park, and an hour to the Mexico border.  It was established in 1883 as a water and freight stop along the railroad and was supposedly named by the railroad chief's wife after the faithful strong-willed servant in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.  It's a nice idea, although unlikely, seeing as the novel would have been released not long before and only in Russian, but no matter, Marfa's main street and the buildings that line it were commissioned by successful cattle barons in the area.  There's the (?~0:42) county courthouse, a theater, and a cinema, among other buildings that still stand and have mostly found other uses. 

The US Military built Fort DA Russell here before the first World War, stationing chemical warfare brigades and air field for flight training and US border patrol, but since the military pulled out after the end of World War II, the population has steadily declined and now hovers around 2,000.  The Coen brothers shot No Country For Old Men just outside of town and James Dean's last film Giant was filmed here 50 years before.  Hotel Paisano, where you can still stay and enjoy dinner and drinks on the patio, housed the actors.  Transparent creator Jill Soloway's new series I Love Dick is filmed here, too.  Tourists sometimes stop here to try to catch the Marfa mystery lights, an unexplained night phenomenon that has been reported since the town's founding, but we didn't investigate.  

We were here for a different reason, the same reason that brings about 40,000 tourists a year and that's this guy: Donald Judd.  

In the early 1970s, artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa and purchased the former military buildings you see here, an outpost of Fort Russell right by the tracks and the still-operating feed mill.  There's the quartermaster's house which Judd adapted for he and his family to live in and two army hangars, which became spaces for him to live, work, and store and display his art.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

Here's the old Land Rover he used to visit his ranches outside Marfa, and next to that, the (?~2:06) he built with a communal table beneath.  He also constructed the pool and planted cottonwood trees around it for shade.  All the furniture you see, including the grill, were his designs, built because he couldn't really find furniture that he liked.  

Judd hired local adobe experts to build walls around the complex, following in the tradition of Southwestern and Mexican homes built up to the street with interior courtyards, providing privacy and protection from wind and weather.  Symmetry was important to Judd.  The proportions of the passageways correspond to those of the exterior gate.  The volume of the (?~2:39) relates to the pool as well as the chicken coop and greenhouse.  This interior U-shaped courtyard is in fact an artwork.  Judd kept the outer wall of the complex (?~2:48), but allowed this inner wall to follow the natural slope of the land.  If you're going to stray from symmetry, he thought, there needs to be a reason.  

It's here through the pivoting door, also of Judd's design, that you can experience his work exactly as he wanted you to: permanent installations in natural light and made to co-exist with the materials and architecture of the space.  For Judd, these weren't sculptures but what he called specific objects, a new kind of three-dimensional art that was neither painting nor sculpture.  For him, these works were not compositions of parts but the thing as a whole.

In the case of the vertical stack pieces you see here, he considered it whole because the space in between the forms is part of the work, the negative spaces exactly equal to the positives.  This was an active space where Judd sometimes slept and where he lived among the (?~3:36) furniture he admired.  In the next rooms are a kitchen and a winter bedroom where he kept his collection of pottery and Navajo blankets.  In the other rooms of the hangars, you'll find Judd's personal libraries.  This is the one where he kept his pre-20th century books, divided by region.  He designed the bookcases with an extended bottom shelf to be used as a step, and the daybed and table as well, the surface of which is arranged as he left it when he died quite suddenly of lymphoma in 1994.  

 (04:00) to (06:00)

It becomes clear in these spaces that Judd was not just an artist, but a designer, collector, avid reader, writer, architect, and in the widest sense, a creator of space, and he created a lot more space around Marfa than just here, which we'll get to, but not until we address our greatest need: burritos.

After fortifying ourselves at the delectable and reasonably-priced Marfa Burrito, run by Ramona Tejada and which you cannot avoid learning has also been enjoyed by Matthew McConaughey, we decided to poke around town and explore a bit. 

There are a number of good venues here for seeing art made by people other than Donald Judd, and one of these is Ballroom Marfa, a non-profit organization and art space based in a converted dance hall that hosts exhibitions, screens films, and puts on an array of performances, events, and festivals.  We caught an intriguing show titled "Strange Attractor" describing order that can be embedded in chaos.  It features some very good work exploring what the curator describes as "the uncertainties and poetics of networks, environmental events, technology, and sound". 

The highlight for me was this large-scale tapestry by Douglas Ross which you approach from its abstract reverse side.  As you make your way around it, the intricate weave coheres into an image of a landscape strewn with rubble and tire impressions.  We don't know where this is or when it is, but we know it was a digital image translated into (?~5:25) weave, a highly intricate process employing perforated cards and considered to be a kind of protocomputer.  I was transfixed.

After that, we walked over to the Wrong store, airy, delightful space that used to be a church and is now part gallery, part shop.  They had prints by Art Assignment alum Nathaniel Russell, the fantastic painted wood objects of Marfa artist Camp Bosworth, and a most-excellent gun mini-skirt from Fancy Ponyland, which you can rest assured I bought.  

We stopped by the wonderful little shop called Freda, which sells jewelry, clothing, and records, and then checked out the Cobra Rock boot company, and admired the expertly handmade leather goods made mostly on-site by owners and designers Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck in this workshop and on this machinery.

 (06:00) to (08:00)

Then it was on to the relatively new and lovely Hotel Saint George, which houses the Marfa Book Company.  They have books, of course, but also interesting and locally made gifts and flat files of artwork for sale.  They also sponsor readings and events throughout the year and serve as a kind of cultural hub for Marfa.  We grabbed ice coffees at Frama, a coffeeshop/laundromat/ice cream parlor before driving northwest of town on Highway 90.  

It was about a 30 minute drive to our next destination, and on our way, we passed this astounding tethered aerostat radar system, property of the US Customs and Border Protection, and which we all agreed would be the most magnificent artwork ever made if it were indeed an artwork.  It's instead a roving surveillance device, aka a giant and very visible "big brother" that monitors the US-Mexico border, but what we were seeking out was "Prada Marfa", a project by aritst Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. 

It's what it looks like: a Prada boutique in the middle of the desert, but when you pull off the road to get a closer look, you see that it's impenetrable, a seeming relic from the booming years leading up to the 2008 recession.  On display are shoes and handbags from Prada's fall 2005 collection, the year the work was made, but you can't get in.  There's no door handle, no one works there, and what look to be windows in the back are mirrors.  

It's a pilgrimage site for sure, the collection of locks on the fencing that surround it show that, and not just for art tourists but for anyone seeking out a curiosity or a sweet Instagram backdrop.  We weren't alone there for long.  As soon as one group left, another arrived until we had the uncanny experience of seeing the ballroom Marfa crew that maintains it and local site representative Boyd Elder arrive and open it up for a scheduled cleaning.  Like Marfa itself, it's an unexpected art oddity in the middle of nowhere and a befitting locus for contemplating the reach and the limits of art market forces.

 (08:00) to (10:00)

That evening, we had an amazingly delicious and enjoyable meal at Stellina, a warm, welcoming, and unstuffy restaurant where we rehashed our day and plotted out the next.  

In the morning, we followed these helpful signs to Do Your Thing Coffee, again appreciating Nat Russell's designwork and fueled up for the day ahead.  It was time for Chinati.  In 1979, Judd and (?~8:24) Art Foundation purchased the land and buildings of the decomissioned Fort D.A. Russell, to see out Judd's vision of maintaining permanent installations of his own large scale artworks and those of his contemporaries.  

In the years since, the original buildings, spread over 340 acres, have been transformed from dilapidated ruins into the place you can now visit, run by the independent and non-profit Chinati Foundation, named after nearby mountains.  We started with the two enormous former artillery sheds that now house Judd's "100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum" and yes, they're just that: 100 works made of milled aluminum, each with the same outer dimensions but unique in their interior arrangement of planes.

The building determined the installation and the installation determined the building, which Judd adapted by turning what were garage doors into windows and adding a vaulted roof on top of the original flat one that leaked.  The space is flooded with natural light that changes dramatically throughout the day, and as we walked among and through the objects and around the space, I marveled at how remarkably unminimal this is. 

Judd rejected the description of his work as minimalist and has even so strongly associated with the term, but here, there is so much to look at.  These objects reflect light, cast shadows, and direct your eye around the room.  You notice how their proportions relate to the scale of the building, the windows, the concrete divisions on the floor.  Everything is considered, and you can't take the works out of here.  They're all made to co-exist: the objects, the building, the landscape.  In many ways, it's all just one thing.  The art is what happens between you, these things, and this space, and there's a whole other shed full of these works.  

 (10:00) to (12:00)

We broke for lunch and headed to Food Shark, a food truck that serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes like lamb kabobs and Marfa waffle.  They turned some old cars and this old bus into shaded places you can dine in, and by the time we were done, we were ready to Chinati some more.  

As we were saying, Judd wasn't only interested in the optimal display of his own work and he invited a number of other artists to create works at Chinati.  Dan Flavin was one of these and his work here is installed in six formers barracks.  You enter each U-shaped building on one side and make your way down the length of the wing, where you encounter parallel tiled corridors containing barriers of colored flourescent lights.  Each fixture holds two differently colored bulbs shining in opposite directions, installed with space between that allows you to view the other side but not pass through.  You then retrace your steps, cross to the other side of the U, pass from natural light to artificial light and explore those particular interaction of colored flourescents from the other side.

You're not quite sure what you're seeing exactly, and the cast and temperature of the light seems to shift as you orient yourself differently around the space.  Each of the six buildings use combinations of just four colors: pink, green, yellow, and blue, and the experience of all of them is by turns optically entrancing, laborious, and then transcendent. 

After exploring several more installations by other artists spread across the enormous campus, it was time to return to Judd.  We'd seen these from a distance and finally approached the progression of concrete structures that run along the border of the property.  There are 60 units that had the same measurements, each of which were cast and assembled on site, a process that took four years.  Judd organized the units into 15 distinct formations, evenly spaced and all determined by a firm set of parameters.  The entire work spans a total of about 3,000 feet, or a little more than half a mile.

The thing is, this shot is beautiful and the actual experience was beautiful, too, but watching this footage feels nothing like actually being there.  

 (12:00) to (14:00)

You see the nearby pronghorn looking at us, yes, and you see how the structures frame magnificent views of the landscape, but you can't notice the plywood grain visible in the cast concrete.  You don't feel the heat or the breeze or see the dust or the tiny lizards skittering about.  Watching this, you cannot feel the scale of each volume in relationship to your own body, to those you're there with, and to the vast surroundings. 

You're asked not to take photographs while visiting, to encourage a more direct engagement with the art.  Of course, we did have a camera there, but we didn't use it until after we spent some unmediated time with the works first.  Let's be real.  It's a huge pain to get here.  By the time you're here, you can't help but shed some of the impatience that accompanies our daily lives and you're willing, or you should be, to give these works a small fraction of the consideration and attention that brought them into being.  

We'd spent a good bit of our day in and out of the Sun and in the heady space of powerful art, contemplating the ideas of artists past, and we needed a good dose of the present, which Marfa, we were happy to find, generously offers.  Our Chinati guide and half the town were heading to City Hall to witness the swearing in of Marfa's new mayor and so we followed them.

Ann Marie Nafziger has lived in Marfa since 2003, is an artist who makes paintings that look like this, was formerly the director of education and outreach at the Chinati Foundation, and also worked for Marfa Public Schools.  You can read a fair bit about the divide between the art people of Marfa and the rest of those who live here.  You can read about the high cost of housing and that over 50% of residents live below the poverty line, but here we saw what seemed to us as an instance, and a very public one, of unity between the town populations.  The arts organizations of Marfa are huge drivers of the economy.  They provide jobs, aid to local schools, and they do waive admission fees for locals.  It's complicated and we don't know the half of it, but watching public servants take their oaths of office made us optimistic.  

 (14:00) to (16:00)

Our last stop was the most recent addition to the Chinati collection: Robert Irwin's installation that opened in 2016 and was 17 years in the making.  It's an artwork in the form of a building which is new but occupies the site and follows the footprint of Fort Russell's former hospital.  It's C-shaped, and in the middle is a courtyard lined with trees with an arrangement of basalt columns in the middle.  You enter the building on the left and encounter darkly painted walls punctuated by raised windows.  With a long expanse of taut scrim, or semi-transparent cloth that bisects your passageway, you make your way along and turn the corner, eventually passing through successive layers of scrim until you reach the building's midpoint, where everything abruptly transitions from dark to light.

I'm a somewhat jaded art viewer, often measuring my responses but oh my.  This transition is incredible.  I'm regretting all my previous reckless uses of the word 'incredible' because this experience far exceeds 99% of art encounters I've had.  When I was talking to a local later that day and likened this to passing from life into death, they said that's dramatic but I'm sticking with it.  I hope this is what death is like.

But moving on, you experience the mirror image of the previous corridor, this time, in white.  Irwin is often a light and space artist, and that actually describes the work quite well.  That's all this work is, really.  Irwin's very particular arrangement of space and conscientious positioning of materials heightens your senses and compels you to consider the cyclical nature of time and of the universe.  Sorry, I got dramatic again.

So the crazy thing is that Marfa may be tiny, but we didn't see everything.  We've shown you but a sliver of the impact that Judd had on Marfa and only a portion of the innovative new work and programming and food and shopping that the city has to offer.  Donald Judd came to Marfa because the Southwest captivated him and because he wanted to get away from the "harsh and glib" situation within art in New York.

 (16:00) to (17:18)

He chose Marfa because he liked the land, it wasn't crowded, it's near Mexico, and was the best looking and most practical, and he focused so much attention here because he thought that museums and the usual places we find art were insufficient.  He wrote in 1987, "Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be," and as unlikely a place as this may seem, it's as good an example as I've found, and it's worth seeking out.


The Art Assignment is funded in part by viewers like you through, a subscription-based platform that allows you to support creators you like in the form of a monthly donation.  Special thanks to our grand master of the arts, Indianapolis Homes Realty.  If you'd like to support the show, check out our page at