New York Art in West Texas

I could spend the rest of my life traveling and writing about the West.

That’s what I thought to myself as I sat with George Rodrigue in a café in Marfa, Texas and watched the barbershop across the street. The barber, visible past a single strand of colored lights and his barber’s pole, shaved his own face in the small window, framed by the deserted retail spaces on either side of his shop, before locking up and heading for his pick-up parked out front.

“It’s the biggest contradiction in the world,” said George about Marfa. “This isn’t Texas; this is New York. This is like I’m gonna get a stick stuck in my eye, and I can’t wait to get it, because it’s good for me.”

George’s comment does not refer to the barber, or to the flat roofs and Western architecture, or to the golden light and long shadows. It doesn’t refer to the lone dog walking down the middle of the street or to the fact that ‘all the guys who walk by look like the same guy.’

He’s talking about the deluge of contemporary art that fell, with increasing intensity, on Marfa over the past thirty years. He means that anyone who’s anybody in the art world has to visit Marfa, a remote Texas town near the Mexico border, in order to say that they’re in the know. They have no choice.

He has a point. A certain element of Marfa feels like the West Texas annex of Berkeley. If you ask the museums or galleries about restaurants, they name two, both organic, with homegrown veggies, free-range everything, and beautiful young people, sporting long hair or no hair and wearing eyeglasses with dark plastic frames.

“The locals must find this nuts,” continued George. “These poor people just had it done to them.”

(As he philosphizes, I overhear a Yogi Berra-ism from the bar: “Once you get to know a stranger, then they’re no longer a stranger.”)

Marfa, in a weird kind of way, is like looking at art on the set of High Noon. At the Chinati Foundation, Donald Judd’s tribute to his own work and other contemporary Minimalists, we walked between the buildings of a former Army base, experiencing a heightened sensory perception, an acute awareness of the wind and the light, the squeak of our shoes and the whir of the grass.

This will be here forever, an abandoned fort, windows walled up with impressions of where they used to let in light.

Inside the buildings, we faced the reality of contemporary art: the poems of Carl Andre (b. 1935), for example, five hundred pages of patterns made with a typewriter, or occasionally by hand, sometimes using nothing but one word or one letter. (George told me he used to do the same thing as a young man; regrettably he did not save the pages).

(pictured above, Carl Andre’s poems in a former military storage building; this installation reminded me a bit of The Shining)

Donald Judd moved from New York City to Marfa, Texas in 1979 and created a permanent installation of Minimalism.

“When you become famous,” says George Rodrigue, “you tend to go hide somewhere. People (such as Georgia O’Keeffe) have done it before.”

Yes, but why come to Marfa, where he’ll never be understood? I asked.

“He was making a statement by coming here. It’s out of the way, so it didn’t create controversy. Only people who thought it was cool and necessary came here. It’s like me having an art gallery on Pecan Island.”

So Judd didn’t really hide; he transformed a town and made it his legacy. A man who rejected painting with brushstrokes because “it’s already done and I want to do something new” (–D.J.) has his name on half of the buildings of a remote western high desert town.

George and I realized immediately that the idea is to have exhibitions …and that is all. The gallery and museum staffs have little or no interaction with people, no explanations, no nothing. Our guide at Chinati, for example, gave us a brief history of the place and how each artist came to be there. She showed no emotion as she spoke, as though any animation or enthusiasm might betray the artwork. She did not explain the art, because Minimalism is without meaning and requires no explanation.

Accordingly, she refrained from speaking once inside. We walked into the first building at Chinati (unfortunately I do not remember the artist’s name; it was not Flavin) and everyone stood still in silence, first staring at ten fluorescent bulbs along a wall (I was waiting for it to do something, said one visitor later), and then at each other, at the ceiling, and out of the window, until George finally broke the agony and said aloud, “I’ve got it,” prompting a relieved eruption of laughter and our guide’s sheepish move towards the door.

The overall place is a work of art, combining the installations with old and seemingly (at first) incongruent architecture, purposefully changed to suit each installation, along with the land and sky of West Texas.

Judd related his concrete boxes to the boxes of the buildings. This doesn’t make much sense until you realize that the military fort, like Louisiana’s oak trees, was already here. Judd took it a step further and created the boxes on purpose, just as George Rodrigue adapted the oaks to his canvas.

According to George, the closest he came to Minimalism was a set of three twelve-inch square boxes he created in the late 1960s. However, he would not pass muster with the folks at Marfa, because he injects too much meaning into his sculpture, creating a warning sign with a STOP, along with a barricade and construction cone.

(pictured, a diagram of George’s boxes, as he remembers them)

From Marfa, we visited Marney – not the town, but the person. Marney Robinson (pictured below with her family and George) is Director of Education for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. She grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico, a small city with an impressive sign, located about two hundred miles north of Marfa, Texas.

We met her parents, brother and uncle, visited their family-run pharmacy, and enjoyed their wonderful hospitality.

Now that we understand from Donald Judd that where one places the art is just as important as the art itself, I leave you with a picture of the Robinson Family Christmas tree and the “Tylenol Torso,” covered with hundreds of pills, and created by Marney for a studio art class at Trinity University.

Like Marfa, the Robinson Family Christmas is one that cannot be replicated. It can only happen in Hobbs, under these circumstances and with these people. A painting or sculpture can happen in any number of museums, but not the Marfa experience — It can only happen here, in West Texas, on an abandoned military base, now enchanted by one man’s vision.

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season!


All photographs in this post by George Rodrigue

For more pictures and stories from our visit to Marfa, see the post “Rejecting the Metaphor: Discovering Modern Art in West Texas”

One thought on “New York Art in West Texas

  1. Man! I want to go to Marney's to open presents!! They've got some big stuff under there! I love the conical tree and the coo coo clock. Great photo. The silence of the museum tour is so funny. I love the description. I suppose the experience is part of the art.

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