Eiseley and Emily in Marfa

Art history majors Eiseley and Emily are traveling to West Texas in October to the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum, in Marfa. They are two of 12 SMU students working as guides at the Judd Foundation Open House, a weekend of art, music and talks that attracts an international audience of 2,000 people and one of the most exciting contemporary art events of the year.

Marfa lights

An update from Eiseley:

After settling into our plush accommodations (the volunteers pulled the sleeping bag maneuver in an auditorium hall), we stopped by a reception for artists Kiki Smith and Carl Fudge at the Eugene Binder gallery. For our first people-watching opportunity, this one was immaculate. It seemed as though the Chelsea district of New York City had instantaneously transported to Marfa, Texas. The fashion choices were chic and edgy. The crowd was big city for sure. Only in Marfa, I suppose.

Our first day of active participation started bright and early on Saturday. We ventured out to the compound itself. We met under a large, aluminum-roofed structure to receive an informal orientation and get our first dose of mediocre rations. I hate to criticize, as the Chinati and Judd foundation organizers and employees were nothing but kind and accommodating – but the food served at the volunteer functions was rather bland and lacked in much nutritional value.

Nonetheless, the SMU group was assigned the Chamberlin Building station, as well as the Locker. The Chamberlin building was once the Marfa wool and mohair building. It now houses Chamberlin’s large, welded steel pieces as well as a superb interactive installation titled Barge Marfa (1983). This is a large collection of foam pieces under a canvas covering. Essentially, it resembles a giant couch or chaise longue, perhaps. While relaxing atop this mountain of plush wonderment, visitors may take in the unusual video entertainment: Chamberlin’s film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez. The Locker is a gallery house in a converted and refurbished meat locker. Currently, it is home to the work of a Marfa artist-in-residence, Michael Krumenacker.

Judd’s work and home
We split our party of 11 into two groups and swapped shifts so that one group could take the morning on Saturday and the afternoon on Sunday and vice versa for the others. Our arrangement worked out well and gave the non-workers time to look at the collection, the works on the Chinati grounds and the galleries in town. In the Chinati complex, there are two large warehouse structures that hold Judd’s 100 untitled works in aluminum (1982-1986). This installation is quite a spectacle, as the monochrome aluminum boxes seem to extend indefinitely in these spaces. Judd’s Fifteen untitled works in concrete (1980-1984) are situated along an unofficial-looking path out in the fields past the fort constructions. These pieces encourage transit and exploration, as it is literally a hike to view the group. The adjacent backdrop here is the untouched fields of rural Marfa. I found it to be an ideal contrast for large blocks of a typically industrial medium.

Judd’s home, the Block, is another spectacular space. The house and immediate grounds are surrounded by a tall adobe and cement wall. The entrance is placed facing away from Highway 90, a busy exchange. Thus, even though the Block is situated on a heavily trafficked area, it still has an aura of quietude. The galleries inside include aluminum wall pieces and enamel constructions, among others. The ground in the front plaza is covered in rough gravel and emits a Palm Springs vibe. The house itself is, of course, stark white. While sitting on the edge of an above-ground cement pool, I decided that I could live in the Block without complaint.

Sonic Youth rocks
Although we did not have the opportunity to attend the artist talks (the first was led by David Adjaye, Trevor Smith and Andrea Zitttell while the second was David Rabinowitch and Kenneth Baker), we did catch the evening performance of Sonic Youth. The venue: Thunderbird Hotel, a small venue holding the capacity of only a few hundred people. The space was intimate, the acoustics were decent, and the band seriously rocked the joint. Thurston Moore and his wife, Kim, led a killer set, with two (or was it three?) encores. I’ve never seen the band live (another first), and now I have nothing but praising reviews.

I hear that a few crazy after-parties raged until the early hours of the morning, but all that standing and observing throughout the day just did me in. I knew that the two-hour standing shift and eight-hour drive home on Sunday would simply require a decent amount of sleep.

I think that Sunday was a slow day for most of the Open House participants, as few visited us in the Chamberlin building. As soon as our shift ended at noon, we hit the ground running – straight toward Dallas. It was difficult for me to depart from this metropolitan-spirited, artistic desert oasis. Although I cannot see myself voluntarily making the drive anytime soon, I did pick up information on their internship program. I did see the Marfa lights after all, and I realize that extraordinary things are possible in the aesthetic haven that is Marfa.

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Marfa, Texas: A Weekend of Firsts

An update from Eiseley:

I’d never ventured into West Texas before our road trip to Marfa this weekend. Therefore, I’d never before laid my eyes upon a real, working drilling rig. I took a picture of the first few we drove past. I was awestruck.

You see, West Texas embodies the stereotypical setting that I (among many non-Texan natives) envisioned for the entire state before attending SMU. Prior to visiting Dallas, I projected that many of my college nights and weekends here would be spent at places called the Cowboy Saloon or sitting front row at the rodeo. I never considered that places like Ghost Bar or Candleroom would even exist in Dallas.

In West Texas, however, my Texas visions were finally realized. Once we reached Marfa, I witnessed a rare merger of rural town life and metropolitan cultural attributes. It was another first.

Marfa, Texas: population approximately 2,000 residents. I was told that this figure roughly doubles during the annual Chinati Foundation Open House weekend. Perhaps that’s an overestimate, but it surely seemed like the open house events included a representative from every corner of the globe. We met art aficionados from New York, Germany, Nebraska, San Francisco, Vancouver and Brazil. The small town (it has a historic courthouse, a US Postal Office and defined boundaries) is what one may refer to as an “artistic community.”

I can only imagine what Marfa looked like before Donald Judd’s arrival there in the 1970s. Judd purchased the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell (with the assistance of the Dia Art Foundation), and transformed the landmark into permanent collection spaces. Here, Judd wished to connect art, architecture and the surrounding landscape.

These gallery spaces range in size from small, intimate converted homes to monumental warehouses. Only a few artists have the privilege of displaying work in this unique viewing environment. They include: Judd himself, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlin, Carl Andre, Inglfur Arnarsson, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley. Although the compound of the converted fort is located beyond the town’s main drag, it has obviously posed some influence on the community as a whole.

In our first drive-through of Marfa proper on Friday evening, I noticed the disproportionate number of privately owned galleries compared to other business enterprises lining the streets. In addition, five medium-to-large building spaces in town are owned and operated by the Judd and Chinati Foundations. These exhibition and permanent collection spaces include: the John Chamberlin building, La Mansana de Chinati (the Bock- Judd’s former residence), the Cobb House and Whyte Building, and the Judd Foundation office (which includes an exhibition space). Each year the Chinati Foundation also supports a number of Artists-in-Residence to develop work on the Marfa grounds. Therefore, a space is dedicated to the work of these artists as well. It’s just next to the Marfa Library.

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Sonic Youth, Prada and windmills

An update from Emily:

I woke up this morning feeling especially groggy due to two consecutive nights sleeping at AmVets, not to mention the constant actvity of looking at art and a late night after seeing Sonic Youth – which was one of the best-sounding shows I’ve been to. They had two encores.

I was stationed in the Chamberlain building to volunteer for a couple of hours. I fell asleep on his foam installion with a video playing nearby in the front room. It was an amazing feeling to be in a huge room full of Chamberlain’s twisted metal sculptures trusted to you to protect. No incidents occurred during my watch.

After my volunteering duties were over, we drove thirty minutes outside town to visit Prada Marfa, which is a site-specific work of a Prada store in the middle of nowhere on the side of the highway. It was surreal.

We got on the road and said farewell to Marfa after a meal at the local DQ. There’s always a place for me at the DQ. We had the brilliant idea of seeking one of those huge windmills we saw on the way to Marfa. After we hit Midland, we spotted a field of those windmills and took a detour to get close to one. We ended up in front of one after passing fields of cotton and goats. The windmills are almost like the minimalist sculptures I had been looking at all weekend. They are also a lot bigger than they appear from the highway.

We drove the rest of the way home, and I was looking so forward to sleeping in my bed.

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Art in action

An update from Emily:

After a night of tossing and turning on an ancient wooden floor, we had to wake up early to go to orientation for volunteering. For Open House weekend, the Chinati Foundation needs people to be in all the spaces where the installations are so it can all be open at once. So students were volunteers to watch spaces as visitors wandered around Marfa. The Chinati Foundation also feeds the volunteers (tortillas and beans) and provides them accomodations (AmVets Hall) in exchange for their service.

I got the afternoon shift so I spent the morning exploring the spaces myself. I saw rooms full of Judd’s dematerialized steel boxes and in the distance the robust forms of his concrete boxes in the landscape. Not to mention room after room of transcedent Flavin installations in which the colored fluorescent lights seemed too out of place in a small West Texas town – yet the work was made specifically for these spaces.

It was then my time to watch the artist-in-residency space in downtown Marfa. Michael Krumenacker was the artist who was living in Marfa and making work. I really began to enjoy the work the longer I stayed with it. Many people came to visit the space while I was stationed in there, and some asked if I was the artist. I wish.

After I was done volunteering, there was a big free dinner set up for Open House for anyone who wanted to eat, but it began raining. The dinner was delayed, but it still happened after the clouds passed. The whole town of Marfa got together to eat Mexican food and listen to a mariachi band. However, the band I was most looking forward to seeing was Sonic Youth, who was playing in Marfa later that night.

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The long road to Marfa

An update from Emily:

We (a car of four girls) left Dallas mentally prepared for a very long and tedious driving day essentially across the state of Texas. I tried to crochet away the hours until I made a versatile collar/viser. The drive became more and more sparse of civilization as we passed fields of sinister windmills, yet as we got closer to Marfa, we began to see hills with strange rock formations; my image of Texas has been altered. However, we made good time and arrived in Marfa starving.

Marfa has that small-town sensibility, but it is a major site for art tourism. We ate at this trendy restaurant called Maiya’s that served organic bread and $20 entrees. At dinner, my friend Lanie motioned toward a nearby table and asked if I thought that was Kiki Smith. I said that there was probably a good chance it was her. Kiki Smith is a well-known artist who recently had a retrospective at the Whitney in New York, and she was also featured on the PBS series Art 21. My other comrade Stephanie took note of her distinctive tattoos. That’s how we confirmed it was Kiki Smith.

Later that evening, we saw Kiki Smith at Eugene Binder, a gallery space in Marfa that was having an opening that night. Kiki Smith’s prints were there as well as work from Dallas artists. Behind the art gallery, there was an old police car and the antlers of a deer left on a pipe to dry.

I saw many people I recognized from Dallas and SMU, yet I also saw people from NYC and other famous people (such as the designers Proenza Schouler). Marfa has this weird familiarity factor of a small community intermixed with the larger outside art world.

We retired to the AmVets Hall, which is where all the volunteers for the Chinati Foundation were to sleep together on the wooden floor underneath a white fringe chandelier.

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