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Marfa, Texas: Installation Art in the Middle of Nowhere

By: Diana Sims

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner’s well-received and much-discussed Frontier Thesis proposed the American West to be, not only where American democracy, egalitarianism, and violence was born, but also where America declared itself disinterested in the high culture that so neatly stratified the Old World. Never would the benefacted idolatry of Velasquez, Van Eyck, or Titian take root in the acrid plains of the West; settlers preferred an alluvial and sometimes lonesome existence, driving cattle to and fro and fro and to.

Untitled works by Donald Judd. Photo from https://www.chinati.org/collection/donaldjudd2.php.

With his 1973 move to Marfa, Texas, Donald Judd showed that the American West was, in fact, hospitable to “high culture,” and could also be a haven for other minimalists seeking respite from the claustrophobic New York art scene. On 340 acres, once the site of a military airbase, Judd established the Chinati Foundation, a museum featuring large-scale installations in dialogue with the surrounding landscape.

Judd’s own work in Marfa, though formally minimal, is prolific; exterior works include 15 concrete boxes protruding from an open field, interior include 100 aluminum pieces housed in two former artillery sheds, and an aesthetically-conscious renovation of a gymnasium where soldiers at the base once trained. Light-artist Dan Flavin was one of the first New York ex-pats to follow Judd, as well as sculptor John Chamberlain, but today the collection has expanded to include mixed media work from artists internationally.

Judd disliked his minimalist label, and instead articulated a preference for formal clarity and an attention to time and place. As such, much of the Chinati collection plays with the idea of metaphysical location, as evidenced by pieces entitled “Dawn to Dusk” (Robert Irwin) and “Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There” (Roni Horn).

“Untitled (Dusk to Dawn” by Robert Irwin. Photo from  https://www.chinati.org/collection/robertirwin.

“Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There” by Roni Horn. Photo from https://www.chinati.org/collection/ronihorn.

37 miles north of the Chinati Foundation, in a total absence of surroundings–apart from an arrow straight road and a cloudless sky–sits German artists Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa installation, an exact replication of one of the Italian fashion house’s stores.  Stocked with neat rows of the designer’s purses and shoes, the cost of manufacturing the piece was $80,000.

While Judd’s works have occasionally confused Marfa locals, Prada Marfa seems subject to more frictional interactions, and vandalism towards the piece has surfaced from time to time since its 2005 installation. Past aggressions have included a crudely spray-painted “DUMB,” a successful robbery, an abstract and ominous coating of blue paint, and a more conceptually rich episode in which the vandals hung banners for Tom’s shoes from the store’s overhang. Other visitors are less antagonistic. Prada Marfa unsurprisingly doubles as a fashionable background of impromptu editorial shoots, instagrammed by everyone from Beyoncé to art-girls that are very far from home.

Prada Marfa. Image via Simon Bierwald on Flickr / Creative Commons.

These often well-publicized instances are a rarity, however, considering that Prada Marfa spends most of its time unvisited and unviewed, in the badlands of the high desert. This lack of attention, however, is what made the Southwest a desirable locale for contemporary art in the first place. And Judd’s move to Marfa from New York not only echoes the theme of secession that runs so steadily through the Texan heritage, but recalls the frontier forging of times gone by.


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