I was standing in a bookstore next to the actor Randy Quaid — a slouchy galoot in cargo shorts and flip-flops — when he was a wanted man, a warrant having been issued for him and his wife Evi for running out on a $10,000 hotel bill in Santa Barbara. Running, too, from a purported Hollywood hit squad that was targeting movie people, Randy among them, or at least this is what Evi believed. I was standing next to Randy in the Marfa Book Company, in the small town of Marfa (pop. 2121) in the high desert of West Texas, where the Quaids had fled to elude both the assassins and the law. A week later the celeb fugitives were taken into custody and I haven’t tracked their fortunes since.
That was two years ago, when I was spending a month in Marfa on a writing retreat, courtesy of the Lannan Foundation. I was recently back for another such gig and spotted — in various bars and in the garage-size space that does duty as a coffeehouse/laundromat/ice cream parlor — the movie director Larry Clark, who was shooting a picture with the working title Marfa Girl. Clark’s movie Kids, about an HIV-positive high-school boy who intentionally infects local girls, got up in viewers’ nostrils some years ago, and his 1971 photographic essay, Tulsa, featured images of his pals (one of them pregnant) shooting up, having sex, playing with guns, and indulging in other sorts of X-rated behavior, all of which made me wonder if the good citizens of Marfa knew exactly who was in their midst, auditioning their children.
The movies like Marfa. The scruffy landscape and stark mountains have a diffuse energy against which to play out extremities of conflict. And desert light at magic time is an astonishment. The legendary film event was the 1956 shooting of Giant, soon after which James Dean was killed in his green Porsche on a road near Paso Robles. The local glamour-puss hotel, El Paisano, has a cheesy, mildly ghoulish Giant museum. Marfa and its encompassing emptiness were used for Flesh and Bone, a twisted, smart, overlooked father-son story starring Randy’s brother Dennis. The Coen brothers were there for No Country for Old Men, and all but the bowling alley scenes of There Will Be Blood were filmed outside town.
Geographically, Marfa’s not the center of anything. The nearest major airport is in El Paso, a three-hour drive west; the nearest fair-sized town, Alpine, is 26 miles away. (Alpine, for those in the know, annually hosts the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering.) And yet the town attracts a subspecies that a friend of mine calls marfanatics. Some visit to experience the mysterious nonvibratory vibe of the place that can’t be reduced to any single element, such as the movie connection, or the fact that the bookstore where I sighted Randy has a more astutely and quirkily curated inventory than any independent bookstore in San Francisco, where I live, or that this wide spot in the road contains two fine restaurants (and a couple of squawky honkytonks). And every visitor I know has had Marfa moments. One sleepy afternoon, I saw parked on the otherwise deserted main street, as if they’d been abandoned there, six late-model Corvettes. Another day I watched a luxury Humvee SUV rolling, in parade-style crawl, behind a horse and rider. Six wild turkeys that had free run of the town jumped on the porch of the house where I was staying and, when I left the door ajar, staged a home invasion. (Just before I left, they were reported to animal control, so by now the turkeys may be history.) A Marfa moment is when the ponderously portentous and most flimsily inconsequential seem to be occurring at once.
But a great many more tourists, from all over the world, come to Marfa because it’s home to world-class installations of some of the most influential artists of the past half century, thanks to the Chinati Foundation/La Fundación Chinati, which oversees the constellated locales that Donald Judd created. Judd, born in 1928, made his reputation in New York in the 1960s with ascetic abstract sculptures that critics called “minimalist,” a term Judd rejected. His aspiration was to create a rich and lucid visual conversation between planes and space, material and color. He worked elegantly with polymers, Cor-ten steel, concrete, enameled metal, mill aluminum, and other substances, but his art, as he came to envision its totality, wasn’t just the sculptural object, it was the dynamic between it and its installation space and, by extension, its architectural housing or natural surround. He crafted his sense of the beautiful (and the meaningful) in the spatial intervals between volumes. His work trains the eye to see relations between things — any things — in a fresh, inventive way.
Drawn to the desert landscape, in 1971 Judd rented a house in Marfa and, while he kept his Spring Street studio in New York, mostly lived and worked there till his death in 1994. Over time, he bought several buildings that he converted for specific purposes — living spaces, studios, art venues. He expanded his holdings outside town, too, acquiring ranch property in Presidio County. He rehabbed whatever he took over but respected its original integrity. The sculptural and architectural imagination was for him one unified faculty. He made sculptures for specific buildings (and, for his domestic arrangements, designed furniture and interiors) and crafted exhibition spaces for his friends Dan Flavin, who worked with light, and the automobile scrap-metal master John Chamberlain, whom I’ll get to later.
One of the properties Judd acquired was the abandoned Fort D.A. Russell southwest of town (where, riding my bike, I spotted one of the many pronghorn antelope that graze thereabouts). He refashioned the two grand artillery sheds, installing glass walls where garage doors had been, and to occupy them he designed 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum. Judd wanted to integrate the products of the form-making imagination (his) with a given space (the gunsheds) and the natural order (the desertscape visible out those windows). The bright, finely chased boxes — 48 in one shed, 52 in the other, the sheds sited end to end north by south — stand equidistant from one another and proportionally arranged in relation to the windows and floor squares. Each box has the same outer dimensions (41 x 51 x 72 inches), but no one replicates another. Each is differently inflected by interior or exoskeletal planes, and when those planes are doubled up, they are always proportioned four inches apart. Each box readjusts our perceptual apparatus. Look at a box with an interior panel slanting across its upper half and the space filling the interval looks like a solid black surface. Move slightly to the left or right of another box and one or more of its panels, because of refracted light inside the sheds, looks transparent.