Aug 27, 2014

Marfa, Texas
Back to Basics

Pascal Gautrand
Marfa, Texas Back to Basics

Marfa's sky, Texas, United States

In 1972, master minimalist Donald Judd is one of the most top-rated American artists. That same year, looking to escape New York society life, he buys an enormous ranch in Marfa, a small town in the southwest of Texas, not far from the Mexican border, where he goes on to live and produce monumental sculptures in aluminum and concrete.

It is in this tiny Texas town, situated on a desert plateau nearly one mile above sea level and surrounded by mountains, that he dreams with his artist friends Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain of a place that could accommodate permanent artworks. One of his chief artistic precepts is permanent installation, based on the idea that work ought to made for specific, unique contexts and that temporary expositions in museums and galleries work to the detriment of this type of art.

A few years later, in 1979, with the support of the DIA Art Foundation, Judd acquired an old disused military camp consisting of 30 buildings on 137 hectares on the outskirts of Marfa, which he went on to renovate. Judd's dream became reality: open to the public since 1986, the Chinati Foundation is a true temple of contemporary art that gives this town of just over 2000 inhabitants the pleasure of an international reputation drawing scores of aficionados of contemporary art, architecture, design and even fashion. People arrive from across the globe despite the fact that the city is neither served by airline nor railway.

But in reality, if Judd chose Marfa, it was because he already knew, in some dimension, the city. The story goes that in his youth he served at a military camp. And his dedication to desert minimalism can trace its roots to this first experience. Marfa seems to have a strange power of nostalgic attraction over those passing through its limits. It is a bewitching sort of enchantment, difficult to define but certainly felt as a mysterious power by many travelers.

It must be said that mystery itself is somewhat the signature of the town; throughout its history, in the evening time, inexplicable lights have appeared on the horizon. An observation platform has even been constructed just outside the town and spending time there light-spotting remains today a nighttime staple in Marfa!

The Marfa Myth

Donald Judd died in 1994 but the mark he left on the town is indelible and many have followed in his image. And in recent years, Marfa has seen the flourishing of many other places that promote contemporary art. Among them is Ballroom Marfa, an art center that notably commissioned artists Elmgreen and Dragset to build the sculpture Prada Marfa, a false boutique that stands in the middle of the desert. In October 2014 the space welcomed Sound Speed Maker, an exposition of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler that explores the myth of Marfa and of Texas, taking cinema as its means of entry.

The artist duo presents three installations consisting of videos and photographs dealing, respectively, with the film Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders, a hypothetical silent film shot in the 1910s on a mountain 200 km west of Marfa that accordingly came to be named Movie Mountain, and finally the film Giant which in 1955 brought Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson together in Marfa for part of the filming. The local Hotel Paisano has, meanwhile, accordingly renamed the rooms that the actors in this film occupied during this era.

The genius of Hubbard and Birchler in this exhibition is their ability to put into image and sound the intangible aspects of myth. These three installations work as filmic narrational systems that communicate the aura left behind by the films that inspired them. From a set of memories gathered through video interviews and captured sound, they compose the story of a collective memory whose form straddles fiction, behind-the-scenes, and documentary.

In the installation named Paris, Texas, the artists interviewed a number of residents of the city of Paris, Texas about the eponymous film. One of them pointed out that the city itself does not appear in the film, which causes some frustration on the part of inhabitants, proud that the film bears the name of their town and expecting – not unjustly – that it is the main character. On the contrary, according to the analysis of interviewees, in the film by Wim Wenders, the city represents the quest for the impossible, a nostalgic will towards return. The protagonist of the film seeks to retrieve his lost past and Paris, Texas becomes its incarnate symbol.

To present this work in Marfa, another Texan town that shines today from the convergence of many myths – from the nostalgic impulses of Donald Judd, the memory of the presence of Giant's grand movie stars, and the unsolved mystery of the Marfa Lights – makes a visit to this exhibition all the more strong and beautiful.

Local Productions

Following in the footsteps of Donald Judd in Marfa, the quest for the achievement of an ideal seems to resonate with many other artists and so-called "makers". Tienda M, a shop showcasing the California brand Dosa, presents a collection of household objects and accessories, as well as a special edition "Made in Marfa" soap, handcrafted by Ginger Grifface.

In 2004, Ginger fell in love with Marfa and decided to set up shop in the town. Very quickly, to occupy herself in the middle of the desert, she began manufacturing soap. The adventure began almost as a sort of hobby, with Ginger traveling to France and learning from a perfumer in Grasse, consulting online tutorials and beginning to mix her own blends of botanicals and regional ingredients, such as goat milk from nearby Marfa Maid Dairy, produced by Allan McClane and Malinda Beeman. Soon, the success of this small line of Marfa Brand soaps and creams grew, and Ginger found herself producing a special series for Anthropologie.

For Mimi and Robert Dopson, who produce pottery under the moniker Mimi y Roberto, the story is much the same. The couple, after many years at a dental practice in Austin, succumbed to the lure of the desert and chose live in Alpine, a neighboring town a few dozen miles from Marfa. The objects that they make are minimalist, inspired by Japanese and Italian culture, and are on sale and on display in shops across Marfa such as the Marfa Book Company, a bookstore and gallery that devotes a window to their works.

Adventurers, travelers: if this destination calls to you, know that the charm of Marfa will not leave you cold. Moreover, be careful, as the vibration and magic that lend a singular, endearing character to this place may get the better of you; finding yourself seduced by Marfa and the surrounding desert, you might never return…

Special thanks to Geoff Mino

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Pascal Gautrand

Pascal Gautrand

Made in Mazamet. Made in Town founder, consultant and teacher, he is graduated from the Institut Français de la Mode and used to be a boarder in the fashion design division at the Villa Medici in Rome. He develops a reflexion, mainly in the fashion field, about the manufacturing culture. His approach, oriented towards the promotion of know-how, expresses through writing, video and fashion design. As a consultant, he especially collaborates with Première Vision for the organization of Maison d’Exceptions: a dedicated area about fabric know-how within the show and for the online magazine Maison d’Exceptions whose he is editor.

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