Desert Utopia: Donald Judd's Marfa 04.06.13

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In the mid 1970s, the artist Donald Judd moved from New York to Marfa and remodelled the remote Texas town according to his minimalist aesthetic. We visit the art oasis that has influenced and inspired a new generation of architects and designers.

As you make the four-hour drive from El Paso airport to Marfa, a small town in West Texas, not far from the Mexican border, you pass through various security checkpoints under the watchful gaze of US Border Patrol agents and their sniffer dogs. Turning off the main expressway, down Route 90, you embark on a journey of hypnotic, bleak nothingness that is suddenly interrupted by an incongruous Prada store on the edge of the desert road. There is nothing else for miles around, just an expanse of yellow grassland, tumbleweed, ocotillo and cacti, offset by the faint silhouette of the Chinati Mountains on the horizon.

Illuminated at night, with a range of original shoes and handbags displayed in its windows, this Prada store never opens. Pressing your face to the glass reveals the plush carpet inside to be covered in dead flies. A permanent sculpture installed in 2005 by Scandinavian artists Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa, about 40 miles north-west of the town it is named after, is a sort of gatepost that marks the edge of a remote yet popular art park that has bloomed over the past two decades in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.

The artists describe Prada Marfa as a "pop architectural land art project" and its ironic, minimalist product displays make reference to the work of Marfa's most famous artist-inhabitant. Donald Judd, a moody Midwesterner with Scottish roots – betrayed in his predilection for kilts, whisky and bagpipe music – arrived in Marfa from New York in the mid-70s. He kept his five-storey cast-iron building in SoHo but, disillusioned with the "glib and harsh" Manhattan art scene and his position in it as a doyen of minimalism (a label he always disavowed), he withdrew to rural Texas for increasingly large parts of the year. In Marfa he created his own utopian mix of elemental art, architecture and furniture and in the process was forced to meditate on the differences between these art forms.

Frustrated by temporary gallery displays of his work, which he thought relegated art to the background, he hoped to find somewhere to create permanent installations. The harsh light, dry heat and wide horizons of the desert seemed the perfect setting in which to articulate his grammar of industrial, essential forms – "stacks", "boxes" and "progressions" in metal, plywood, concrete and coloured Plexiglas. He showed his work alongside permanent displays by other artists he admired: Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Richard Long, Ilya Kabakov and John Chamberlain. Judd died in 1994, at the age of 65, and the town has since become a sprawling museum, an art colony filled with pilgrims to minimalism who mix in the market square with craggy cowboys, turning this corner of the predominantly Republican state into a liberal, bohemian enclave.

Before Judd took up residence there, the town was known primarily for the Marfa Mystery Lights, an unexplained, optical phenomenon that resembles fireflies dancing in the desert night. An astronomer at the nearby McDonald Observatory dismissed them to me as "in 99 per cent of cases, due to car headlights in the distance". I wasn't quick enough to ask about the remaining 1 per cent, or the fact that reports of this strange, mobile luminescence go back to 1883, when the town was founded and named after the family servant from The Brothers Karamazov because the railway overseer's wife happened to be reading Dostoevsky at the time. Marfa's other claim to fame is that Giant (1956), the oil epic starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, was filmed there.

On his arrival in Marfa, Judd, flush with the profits from international sales of his work, embarked on something of a land grab. With the help of the Dia Art Foundation he brought 40,000 acres of ranchland, two Second World War aircraft hangers, the town's bank building, a 300-acre former cavalry base, the Marfa Hotel, the Safeway store, six turn-of-the-century homes, a warehouse, the local barber's shop and the Marfa Hot Springs. He set about establishing a fiefdom, with more staff on his payroll than the municipality, restoring and adapting the town's architecture so it would best frame his austere work.

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Judd's masterpiece, 100 untitled works in mill aluminium (1982-86), is now housed in the Chinati Foundation, where it fills two huge artillery sheds that he had capped with corrugated Quonset roofs. Arranged in neat rows, each reflective aluminum box is of the same dimension, but contains a different arrangement of sloping angles and other subtle variations. Floor-to-ceiling quartered windows, a Judd trademark, let in generous daylight, creating a play of silver reflections. They open out, spinning like revolving doors on a central pivot, on to another, outdoor, sculptural arrangement of boxes: 15 untitled works in concrete (1980-84), among the first pieces Judd installed here, comprising huge pre-cast slabs that snake through the rugged ranchland.

In an adjacent, unrestored hanger are murals left by the 200 German prisoners of war that were interned here in the 1940s, scatological graffiti now preserved behind glass. In nearby barrack blocks, once lived in by the 600-strong army force that held them captive, are a series of coloured fluorescent-light sculptures by Dan Flavin which display subtle, mood-altering variations between rooms, and a Kabakov installation that pays tribute to the town's Dostoevskian heritage by recreating a communist-era school, complete with desks and Cyrillic text books, which has been left to decay as though abandoned inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

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Judd's own compound, surrounded by a double wall of adobe and mortar (apparently itself classed as an artwork) as high as that around Bin Laden's Pakistan retreat, is a catalogue of his influences, as well as a museum of prototypes of his life's work. His sizeable library reveals that his interests extended well beyond art, with books on Dutch design, Gothic architecture, Icelandic churches and the Bauhaus as well as monographs about the architects Judd admired, all catalogued according to birth date: Inigo Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef Hoffmann, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Jean Prouvé, Louis Kahn, Luis Barragán. Practical volumes on building techniques attest to Judd's own architectural experiments, such as this large, day-lit room, which has only one bare bulb and a Flavin light sculpture to facilitate evening reading. The metal roof contracts in the desert heat, creating a sound similar to rain on tin.

When Judd arrived in Marfa, disappointed with the local furniture on offer ("fake antiques or tubular kitchen furniture with plastic surfaces printed with inane geometric patterns and flowers"), he set about creating his own ascetic designs to suit the structures he built. In the mid 1960s a friend had asked Judd to create a coffee table, which the artist tried to do by adapting one of his artworks. He ended up destroying it, believing that to imitate art in design was both to create bad furniture and to "debase" the artwork. It was only in Texas, several years later, that he would try again. One of the first pieces he created was a bed for his two young children, designed with a central, dividing wall and nailed together from planks cut to size at a nearby lumber yard. It marked the beginning of Judd's long engagement with furniture design.

Judd, whose father was a wood worker, had an extensive, priceless collection of 20th-century furniture. Much of this is displayed in Marfa's former bank, a building Judd transformed by removing the fake ceiling and teller's booths to reveal the strong concrete bones of the building and a pastoral mural showing a field of longhorns. On display are pieces by Gerrit Rietveld, Marcel Breuer, Gustav Stickley, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Piet Mondrian and Frank Lloyd Wright. All these influenced Judd's own designs – for chairs, shelves, desks, beds and tables – that echo the formal purism of his sculptures. But, he stressed: "The art of a chair is not its resemblance to art, but is partly its reasonableness, usefulness and scale as a chair."

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Judd put a limited amount of his designs into production, but their manufacturing cost was always high. His functional, straight-from-the timber-yard aesthetic has resulted in a parody quiz online that pits his designs against budget alternatives called "Donald Judd, or Cheap Furniture?" The Judd Foundation continues to sell these wooden pieces, and his brightly-coloured sheet metal furniture is still produced in Switzerland by Lehni AG, a collaboration that began in 1984. These industrial chairs are made up only of right angles, which he maintained was a reaction to Victorian "overstuffed bourgeois furniture". "I am often told that the furniture is not comfortable and, in that, not functional," Judd grumbled. "The furniture is comfortable to me. A straight chair is best for eating and writing. The third position is standing."

The artist liked to mix his furniture and artworks, and is well-known for his eccentricity of including beds in his gallery spaces, so that you could meditate and dream alongside the art. However, he always maintained that each operated on different aesthetic planes. "The configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture," he said. "The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which must be functional. If a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous."

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Christopher Turner


Images: James Evans; Chinati and Judd Foundations; Sebastian + Barquet, New York/IKON Gallery, photograph by Stuart Whipps; Pace Gallery/Ikon Gallery, photograph by Stuart Whipps; © Judd Foundation

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Pilgrims to minimalism mix with craggy cowboys, turning this corner of the predominantly Republican state into a liberal, bohemian enclave

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