By CCMHT Founding Director, Peter McMahon
I was in Marfa Texas last week to do a talk and book signing in the Crowley Theatre at the invitation of the Marfa Book Company, and poets Josh Edwards and Lynn Xu, who built a small house there, and are current CCMHT artists in residence.
Marfa is the small, high desert town in the far South West corner of the state where the artist Donald Judd moved to make art, and acquire property to house permanent installations of his own work, and the work of artists he admired. Marfa suffered a population collapse after the military de-camped, as did Wellfleet during the Depression, so land and buildings were empty and cheap.
Both Marfa and the outer Cape have a spectral quality of reflected light, compelling to artists. This effect may be caused by the surrounding expanse of open desert in the former, and open ocean in the latter. Walking a few blocks out of the center of both towns, you are confronted with a vast horizon.
Both places sit on the edge of ‘no-where’ yet have become crossroads of international art and culture, leading to gentrification and a lack of affordable housing. This is exacerbated by both towns being unable to expand, Wellfleet, by the sea and National Park land, and Marfa by large private ranches that come right to the edge of town.
Judd bought the small army depot down town, a bank, a supermarket, a church, etc. for his own use, and eventually a larger army base, just outside town, for installations open to the public.
Wellfleet’s first modern architects lived and worked in old ice houses, long-abandoned farms, and pre-fab army barracks, often expanding them, using salvaged building materials that washed up on the beach.
In Marfa it’s easy to see the power of minimalism. A box made of cement or aluminum, in many iterations, arranged this way and that shows every possible resonant relationship. The process of viewing Judd’s aluminum boxes (100 untitled works in mill aluminum) builds to a kind of perceptual crescendo that’s almost hallucinatory. The boxes float, dematerialize and, in general, create the illusion that they have escaped the laws of nature.
Everywhere you look you also see Judd’s rudimentary furniture, made of Pine planks, fresh from the lumberyard, un-sanded and un-finished, made into desks, tables, chairs, book cases, beds, etc. His buildings, landscapes, furniture and sculpture all seem to be part of the same investigation. He resisted the labels of ‘minimalist’ and ‘sculptor’ so maybe ‘restless arranger’ would be better description of his practice.
Marcel Breuer, in his furniture and house designs, developed a set of simple components that he endlessly re-combined for different clients and sites: the long, wooden, elevated box, the floating stairs, the fieldstone wall, etc.
He made furniture for his own rustic Wellfleet house with cement blocks, chunks of lumber and slabs of slate, carefully arranged so that gravity took the place of fasteners.
Breuer was an early pioneer of modernism and Judd a late torch carrier, but they share a love of folk-architecture and hand craft coupled with the quasi-mystical pursuit of abstraction characteristic of the movement.
Both seem to have been engaged in a slow, quiet process of trying to make something transcendent out of the lowliest materials possible.
Many thanks to Tim Johnson, (owner of The Marfa Book Co.)
Caitlin Murray, (Director of Marfa Programs for the Judd Foundation ), and poets Josh Edwards and Lynn Xu, for their hospitality.