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A grand gallery of subtleties -- materials, angles, light

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / July 5, 2003

MARFA, Texas -- Pinto Canyon, particularly among the loping ridges and thumbtack summits down near Chinati Peak, tends toward the vast.

The earth waits dry and brown. The sky lifts up, alone. A low-flying B-1 bomber, out for a training run, resembles a toy balsam glider thrown from a child's hand.

More closely, scale shifts. In a steep, narrow gully on the northeast side of Sierra Hueco, a humble Chinati neighbor, rocks sit stacked and tumbled in shades of red and gray. Green emerges, in the brushed, muted skin of the rangy Cholla cactus and the electric lime lichen clinging to an inward sloping rock. Beneath the angles of such rocks linger several kinds of venomous snake.

Charles Mary Kubricht, a painter often drawn to this canyon, stopped beneath a rising sun during a recent hike on Sierra Hueco.

Beyond the mountain's peak and a distant ribbon of trees that marks the Rio Grande, Mexico rises to its own mountainous heights. But, in a canyon covered by the sea millions of years before, there is also the boundary of time.

"You can imagine the water out here," said Kubricht, whose works often test relationships of color, light, and land. "Then you start going up, and you've got this infinite, or finite space above you. The idea of space goes in all directions."

Such space can seem so powerful that it overwhelms complexity and begins to feel empty, of people and distraction.

In the 1970s, that emptiness drew Donald Judd, a New York artist looking for land and isolation in which to create permanent sculpture, to Marfa, an outpost of a west Texas town, home to some 2,200 people.

Today, remoteness and Judd's works, among them looming concrete blocks and smooth aluminum boxes, housed by the Chinati Foundation, continue to lure artists, architects, and wanderers. Their journey here has become a kind of pilgrimage, a bridging of

distance to ponder the impact of repetition in an open landscape. Those who arrive, particularly those who settle for weeks or years, talk of a clarity that comes from living amid so much land and sky. Such clarity, it would seem, could make any kind of work easier, whether to a lawyer or cowboy, a barista or mechanic.

Ron Sommers, a lawyer and Kubricht's husband, paused on Sierra Hueco and thought about that idea.

"That's very ambitious," he said.

Still, the clarity does appear, even in one moment: Midway through an early June evening, folds of clouds hung south of Route 90, a two-lane highway that connects Marfa to towns such as Valentine, Alpine, and Marathon.

The clouds were heavy and, every few moments, burst with white flashes of lightning.

To the north, a bright, lidless sky hung over flat desert and distant peaks of purple and blue. To the south, dead-of-night darkness reigned. The thick odor of burnt air wafted between the two.

Dr. Seuss cacti with bug-eyed flowers on long, bending stems dotted the land beneath the kind of black-belly clouds U2 puts to music. A line of telephone poles ran smoothly alongside the highway, shortening into the horizon.

Jim Wilhelm, a New York architect, stood on the roadside and considered the telephone poles. In them, he saw a kind of unintended artwork: a self-referential, imposed system giving shape to an otherwise disorderly setting.

"It needs something, in the absence," Wilhelm said. "That's minimalism, no?"

Minimal lurks in Marfa. The Stardust Motel sign, standing tall on the west edge of town, lacks a motel. In a main street storefront showroom, five porcelain bathroom sinks lean at an angle, in a tidy row. Four red lamp shades hang, with empty space between them, from the high ceiling at Maiya's, a gourmet restaurant where one is as likely to share prickly pear margaritas with an artist as to talk horses with a spirited, gray-haired woman who pulls up a chair for a cup of coffee.

Away from North Highland Avenue, even half a block, natural Marfa defines itself in a wide, sleepy grid. In a narrow alley, telephone poles again string drooping lines. Dogs bark from hidden yards; their voices, uninterrupted, rise into the wind. On the south edge of town, as the highway from Pinto Canyon reaches settlement, an abandoned building sits, its windows framing clouds through an absent roof. Several times a day, a train, descended from those that gave life to Marfa as a watering station in the 1880s, rumbles through and greets all of this with long, deep blasts.

Back in the center, just south of the train tracks, a bookstore with an espresso machine and writings about art and landscape anchors newer Marfa. This caters to the artists and second-home-owners coming into a town that is, for now, still mostly local, a population 80 percent Hispanic, many of whom are more likely to work for the Border Patrol, or INS, or the company growing hydroponic tomatoes north of town.

On the west side of Main Street, the Hotel Paisano sits in renovated splendor, an answer to growing demand for fancy lodging. The hotel, with a wide, tile lobby, had fallen on hard times since the summer of 1955, when James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor came to town for the filming of "Giant," the George Stevens epic that was Dean's last film and remote Marfa's big step onto the national stage.

On a recent Saturday night, locals -- mostly, it seemed, ranchers and other Anglo families like those depicted in the film -- gathered with Hollywood guests in the Paisano courtyard to watch "Giant" in a digitally remastered format. Money raised at the showing was to be used to build Marfa's library expansion, designed by California architects.

The film marked Marfa's most self-aware era, and knowing laughter echoed beneath the screen as Hudson dodges dinnertime questions about just how many acres there were to his family's ranch. Hudson, in the role of Bick Benedict, finally answers: "595,000."

In by the wooden bar, where Shiner Bock beer quenched a dry throat, a man who went by the initials P.K. told tall tales.

"Check it out," he said. "Dig it."

P.K. had a long face, slicked-back silver hair, and wild blue eyes. He said he was 70 years old.

"Check it out," he said. "Dig it."

As a young man, P.K. said, he hitchhiked into Marfa and ended up with a spot as an extra on the set of "Giant," on the Evans Ranch outside of town.

"Check it out," P.K. said. "Dig it."

He rocked and shot his eyes around the room and slapped his hands on nearby shoulders. He told about the trunk and the two Mafia guys that, years back, were out to whack him in California.

"Check it out," P.K. said. "Dig it."

"Giant" would play for another hour on the courtyard screen. Out on the Pinto Canyon road, a nearly full moon washed stars from the midnight sky. An easy wind blew. The desert cradled quiet.

Back toward Marfa sits the entrance to the Chinati Foundation, which Judd started in 1979 and which opened to the public in 1986. At 10 a.m. every day except Mondays and Tuesdays, visitors gather in a gravel parking lot to begin a two-part, four-hour tour. The tour groups usually include a handful of people, maybe a half dozen, from Germany or Japan, New York or San Francisco.

Robert Schmitt, a guide, gave the ground rules on a recent Sunday. He would open the doors to different buildings holding exhibits. He would explain the materials used in the artwork. When the group had finished looking, he would lock the doors again.

"Judd really wasn't about interpretation," Schmitt said. "He was about how the art speaks to you."

Schmitt turned the key at the north end of one of two maintenance sheds, long brick buildings converted by Judd on 340 acres of land that had been part of Fort D.A. Russell. In 1914, as Camp Marfa, it had housed some 2,000 Mexicans fleeing Pancho Villa and his rebel troops. The fort grew then shrank and finally closed after World War II. Judd, who had purchased buildings in downtown Marfa after he moved to town in 1972, eventually bought a number of the fort's dilapidated buildings, including barracks and maintenance sheds.

Inside the two sheds opened by Schmitt, Judd had placed 100 mill aluminum boxes in long rooms bordered by high windows. The boxes are arranged in rows.

At first glance, they look the same: shiny school desks in a room for giant children. Up closer, each is different. One has a shelf a few inches beneath the top. Another has a sloping angle through the interior. Some are framed on four sides, open in the middle. Others are closed, except for one side.

The windows open on a field to the east. The backdrop of sky and grass changes with even a step or two in any direction. A stoop to study a box from below cuts nature from the scene and brings new order to the room.

In a nearby, horseshoe-shaped barracks, hang Judd's smooth, shelf-like sculptures done in aluminum, iron, and brass. One, colored silver, red, and yellow, sits as a study in negative space. At first, materials and colors dominate. With time, emptiness emerges to recast shape.

To conclude the morning, Schmitt led a caravan of cars into the heart of Marfa, up North Highland Avenue, toward the beautifully restored Presidio County Courthouse, built in 1886, then to a low building owned by Chinati. Inside a room, Judi Werthein, an Argentine artist, had installed a compartment of mirrors and lights, into which visitors step to find their own echoing faces.

The caravan doubled back to the center of town, past the barbershop and another low building, a former grocery store converted to a studio by Judd, who died at 65 in 1994. Across the street, a dozen sculptures of steel and colorful, crushed car parts by the artist John Chamberlain stand in an empty warehouse, a former wool and mohair building. Light poured through a window onto bent car fenders at the far end of the room. A freight train lumbered past on the other side of the wall.

The tour confronted again and again the weight of space, in the empty, long rooms holding a study of colored, fluorescent light by Dan Flavin, or in the converted gymnasium housing, at one end, Judd's wooden tables. (Judd originally conceived Chinati to exhibit his work and that of Chamberlain and Flavin.)

Afterward, visitors were free to wander the field to the east, where Judd had set concrete blocks in tall grass. For roughly a kilometer, the blocks parallel Route 67, which runs south to Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Mexico, neighboring towns set at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos. Above the north end of the row of blocks, the cupola of Marfa's courthouse and the town's steel water tower loom.

Some of Judd's concrete blocks stand roughly eight feet high, some set lengthwise, others at an angle. Some are open, others are closed on all sides but one. Any make a good place to sit, to examine the changing placement from one block to the next.

But on approaching, such detail was lost amid the grass and dirt and darkening sky.

A young woman, one of several artists lingering among the blocks, passed by carrying a portfolio of sketches. She knew that the nature of art can quickly change.

"Lucky," she said, smiling, "to be here when it's about to rain."

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

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