by Jonathan Blaustein
There’s nothing quite so sad as a bunch of fancy coffee addicts, also hungry, twitching down the highway 80 miles for a fix. But when your alternative is the gas station in Van Horn, Texas, you do what you must. That being said, the drive towards salvation was most definitely precarious. First, it was David complaining that there’s no room for Credence on a Texas road trip. (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”) Sacrilege.
Then, I made the (apparently) equally egregious mistake of calling dibs on some photographic subject matter I found, thereby guaranteeing that my buddies would come out, shutters blazing. (It was a forlorn piece of a frozen Santa suit by the side of the road, across from a pecan farm.) According to my friends, there’s no such thing as dibs on a photo safari. My mistake.
Eventually, we made it to Marfa. Out came the Iphones, desperate for a recommendation. Of course, this not being the most meticulously planned trip, most of the restaurants in town were closed. Seems Marfa’s business class has figured out that their jet-set-clientele all leave town sometimes, together, off to better weather, so in response, the shops in town just close, without warning, whenever they like. Seems fair.
But enough about that. We found a nice little cafe run by a sweet Swiss woman, and collapsed into our seats. (She also sold small batch, $14 chocolate bars. Telling detail.) Yes, the coffee was good. Yes, the fruit smoothie made me feel better. Yes, I did feel pangs of guilt for having become so dreadfully bougie at some point in the last ten years.
The four of us choked down the last few bites of our identical baguette sandwiches, as we had a 10 am appointment at the Chinati Foundation for a tour of the facilities. Perhaps this might be the right moment to explain what a “Chinati Foundation” is, and why it was important enough for us to drive straight into the mouth of hell to see it. (For those of you who know the backstory, feel free to skip down a paragraph.)
Without me reciting details like a well-informed, unpaid docent, (Thanks, Mike Bianco) I’ll cut to the chase. At some point in his youth, the soon-to-be-famous Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd passed through Marfa. There was a small military base there, just some barracks really, and he was smitten. Later, the base would be used as a lightly guarded holding facility for German Officer POW’s captured in WWII. Still later, Judd would return, buy up most of the town, and begin installing his work as he saw fit. Then, institutional money came in to support his vision. (Hence the Judd and Chinati Foundations.) Finally, as you might expect, hordes of moneyed followers descended, thereby making Marfa, officially, the strangest place I’ve been in the United States. (Take that, Scottsdale.)
So now you’re caught up. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I heard the Director of the Chinati Foundation speak in Reno last Fall, and he said there would be a special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new photo sculptures on display. I figured that seeing what an acclaimed photo master had cooked up in his lab was enough of a reason to schedule the trip. After all, we all love ourselves some Sugimoto, don’t we?
We arrived a few minutes late, as it was difficult to find the place through the barrage of broken down little shotgun houses. I can’t stress enough how “rustic” are the outskirts of this little town. When you know how many billions of dollars are driving down the street at any given moment, it’s just impossible to connect those two realities. In fact, now that I’m home and have thought about it a bit, perhaps our nightmare of a visit to Van Horn was a blessing. It enabled the four of us to stay grounded, remembering vividly how the other half lives. It’s hard to get freaked out by a few art world snobs when you’ve still got the stench of human desperation in your nostrils.
Ah, the Art you say? How is it possible that I’ve made it this deep into my ramblings without discussing it yet? Shameful. The work on display at the CF was world class. We began our tour in a hangar building, where some Judd furniture was on display. Rows of concrete on the floor were interspersed with rows of perfectly raked gravel. Without thinking, I started walking on the gravel, messing it up with each step, and then turned to watch everyone else walking gingerly on the concrete lines. (Does that tell you everything you need to know about me?) Watching the light forms falling through the windows on the concrete, listening to the creaks of the old building, it was a terrific twenty minutes.
From there, we walked on, past a Richard Long spiral sculpture of volcanic rock from Iceland. The artificial nature of said nature was not super-powerful, set against the tall grass and waving trees of the sunny South Texas morning. On we walked, and soon enough we’d reached one of two humungous hangar-type-buildings. Together, they housed one of Judd’s most famous works: 100 aluminum cubes, each mostly identical but slightly different than the others. The buildings were brick, with still more concrete and glass. (None of the tour allowed photography, unfortunately, but I did sneak one image later on.)
At first, I was surprisingly disappointed. I was expecting to feel exalted, like the best Museum experiences, where you can feel your cells re-arranging in real time. When our emotions are engaged, along with our minds, the best viewing experiences fill us with an almost spiritual joy at encountering the best that humanity can muster. That didn’t happen here. Instead, I found myself pressing my face against the window, looking out at the rectangular concrete sculptures in the golden Winter grass. Yes, I felt like the kid trapped in detention, staring at all his friends having fun outside at recess. So strange.
Then, I accepted that this was not an installation that spoke to my soul, but perhaps it might seriously engage my mind. Whenever I hear people describe Art as having left them cold, it bugs me a bit. As much as I love warmth, there’s definitely a place in the world for it’s opposite. Cold ought not to be, automatically, a pejorative term.
But it’s an appropriate term here. Cold, clinical, precise, mechanical, repetitive, exact, mathematic. Rows and rows of shiny boxes, standing at attention. Ever so similar, just slightly different. Almost like soldiers. Or more specifically, German Soldiers. In World War II. Gleaming officers, stepping out of gleaming Panzer tanks, the finest German engineering could produce. Yes, that’s when the lightbulb went off. It all made sense.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll never know if this is what Judd was thinking. But those POW’s used to be in these hangars, and now they’ve been replaced by the sculptures. Not only that, but they even kept some painted instructions on the wall, in German, that said “Better to use your head than lose your head.” So lets not assume it’s that big of a stretch. Once that idea popped into my head, my appreciation for the work flowered. Call me crazy, if you like, but when I mentioned my theory to the guys, they all nodded and agreed that it made sense.
From there, we hit one more installation, which was my favorite of the day. Created by the Russian Artist, Ilya Kabakov, one of the barracks had been transformed into a faux, abandoned, Russian primary school. Yes, it was a bit precious, (you had to avoid stepping on some of the perfectly arranged dirt) but the vibe and attention to detail were astonishing. It felt so real, with little odds and ends everywhere, here a school book, there a photograph, here a chemistry beaker, there a set of boxing gloves. My most enjoyable impression, again requiring a bit of imagination, was that we were actually in a parallel Universe, one in which the Soviets had won the cold war back in the 50’s. They colonized the US, and then abandoned the more useless parts, like this stretch of nowhere Texas.
We soon headed back to town for lunch, and a visit to a warehouse that featured John Chamberlin sculptures. (Fantastic.) As we were leaving, I couldn’t resist the urge to scribble “JB wuz here, bitches” on the side of a beige-colored power box. I’ve never done graffiti before, yet the compulsion was overwhelming. I think I’m sharing it here, not to present myself as a rapscallion, but rather to point out that among a certain class or caste, (here, Art world snobs) the crush of formality can create a counter-reaction. You think I’m an outsider? Here, I’ll show you. I’ll leave a mark on your special art place. So there.
As I said, the Chamberlin car sculptures were amazing, and a must if you do make your way to Marfa. After lunch, we returned for the second part of the tour. The Dan Flavin light sculptures were cool, but seemed out of place outside of Manhattan. One barracks had remnants of Art made by soldiers past, and was pretty cool. Finally, brain-dead, we begged off the tour and snuck into the Sugimoto installation. (We joined a private tour, at $300 a pop, given by the COO, who was terrifically nice and gracious.)
As much as I like Sugimoto’s work, these things were not worth driving 600 miles to see. Two rooms had two rows of 12 sculptures, each identical to the naked eye. Basically, they’re pyramids of optical glass, with a photo embedded in the orb part of the sculpture. Each image is strikingly similar, one of Sugimoto’s ocean horizon photos, printed on film, to be see-through. Carefully examining one, I loved the way the light and image itself changed depending on where I stood, or moved my head. Two inches to the left, and the image would disappear. Clever, and Zen to be sure. But we all seemed to question why there were some many, as 24 didn’t really improve upon on one, or perhaps two or three.
Finally, we went into town to find some beer, and grab a quick look at Marfa Ballroom, a famous local gallery. When I try to talk about how much this version of the art world revolves around money, power, and private planes, it’s helpful to share this anecdote. I noticed the sign with the staff list, and noted one of the founder’s names. Later that night, at dinner, someone mentioned that said person had just inherited a half a billion dollars. It was said casually. That is all.
In fairness to Marfa Ballroom, they did have some pretty cool work on display in the group exhibition “AutoBody”. Two cars sat outside, locked in a super-slow motion crash that had been pre-ordained. The photographer/artist Liz Cohen was showing a car sculpture that she’d created, which was awesome, and some photographs, which were not. (You decide: In the photos, she was dressed up as a Latina pin-up girl, like you’d see in Lowrider magazine. They were so dry, it was not an engaging spoof. But given her physical attributes, it’s certain that the work will sell. Craven or brilliant?) The gallery was also showing a four channel video installation, “North of South West of East,” by Meredith Danluck, which was so good that all four of us sat and watched for 5 or 10 minutes.
We drove back to the Chinati Foundation, one more time, for a late afternoon stroll out into the prairie, to see the army of concrete sculptures that I’d been ogling all day. Once again, my quest for the transcendent fell short, mostly because I was talking to my friends the whole time. But, if you’re a fan of Minimalism, this work is tough to top. Exquisitely beautiful, seemingly permanent, they mesh so well with the blue sky and the yellow ground. They’re grouped into mini-installations, in a line a Kilometer long. So it’s experiential. You walk, you think, you avoid the snake-holes. Magnificent. Perfect, really. And then you think, how long will these things last? 500 years? A thousand? Regardless, they’ll be here, watching over a slice of Texas, when we’re all gone.
The boys and I had dinner, went to bed, and left the next morning. The drive North was fun, as work, (at least my work,) was done. We passed back through Van Horn, which was much less scary in the light of day, but still as depressing. At a quick pee stop, at the Wendys/Truck Stop/Only-Store-In-Town, we were completely surprised. Walking in, the place was overrun by teenagers. Dozens and dozens. Barely room to move. One student stood out, a flamingly gay little blonde kid, wearing a Swiss-style ski hat on the top of his head. It was so obvious, he was so out there, that my heart broke a little.
The four of us shook our heads, amazed at how hard life must be for the boy, stuck in a backwater like Van Horn, surrounded by a sea of desert and homophobia. And in that moment, I remembered why I love road trips so much. You get out of your life, you reconnect with the enormity of this country, and you never, truly never, know what you’ll see next.