Leitmotif – Marfa, Texas, Twenty Years Later

I went back to Marfa, Texas, 20 years later.  It was liberating to write about what I saw, and what I remembered.

“I had been to enough museums, and seen enough concerts, to learn that an awful lot of what makes art effective is attitude – someone’s powerful certainty.”

This spring, after twenty years, I decided it was time to go back for a visit to Marfa, Texas. The Chinati Foundation – Donald Judd’s nonprofit – was organizing its annual symposium there, in early May, and a friend and I decided to take the trip together, to see what we could see. They were an extraordinary few days. The symposium, Light in Architecture and Art: The Work of Dan Flavin, took place at the Marfa AmVets hall. The gathering combined an attentive audience with inspired speakers. They spoke of light, all but one of them while in a darkened room.

The author walking in Marfa, 2001

Photo of the Author, Marfa, 2001
Photo: Frank Cormier

Packing for the weekend trip, I had searched for the snapshots and slides from my trips there in 1980 and 81, in case I felt the need for some compare-and-contrast moments. The more time I spent there, walking up and down the main street of Marfa, or visiting the art installations at Fort Russell, or stopping at the walled compound where the Judd family had lived, then – father, son, daughter, cat and dog – the more unnecessary those photos became. With the exception of the icehouse. In that case the photos I needed did not turn up until after I returned from the symposium. More on that later.

The light in West Texas that weekend was gorgeous. Blinding, when the doors of the AmVets building burst open at lunchtime; merely warm, clear and abundant the rest of the time. The owners of a passing pickup truck had venetian blinds in their rear window, between the shotgun and the glass. A hummingbird hovered by the blooming cactus in the Ramada Inn parking lot in Alpine. A windmill stood idle. Doorways within doorways begged me to take their picture.

Driving the two-lane highway alongside the railroad tracks, you sidled up to a geographic memory of the Frontier – wide-open spaces, the importance of land ownership, rights of way, water rights, mining rights.

At Chinati’s Saturday-night dinner – it was Cinco de Mayo and a Mariachi band played – we got to chatting with some of the other visitors. One man, an advertising art director, was in from Los Angeles, prospecting for trends. A young woman was a recent design school grad, who worked as a carpenter in Georgia. They were mining this art – he, for a market edge over the competition; she, for a visual break from her life, possibly for artistic inspiration. Traveling back to New York City, my friend and I mused that the future would belong to them.

The past, on the other hand, belongs to – well, that raised an interesting point. Having been to Marfa for my job at Dia in 1980 and 81, I felt a certain ownership of my own history and the small bits of Dia’s – and now Chinati’s – institutional history in which I had played a role. But I found unexpected challenges to my memories.

stacked adobes, in Marfa TX

Adobes, Marfa, 1980
Photo: A M Carley

Judd’s bagpipes were in an exhibition case. He had played them for a colleague and me our first night in Marfa in 1980, and it felt odd to see them again, recast as a museum artifact rather than a surprising musical instrument in a man’s house. The stacked adobe bricks in my old photo had been layered into walls, already eroding away. The cacti had grown in the patches of garden set in the crunchy gravel lawn. People didn’t live there as they used to – it was now mostly a museum and library.

demolition on the icehouse, Marfa

The icehouse being torn down, 1980
Photo: A M Carley

A goofy-looking wooden icehouse I remembered vividly was nowhere to be found, nor could I find a person who remembered it at all. They kept saying, “Oh you mean the ice factory,” and I kept saying, “No, not the ice plant, the wooden icehouse.”

It was not until I got back to New York that I found a folder of slides with pictorial proof of that many-flanged building’s final days on its tottering stilts. Art and Technology, indeed. The diapositives that had resulted from established analog film technologies restored my faith in my visual memories.

I had begun to feel as though my version of the past was a bit lightweight, or too late arriving, to be quite real to the Marfa habitués. I sensed discomfort from those who had the Dia / Chinati history tied up, named and attributed. I had been hiding in plain sight, these twenty years, but it felt as if my story and my images were invalid, somehow. It was a familiar uncertainty, I realized. My time at Dia had been full of it.

The Marfa Chamber of Commerce wants us to believe the past is where we want to be: “What the West Was” is what they are selling. Other aspects of the past – heavy, substantial, validated – were of course central to the symposium. The speakers had been engaged to connect Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light art to the continuum of art history and commentary, and so they did. I learned a good deal, and appreciated their enthusiasm, deep knowledge and competence. Robert Rosenblum’s asides had their own asides, he had so many ideas bubbling up at once. Dave Hickey would find his eyeglasses, adjust the distance to his notes, glance at them, and then fling off the glasses again each time, the better to reach us, to make sure we were getting what he wanted us to understand.

"Marfa is what the West was" sign

Welcome to Marfa sign, 2001
Photo: Frank Cormier

The people congregated in the AmVets building for the symposium came from all over. Somehow they had all known to arrive here, collect their map and orange Flavin / Chinati button, and pay attention. It seemed likely they already knew something about the art and the artists. If they didn’t, they knew how to act as though they did. As Peter Schjeldahl put it when he went for the Flavin opening last fall, “[Chinati] has an air of being entirely too good for mere human beings.”

Before traveling West this time, I took a look at the websites for the Chinati Foundation and for the town of Marfa. They afforded each other about the same degree of recognition. Marfa wants to promote the Marfa Mystery Lights. Chinati wants to promote the vision of Don Judd and his invited guests.

Out at Fort Russell, the former US Army Cavalry base that is now Chinati’s primary museum, the U-shaped buildings had been ramshackle and forlorn in the 1980’s, unused as barracks for some time. Now the six buildings that have been fixed up for the Flavin installation are immaculate. All the side windows have been removed, for the Flavin buildings. The renovations left the indentations in the outer walls, so you know the windows had been there. They have special door-closer hardware, heavy wooden doors and resonant rooms. The special sounds the door makes when it shuts have a half-life, there is so much flat hard surface to carom around, within.

A U-shaped building entrance, with a second windowless facade behind.

A U-shaped building entrance, with a second windowless facade behind. Fort Russell, Chinati Foundation, 2001.
Photo: A M Carley

Inside the heavy doors, the Flavin installations are safe. Their colored lights, in premeditated combinations, diffuse the long arms of the U-shaped buildings. We had to look very carefully at the far wall, as we were exiting a building that used green light, to convince ourselves that wall had been painted simply white. Pervasive green vibrations had made us uncertain. I remembered Brydon Smith’s story that afternoon about what exposure to green fluorescents had done to the viewer’s perceptions at Flavin’s first big museum show, curated by Smith in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada in the late 1960’s.

Dave Hickey came in on Sunday to preach. He even left the lights on – no slides to distract us churchgoers. To hear Hickey tell it, we were probably all elitist fetishistic aristocracy-of-taste-loving hangers-on. All weekend, the commentators had been lining up connections all over – among art forms, religious practices, historical periods, art and commerce, the elite and the hoi-polloi, Lower Manhattan art coteries of the 1950’s and 60’s. Words echoed – “practices,” “ahistoric,” “discourse,” “dialectic.” With every connection, the Marfa artists’ purity was more muddied, their isolation reduced, at least until we went outdoors again into the hot sunlight.

To the elite this might be a distressing mussing of the order of things. But to us, the hoi-polloi, “It’s the only way to go,” as my friend put it. I welcomed it. I really appreciated being led a little, to connect Flavin with the larger complex story of the history of art. My direct experience of Flavin and his art had been in the high altitudes of the Dia Art Foundation of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, where the air was thin and the only connections made to the messy story of the history of art were the ones you had come in with. I had entered Dia traveling light, with only an art history survey in college and a childhood full of visits to museums and old churches. At Dia I lived and breathed the fabrication and presentation of art by Judd, Flavin et al., but connecting it to history was not something that came up often. If we were focused on history at all, it was because we toiled with the belief floating above us that we were engaged in changing it. In fact, it seems we did.

I was receptive to the art historians now, because I realized they could provide me some context. (Context I could share with others – the non-Dia-alumni of the world.) I was curious to see if this work could be taken out of the vacuum in which it had existed for me. Sure enough, Rosenblum linked the metal can of Jasper Johns’s Savarin Coffee paintbrush holder to Flavin’s early light piece, a Pope Tomatoes can with a lightbulb on the top.

A target shape on a wall in Marfa

Wall, Marfa, 2001
Photo: A M Carley

Barnett Newman’s name came up as well: Rosenblum said Flavin’s fluorescent light works honor Newman “as if at a shrine.” And Brydon Smith said Flavin told him he was influenced by Judd’s early red-surfaced sculpture, shown at Green Gallery in 1963. (Some of those, or similar ones, we saw on exhibit at a Chinati building.) Hickey and Forster brought in gobs of references to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Tiffany Bell, citing Emily Rauh Pulitzer, reported Flavin’s own comparison of his installations to the ancient Irish bardic tradition. Hickey had picked up on something like that, too, only he compared it to Tiepelo who, like Flavin, would go to a new location where he was to work, assess it, respond to the occasion by making art, and then pack up and move on. Steve Morse, Flavin’s technician in his final years, confirmed that model and took it further. As Flavin’s health began its precipitous decline he delegated more and more of the artmaking process to Morse, on occasion never visiting the site himself.

My first experience of a Flavin installation could not have been more fortunate. One winter day, in 1978, I think, I went with the Dia Art Foundation’s very skeptical accountant to an exhibition on West Broadway in Soho. Lucky for me, the work installed there was Flavin’s monumental Untitled (for Helene), a tour de force acknowledged at the symposium by Michael Govan and others as one of Flavin’s masterworks. It made me a believer. Who knew fluorescent pastel light, aimed away from the viewer, from fixtures hidden by columns and walls, could overtake a large high-ceilinged loft space that way? I forget exactly what the accountant’s response was, but I think it included, “OK I like it fine, but is it art?” It was a bunch of fluorescent lights, not art. Art was made with skill and the touch of highly trained hands. Art had imagery. I understood his response, but somehow I was persuaded this was art we were looking at.

My background was more in music than art, but I had been to enough museums, and seen enough concerts, to learn that an awful lot of what makes art effective is attitude – someone’s powerful certainty. Hickey rounded out that angle when he said Judd and Flavin’s art has “the absence of doubt.” I liked that. It was such a neat summary of something I had known but not articulated well. Rosenblum economically added religion to that mix, when he commented that Flavin and Judd, like the Abstract Expressionists, “imagined they wrote the Book of Genesis each time.” Now that’s certainty.

Religion turned up a lot. For one thing, Hickey’s talk was titled, “The Luminous Body: Sourceless Illumination as a Metaphor for Grace.” Govan said the Flavin masterworks, years ago at 393 West Broadway, and recently – more permanently – at the Chiesa Rossa in Milan and the barracks in Marfa, each use indirect light. In all three places, you don’t see the bulbs or their fixtures when you approach – you are only bathed in unusual, undefined colored illumination. This tied in with Hickey’s “grace” thesis: he said that historically, a state of grace is pictured by “sourceless light.” Kurt Forster made lots of references to the uses of light in architecture through modern history and in art theory and technique as well. His uses of language were so good they were exciting. Describing the Freemason symbolism evident in die Zauberflöte, he said the scenery for the Queen of the Night’s great moment even suggested she arranged the stars in a grid – in “a shroud of electricity.”

Advertisement for the Marfa Mystery Lights, Marfa 2001

Advertisement for the Marfa Mystery Lights, Marfa 2001
Photo: Frank Cormier

There were other bons mots. One of my favorites came from Rosenblum. His research had found that early 20th-Century publicity for lightbulbs promised, “It will not leak,” in response to fears about the nature of electricity. Drawing an example from the past, Hickey credited Leo Steinberg with grasping that the oil glaze technique of Sixteenth Century European painters “assisted theology” by permitting the illusion of ambient illumination, showing “bodies invested with light.”

Facade of the Palace Theater, 1980

Palace Theater, Marfa, 1980
Photo: A M Carley

Hickey said Judd once asked him, “How can I possibly make art when I have to worry about the bills?” Hickey assured us that if Judd and Flavin were here today, they’d tell us we had let them down – we did not create the world in which their work would do best. Their disappointed retreats manifested differently, Hickey quipped: “Flavin went to television and Judd went to Marfa.” Rosenblum began his talk with amazement at being in Marfa – this “remote, dramatic, fabulous empire.” It does have that effect. Hickey said Flavin and Judd were products of their time, post-War militants, “obsessed by security and control,” wanting to be “masters of this empire, the Pax Americana.” Govan declared that Dan Flavin had made a new art form. How many people do that? Our world is not one in which their work would do best, but it’s our world, and there’s Marfa, in one corner of it.

Marfa the town is being gentrified, if that word can apply to a place that was never part of a city. I don’t know if I was more surprised to see the Marfa Book Company – named as if by Garrison Keillor – prospering on Highland Street, serving lattes, wine and art books, or the pitcher full of fresh carrot juice – three dollars a glass – on the snacks table at our first midmorning break. On the other hand, we found a good junk store, with many items priced under a dollar. Near it, another storefront displayed one-of-a-kind art furniture by several makers, with contact information directing interested customers to telephone numbers on both coasts.

Palace Theater, now a private designer's office, Marfa 2001

Palace Theater, now a private designer’s office, Marfa 2001
Photo: A M Carley


The old Deco-influenced tiled buildings on the main drag are coming back from decrepitude. Most of the other storefronts have been brought to perfection itself, stuccoed flawlessly in subtle dull colors. The road was being resurfaced, too. The new, higher pavement tripped me as I stepped off a curb and I went down fast, gracelessly. I left a deposit of skin and blood in front of the bank. A month later the bruises had nearly faded. No permanent damage, except to a shredded pair of trousers. I kept the camera out of harm’s way.


On Sunday afternoon before we drove back to El Paso my friend read about Marfa’s history from a fact-filled sign in a store window on Highland Street near the Palace Theater. The sign was bleached from the sun, but he tried to make out what it said, particularly the part about a famous animal, Sabe the Burro. It seems there was a sign years ago on a building in Marfa, advertising Sabe’s talents. Long after people had forgotten what Sabe had ever done, the sign remained, taking on its own significance. Freed from its past, the sign lived on, bearing the legend, “Sabe the Burro – Incomprehensible and Unforgettable.” I felt that summed it all up.

abandoned 24-hour motel, near Marfa

Near Marfa, May 2001
Photo: A M Carley


The Chinati Foundation’s website is at http://www.chinati.org

The symposium, Light in Architecture and Art: The Work of Dan Flavin, took place on 5 -6 May 2001 in Marfa, Texas. Speakers included Kurt Forster, Director of the Canadian Center for Architecture; Robert Rosenblum, New York University art historian and author; Michael Govan, Director, Dia Center for the Arts, New York City; Brydon Smith, affiliated with Chinati now, formerly of the National Gallery of Canada; Michael Venezia, artist and friend of Flavin; Tiffany Bell, critic and Flavin catalogue raisonné editor; Steve Morse, Flavin’s last technical consultant; and Dave Hickey, Professor of Art Criticism and Theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It was organized by Marianne Stockebrand, Director of the Chinati Foundation.

Peter Schjeldahl wrote about Judd, Flavin and Marfa in Light in Juddland, in The New Yorker magazine, 25 September 2000 at p. 98.

The Dia Center for the Arts has a website at http://www.diacenter.org

Donald Judd died in 1994, when he was 65 years old. His friend Dan Flavin died in 1996, at 63. The Flavin installation at Fort Russell was planned by the artists while they were both alive, and realized under Steve Morse’s supervision in 2000. It is called untitled (Marfa Project) 1996.

The movie Giant was filmed near Marfa. James Dean fans make pilgrimages like the one described here http://our.tentativetimes.net/marfa/

The Marfa Mystery Lights have a website: [Old Link] http://www.marfalights.com/ So far, they, too, are considered sourceless light.

Anne Carley learned on this trip to write in the dark. From 1978 to 1982 she worked at the Dia Art Foundation (now the Dia Center for the Arts) and traveled to Marfa on business in 1980 and 1981. At that time, Judd and Flavin were working with Dia. Uncredited photos are by the author. First published, Summer 2001. Arts4All Newsletter Issue 18.

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