REVIEWS OF MARFA MODERN
When Donald Judd began his Marfa project in the early 1970s, it was regarded as an idiosyncratic quest. Today, Judd is revered for his minimalist art and the stringent standards he applied to everything around him, including interiors, architecture, and furniture. The former water stop has become a mecca for artists, art pilgrims, and design aficionados drawn to the creative enclave, the permanent installations called “among the largest and most beautiful in the world,” and the austerely beautiful high-desert landscape.
In keeping with Judd’s site-specific intentions, those who call Marfa home have made a choice to live in concert with their untamed, open surroundings. Marfa Modern features houses that represent unique responses to this setting – the sky, its light and sense of isolation – some that even predate Judd’s arrival.
Here, conceptual artist Michael Phelan lives in a former Texaco service station with battery acid stains on the concrete floor and a twenty-foot dining table lining one wall. A chef’s modest house comes with the satisfaction of being handmade down to its side tables and bath, which expands into a private courtyard with an outdoor tub. Another artist uses the many rooms of her house, a former jail, to shift between different mediums – with Judd’s Fort D. A. Russell works always visible from her second-story sun porch.
Extraordinary building costs mean that Marfa dwellers embrace a culture of frontier ingenuity and freedom from excess―salvaged metal signs become sliding doors and lengths of pipe become lighting fixtures, industrial warehouses are redesigned after the area’s white-cube galleries to create space for private or personally created art collections, and other materials are suggested by the land itself: walls are made of adobe bricks or rammed earth to form sculptural courtyards, or, in one remarkable instance, a mix of mud and brick plastered with local soils, cactus mucilage, horse manure, and straw.
Publishers Weekly Review
This book of modern interiors captures both the unique sense of place and the vibrant artistic community of Marfa, Tex., a mecca for art pilgrims, design aficionados, and international hipsters. Artist Donald Judd (1928–1994) first moved there in 1971 and eventually set up set up the Chinati Foundation, attracting other artists and art fans to the area. Some of the homes are recent additions, while others predate Judd’s arrival, drawing upon the “autonomous kind of modernism” of a remote location with a simple set of local materials. Renovation for modern use typically involved stripping these structures— a former dance hall, a former jail, a former Texaco with car battery acid stains retained on the floor—down to their basic elements. The materials range from age-old compounds of mud to very modern aerated concrete. The desert landscape is a both a boon and a challenge. Several of the buildings find unique ways to showcase the landscape without becoming swallowed up by it. Courtyards and unconventional windows blur, blunt, and dramatize the scenery, shielding interiors at points while opening them blissfully at others. The idea, in the words of Thompson (former Texas city editor of Metropolitan Home), of “a place where the demand to live for art is so compelling as to be unavoidable” might sound hyperbolic, but when readers see how these residents live, they’ll understand.
Architectural Record Review
When the artist Donald Judd began buying up land in Marfa in the 1970s, he saw the sleepy West Texas town and its sweeping desert vistas as the perfect backdrop for his austere sculptures. In Marfa, as opposed to the Manhattan gallery scene, Judd could conceive his own sprawling utopia.
Though he died in 1994, the 40,000 acres Judd purchased with the help of the Dia Art Foundation have made Marfa into a town-as-museum, including two artillery sheds exhibiting 100 of his untitled works, operated by the Chinati Foundation. Though most people make the pilgrimage to Marfa just to see Judd’s work, some have come and stayed, inventively building or adapting houses that have a unique desert modernism attuned to the light and landscape, mirroring Judd’s work or serving as a precedent to it.
Now, writer and editor Helen Thompson presents 21 case studies of the area’s domestic architecture. She places them in three categories: “vernacular modern,” which she describes as “old, probably adobe” and containing modernist elements that predated the movement; “handmade modern,” a more ad hoc building style of simple forms; and “recent modern,” contemporary houses by an architect or designer.
In the third category, a design by San Antonio–based architects Lake | Flato makes use of their line of prefab units called “Porch Houses.” An artist couple with a remote site north of Fort Davis purchased two modules for an off-the-grid scheme that connects to the outdoors with sliding glass doors and a dogtrot between the bedroom and living units. Covered in a gabled zinc and aluminum roof, the residence nods to the metal barns and sheds of Texas’s agricultural legacy.
For an old adobe example, Thompson describes a 100-year-old building that had been used as a lawyer’s office and beauty parlor until Houston-based architectural designer Barbara Hill purchased and gutted it, preserving the original adobe walls. She covered them in white plaster and added new steel beams and rods for structural support. The result—now owned by a couple—is a luminous progression of rooms.
Thompson’s clear, brief essays describe how each homeowner arrived in Marfa—a nice contextual touch, given that it’s a remote place where residents and visitors have to decide very consciously to be. Her descriptions of plans, materials, and design concepts give heft to what could have simply been a lifestyle coffee table book. Photographer Casey Dunn leaves people and styling (extraneous food, flowers, and props) out of his shots, for the most part, which keeps the focus on design choices as well as the play of the desert light inside.
The result is a visual page-turner and is clearly a result of Thompson’s reporting skills from her days at Metropolitan Home magazine. Marfa Modern serves as a primer on how a “watering hole” that Judd put on the map has evolved without him, and lets it lay claim to importance as a place of vernacular design, not solely an art destination.
Marfa Texas Marfa Invitational Chinati Foundation.
In the 1880s, Marfa was just a railroad water stop for Los Angeles-bound trains, but now the town of about 1,980 people—on a plateau between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park—is an international tourist destination. Need proof? The New York Times placed Marfa at No. 48 on its list of 52 Places to Go in 2016.
The Times opines that the oddball mix of Marfa’s eccentric vibe with ultramodern art accounts for the desert town’s appeal. The origin of this bipolar phenomenon lies in minimalist artist Donald Judd’s settling in this dusty ranching town in 1971. Judd was looking for a place to display his stringently exacted art. Marfa’s isolation, the long horizon and the everlasting sky lured Judd to the Trans-Pecos region, but his decision was regarded as the solipsistic quest of an antisocial celebrity. Now Judd is viewed as prescient.
Judd’s lifestyle catalyzed seekers to aspire to live in a desert setting. Today, visitors can immerse themselves so completely in a heady mix of art, music, theater and style that they never want to leave. Many don’t. For these newcomers, that often means buying and renovating houses, an activity at which Judd was exceptionally adept: He bought several buildings downtown, three ranches and the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell. Judd renovated all of his acquisitions to reflect his rigorous vision. For that reason, he is revered not just as the patron saint of minimalist art but also as the muse of minimalist interiors, architecture and furniture.
That trend is what brought me to Marfa in 2014. Although I was already a frequent visitor, over the past two years I have been working with photographer Casey Dunn on a book that involves photographing houses in Marfa that reflect Judd’s influence. Many of the houses belong to former big-city residents who, like Austinites Linda and Don Shafer, felt compelled to find a way to live here.
It may seem strange that in a far-flung nook of civilization, modern architecture and interior decoration thrive. But Marfa’s status as a center of taste is well-deserved: There are two film festivals, two music festivals, a public radio station, a theater, the Chinati Foundation that Judd founded to showcase large installations by contemporary artists, and a handful of galleries.
“Marfa has so many amenities,” says Linda Shafer, “that you have lots of options. You can choose to enjoy them or ignore them.” The former director of the Software Quality Institute for the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin cites a recent evening. She and husband Don strolled down Highland Avenue, Marfa’s main street, from their house on the north side of town to the Crowley Theater a few blocks west to see a one-act play. Other recent offerings at the theater included excerpts from Georges Bizet’s Carmen and a performance by a band from Nigeria. There are low-key options, too, for the times when the Shafers want to ignore the artsy whirl: “Some nights,” she says, “Don and I just sit on our deck and wave at people.”
Waving at passersby might seem like a lame way to spend an evening, but the neighborly activity is at the heart of the town’s charm. For all its aggressively hip art happenings, Marfa has a maddening capacity to look as if nothing is going on. The lack of obvious activity is a welcome respite for over-booked Houstonians and frenetic refugees from Los Angeles. But for the average tourist with the latest hipsters’ guide to West Texas in hand, the indifference to commerce—which often includes inexplicable closures of restaurants of Marfa and bars—can be disturbing. Exasperated residents of other towns in the area—Marathon, let’s say, or Alpine—snarkily sum up what they see as Marfa’s fickle attitude. “Marfa—By Appointment Only” is an inside joke.
Actually, discovering what’s going on can be achieved by stopping in at local hangouts such as Cochineal restaurant, El Cosmico campground or the Thunderbird Hotel. But the most reliable place to check in is the Marfa Book Company. It’s always been the place where artists, writers, bikers and tourists alight. The bookstore occupies the lobby of the Hotel Saint George, a 55-room boutique hostelry that’s abuzz with wanderers, art exhibits and readings.
In the face of all these tantalizing options, remember that the desert is where you go to clear your mind. That’s where Marfa wows. If all else fails, there’s one pastime that will never let you down, which is why Don likes his station on the deck with Linda: “It’s the iconic view,” the busy executive says, “This is what Texas is supposed to look like.”