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Marfa as masterpiece theater

Special to The Times

In Dostoevsky's novel "The Brothers Karamazov," Marfa is a faithful servant to a treacherous Russian family. The raw landscape of West Texas couldn't be less evocative of Russia, but the name Marfa, said to have been bestowed by a railroad executive's wife reading the novel while she was passing through the area, stuck.

And that's just one of the unusual aspects of this town of 2,500.

I had been hearing about Marfa from friends involved in art and architecture; they were fascinated by the notion of creations by internationally renowned artists in a tiny Texas ranching town. While I was in El Paso visiting family in December, two of my sisters-in-law, Nohemi and Hilda, agreed to join me on a trek borne of curiosity.

It was 6 a.m. when we pulled out of El Paso, and as we drove east, the cloudless sky stretched over the rolling golden fields of grasses and dirt pocked with scrub bushes. Three hours later, Marfa cropped up, an incongruous array of buildings that reflect an erratic history: Its Mexican-style stucco hotel has played host to ranchers and to movie stars; Minimalist art installations now stand in old artillery sheds and military barracks.

Artist Donald Judd chose Marfa for this installation of large-scale artworks because he wanted a wide-open space. With the help of the Dia Foundation of New York City, a visual arts organization, Judd purchased the 340 acres that used to be Ft. D.A. Russell and began construction and installation in 1979. Judd's Chinati opened as an independent, nonprofit institution here in 1986. Every October, the Chinati Foundation hosts a weekend open house that features readings, concerts and exhibitions, and attracts people involved in the arts from around the globe.

Soured on the Apple Despite our best efforts, we arrived late for the morning tour of the Chinati Foundation. But Robert Schmitt, a visitor services associate, said he would fill us in on Judd as he took us to catch up with the rest of the group.

"Although very successful, Judd hated New York City and the art scene there," he said. "So he wanted a place as different from the city as he could find.

"He also wanted to install large, permanent installations," he said. By then we were passing cast-concrete cubes created by Judd and placed uniformly on the open field.

Judd hoped to discourage the public from thinking of the arts as something that should merely be bought, and these installations were, in part, his response to that.

We caught up with the group in a large building that resembled an airplane hangar but in fact used to be an artillery shed. Our guide, David Gilbert, 22, a recent graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, told us that in the 1920s the U.S. military built structures for the cavalry. The U-shaped buildings that house many of the collections once were soldiers' barracks. Ft. D.A. Russell was used for military maneuvers and exercises as well as for the Border Patrol, and during World War II, it served as a prisoner-of-war camp for Germans. The government sold the property in 1949 but despite some civilian uses it remained mostly unused until 1979.

As we walked through Judd's largest installation, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, Gilbert explained that Judd and other Minimalist artists frequently left their works untitled to avoid imposing meaning and to allow people to create their own. The open room in which the untitled works reside has adobe brick walls and large, clear windows.

When you look at the aluminum boxes, each shaped slightly differently, your eye is pulled to the horizon, to the desert rolling into hills and crags in the distance. There was a sense of poetry.

Most of the artists whose work is displayed throughout the compound are Minimalists and, Gilbert said, all had been on a list created by Judd. One Army barracks housed a temporary installation of ceramic sculptures by Venice Beach artist Ken Price.

As part of the tour, we left the former military compound and went into town to see the John Chamberlain exhibition, large sculptures of painted chromium titled "Texas Pieces," housed in buildings that used to be a mohair- and wool- storage facility.

After a lunch break, we headed for the gallery of Eugene Binder, who also owns a gallery in New York City but lives in Marfa part time. Binder remembered an earlier visit to the town when "the temperatures dropped and an ice storm covered the desert. The stunning beauty of it really made an impression on me."

The canvases in the Binder gallery were full of color and texture. The sun shone into the gallery, casting white light against the floor, making the show seem like an installation of color, light and space.

On the afternoon leg of the tour at the Chinati, we encountered paintings by John Wesley, an L.A.-born Pop artist whose work enchanted Nohemi and Hilda. Although Judd was a big fan of Wesley's work and the two were close friends, some of Wesley's Art Deco-style paintings, such as "Japanese Ladies" (1984) or "Hunting Dogs" (1985), were very different from Judd's work and far removed from the surrounding landscape.

After that, we made a break for the Brown Recluse coffee shop and chatted with owner Jeanne Sinclair. She recommended that we check out the new Ballroom Gallery, a place that's bringing in younger artists who aren't necessarily Minimalists — or on Judd's list of favorite artists.

But first, we toured Judd's private home. The compound, secluded by block-long adobe walls, is almost a private world, with chicken coops, a greenhouse and a pergola.

There's a bed in almost every room and work studio; in his bedroom, woven baskets, Navajo rugs and Native American pottery are arranged as if in a gallery. His few personal possessions — some knives and leather gloves — are arranged precisely on his desk. Books on such topics as philosophy, astronomy and botany fill his formidable libraries. Even the books on the table, arranged alongside chunks of local slate and fossilized wood, look more like an installation than research.

None of it can be changed. Judd specified that nothing in the house would be moved after his death, and it remains today just as he left it when he died in 1994.

Where giants stayed After the tour, I promised Nohemi and Hilda we'd rest for a bit at the hotel. We checked into Hotel Paisano, often touted as the most luxurious accommodation between El Paso and San Antonio. (The Thunderbird Hotel had not yet opened when we were there.) The cast of "Giant," the 1956 movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, stayed here, and pictures of many of the stars adorn the tiled entryway.

We were assigned to the room that astronaut Neil Armstrong stayed in while he was consulting for the 1971 science fiction movie "The Andromeda Strain." I wanted to see the big stars' rooms. Taylor's was occupied, so I stuck my head into Dean's room, which was next to ours. It had a full-sized bed, and when the balcony doors were opened, the smell of cow manure filled the room. Hudson's room was a large suite with a double balcony. When I asked the concierge about the differences in rooms, he said, "James Dean just didn't care. He said anything was fine, so they gave him anything."

That evening, we headed out to Maiya's, an upscale bistro, for dinner. Happy with grilled radicchio and Gorgonzola salads, we looked forward to spinach lasagna with Gruyère cheese and chicken curry with basmati rice. We capped it with a cranberry pecan crostata in crème anglaise.

We then headed into the clear, crisp desert night to see the Marfa lights, the original tourist attraction here. It's still unclear what these eerie lights are; the Apache believed they were stars dropping to Earth, which seems as good an explanation as any.

We drove the nine miles to the visitors center and, sure enough, saw two greenish lights hovering over the horizon. As odd as this was, it wasn't the main attraction. So many stars filled the night sky that constellations were indiscernible, and we could see what seemed like entire galaxies stretching across the heavens. The Geminids meteor shower was underway, and we made wishes as we watched streaks of light shoot across the sky and burn into oblivion.

The next day, we visited the nearby McDonald Observatory, which boasts one of the largest telescopes in the world.

We walked through the interpretive center and read about the spectra of different suns and how they create the colors we see. It was a fitting finale to this ethereal helping of art.



Fine art and ribs


From LAX, nonstop and direct service (stop, no change of planes) to El Paso is offered on Southwest, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Southwest, America West, American, United, Continental and Frontier. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $208. To Midland/Odessa, about 150 miles from Marfa, connecting service is offered on American, Continental and Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.


Hotel Paisano, 207 N. Highland Ave.; (432) 729-3669 or (866) 729-3669, . The Paisano primarily served as a cattlemen's hotel for its first 40 years. Doubles begin at $89.

The Thunderbird Hotel, 601 W. San Antonio St.; (432) 729-1984. A classic roadside motel that's been renovated. Doubles from $79.


Maiya's, 103 N. Highland Ave.; (432) 729-4410. Entrees $16-$27. Open for dinner Wednesdays-Saturdays.

Jett's Grill (Hotel Paisano, above), named after James Dean's character in "Giant," serves steaks, ribs and other Texas-rancher-type fares, with some fish and chicken entrees as well. Entrees $12-$29.

The Brown Recluse, 111 W. San Antonio St., (866) 731-1811. Serves a limited breakfast menu on Sundays. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Sun- days.


The Chinati Foundation; (432) 729-4362, , is accessible by guided tour only. Collection is viewed in two tours; the first starts at 10 a.m. and the second at 2 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Each lasts about two hours. Admission is $10 adults, half price for seniors older than 65 or students with ID.

The 4:30 p.m. tour of the Judd House is arranged through the Judd Foundation, (432) 729-4406. $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors. Tours are Wednesdays-Sundays.


Marfa Chamber of Commerce, 207 N. High- land Ave.; (432) 729-4942 or (800) 650-9696, .

— Maria Finn Dominguez

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