Fieldwork Marfa A Utopia on Judd’s Doorstep
The atmosphere at the Beaux-arts de Nantes is intense. The school will be opening a new building on the Île de Nantes in 2017 and is about to commence the second phase of Fieldwork Marfa, an ambitious residency project for students and artists initiated in 2011 in the small Texan town synonymous with Donald Judd, who moved there in the 1970s and created the Chinati Foundation. For Pierre-Jean Galdin, at the helm in Nantes since 2004, his institution will function as the hub of an international entity whose satellites are in Nantes, Dakar and Seoul. The Marfa residency project itself was conceived in partnership with the HEAD school in Geneva, and also involves The School of art, University of Houston. It all began ten years ago when Pierre-Jean Galdin, recently appointed director of the École des Beaux-arts de Nantes, and JeanPierre Greff, director of HEAD in Geneva, were attending a conference on art schools in Gothenburg. They got to talking about Marfa, the town of two thousand souls built at a crossroads in the Chihuahua Desert, and began to dream of a joint residency project there for the two schools: the desert as a place of infinite possibility, a space of paradoxes, with a natural relation between Judd’s relation to space and the work done at Nantes on public space around the Loire estuary. Residents at Marfa would work on landscape, frontiers, Minimal and Land art, and immaterial territories. The Marfa project was driven by a mixture of empiricism and utopianism, by dreams of freedom and the almost mythical dimension of Marfa, also known for its purported extraterrestrial manifestations, the Marfa Lights. It’s a long drive from El Paso airport to Marfa: three hours through the desert. You can feel the emptiness. In this conservative part of the U.S., Marfa is an island of fantasies. Most of the inhabitants here came from New York, Los Angeles or even further, in pursuit of their particular version of the American Dream. The town has also fascinated filmmakers. James Dean slept at the Paisano Hotel here when shooting Giant, and its Mexican-tile courtyard and buffalo head trophies on the walls are still the backdrop to many a meeting here. This was where Larry Clark shot Marfa Girl. Artists such as Christopher Wool and Zoe Leonard have set up studios here and the place has a genuine artistic life, based around a community attracted by the freedom to accomplish their projects. The Ball Room art center opened in 2003 and produced, among others, a controversial work by Elmgreen and Dragset consisting of a false Prada boutique on the roadside, out in the desert, forty-five minutes from here. Numerous galleries of mixed quality have joined the ensemble and a hip new hotel has just opened, which has rather changed the town’s physiognomy. Marfa’s closeness to Mexico also means it has the biggest Border Patrol in these parts. The frontier is invisible, but you can feel it everywhere. Communities do not mix and inequalities are acute. As Pierre-Jean Galdin suggested, after the recent election the new political situation is likely to orient future work towards questions of the landscape and environment, but also Mexico and its communities.
Of course, Donald Judd is the dominant figure in this landscape. Born in Missouri, it is said that the artist passed through Marfa when he traveled across the country on his way to military service (this was during the Korean War). As he wrote his mother, he was charmed by its 1930s architecture. Many years later, when living in a loft in New York’s SoHo, he was looking for more space and thought of Marfa. With the help of the Dia Foundation he was able to buy an old military base and transform it into a place to show his works the way no museum seemed capable of doing. Visiting the Chinati Foundation today, the impact of the landscape is immediate, inescapable. The most striking ensembles by the artist are the 15 untitled
works in concrete (1980-1984), a series of modules laid out over a kilometer of scrub, and, in dialogue with them, the 100 untitled works in mil aluminum (1982–86), housed in two brick hangars with glass sides to which Judd himself added higher arched roofs. Their illusionistic metal alphabet with its sensual reflections radically transforms the vision that we get of this artist in museums. Later, Judd invited some artist friends to create works for the site, among them John Chamberlain, Carl Andre, Roni Horn, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Hiroshi Sugimoto, John Wesley, and Dan Flavin, whose piece is the most successful. In six two-part buildings, his neons follow a regular rhythm that echoes the peaceful, sweeping landscape visible through the windows. Last year, a new work by Robert Irwin—Judd initiated the project shortly before his death—was inaugurated in the old military hospital. Through the building’s symmetrical windows, the piece plays with the crystalline light of the desert, taking visitors from night to day in only a few steps. But Donald Judd was also a bit of an authoritarian. The Chianati Foundation can be visited only with a guide. In the town, Judd’s presence is everywhere, even on the façade of the big white building that houses the offices of the Judd Foundation, created as an estate by his two children and his last partner. It owns the three ranches that he had in the mountain, plus The Block, his house in the town, a monastically ascetic place surrounded by brick walls without the usual adobe rendering. As if to predefine the myth, everything here was kept exactly as it was when he died. The books in his abundant shelves are not even accessible to researchers. The play area created for his children is forced and austere, as is the rest of this property bizarrely located between a noisy seed plant that is part of the town’s beating heart and the tracks along which trains pass several times a day, like in movies, and the bells of the church. Maybe this is a way of marking out time as his art marks out space. Only a few youthful works add a more approachable, moving dimension, suggesting some of the directions he never explored. AN EXPERIMENTAL DIMENSION During the first five years of the Fieldwork Marfa program groups of students have come to work in a house rented in the town, not only from Nantes and Geneva but also from the art school in Clermont-Ferrand. The program has been coordinated by Yann Chateigné Tytelman, Étienne Bernard and, currently, Ida Soulard. In addition, thirty-three artists from different countries, selected by a jury, have each spent two or three months in residence here, presenting the works they did at symposiums held in 2012 and 2013. Among them are Melissa Dubbin and Aaron Davidson, Étienne Chambaud and Vincent Normand, Charlotte Moth, Wilfrid Almendra, and Benoît-Marie Moriceau. Squaring up to Judd may be considered quite a tough chal-
lenge for these young artists, but it is also a real opportunity to hone their vision and think hard about their aesthetic choices. Among recent projects, in May 2016, Jennifer Burris-Staton, a curator in residence, set up the Marfa Sounding festival, the second edition of which will be held in spring 2017. It comprises on-site musical performances, sound installations and conversations. With the help of local structure Marfa Live Arts, Burris-Staton invited composer Alvin Lucier, then aged eighty-four, to compose a new piece, Sferics, for the cellist Charles Curtis— and, she adds, “for the wind.” It was performed in a part of the desert that participants in Fieldwork Marfa sometimes call The Land, as if to plant the first pioneers there. This is a huge eight-hectare space that has just been purchased for the Nantes art school by a group of local patrons in Nantes—a restaurateur, a real estate developer, a gallerist, an architect—. This is a real adventure, more than the word “patron” usually implies. Entering the road that leads there, a fewminutes from Marfa center by car but already on the edge of the desert, you pass through one of those wooden frames that usually announce the entrance to a ranch. The address is full of promise: Antelope Hills Road. In the distance, low mountains catch the light and clouds. There is a well for water. Horses left by a neighbor graze freely. Birds and rabbits move around here and there between the yuccas. This second founding stage of Fieldwork Marfa was presented in New York last September by the mayor of Nantes Jean-Marc Ayrault as part of a fundraising drive to pay for facilities to house students and artists here. Conceived by one of the patrons, architect Anthony Rio, with Unité Agency, the idea is to leave the space as flexible as possible and to allow maximum freedom for its future users. There will be a studio at the end of the plot, conceived as a place where life and work go hand in hand, like in Judd’s studio. The first stone should be laid in July 2017. There will also be a permanent sculpture garden (the Art Field) and an experimental area for students from Nantes and others invited from partner schools (the Art Village). As of this summer, the latter will be home to a living, changing library conceived by Bruno Persat. It will comprise his personal collection of the Whole Earth Catalog,( 1) and books on the American counterculture of the 1970s as well as other collections still to come. This is a way of questioning Judd’s omnipresence in the town. A dance floor by Donald Judd, Chinati Foundation, Marfa. (Ph. DR) Page de gauche / page left: The Block, 400 and 416 West El Paso Avenue, Marfa. (Maison de Donald Judd ; Ph. DR). Judd’s house Cécile Paris, an open-air screening area conceived by Jean-Sylvain Bieth, andMichel Aubry’s reconstitution of the pavilion designed by Konstantin Melnikov for the USSR at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, will also occupy the land. Pending the inauguration of these new buildings, other events will continue in the spring, with the coming of three groups of students from Nantes, a “1% culturel” project attributed to Fabrice Hyber, and the second edition of Marfa Sounding. Today, Fieldwork Marfa is rich and flexible enough for its utopian side to be still felt, with the potential to become more complete. Who knows, it may even develop into a pole of resistance.
Translation, C. Penwarden (1) The Whole Earth Catalog was a countercultural landmark published in San Francisco by Stewart Brand between 1968 and 1972, with occasional followups through to 1998.