On Earthworks: The Journey to Marfa

Emily Wilkerson discusses her experience in Marfa, Texas, and the earthworks of Donald Judd among others.

View of Donald Judd's 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984, at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Photo by John Cummings. Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons.

One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason. Vast moving faculties occur in this geological miasma, and they move in the most physical way. This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries. This slow flowage makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain. The entire body is pulled into the cerebral sediment, where particles and fragments make themselves known as solid consciousness. A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist.

Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” 1968

In 2009, I moved to Marfa, Texas, to intern at the Chinati Foundation. After a 15-hour drive west from New Orleans, I arrived in pitch darkness. I had never been to Marfa before, and I had no preconceived ideas of what the city should look like. I went to sleep in my new apartment, a barely renovated old army barrack with cold concrete floors and minimal furnishings. The following morning, I awoke to an incredible, endless landscape. The sun blanked the earth below, shining through a blue sky intertwined with vast swaths of white clouds. Fields of warm, tan grasses rolled onward below.

Marfa is a three-hour drive from El Paso, Texas, a 15-hour drive from both Los Angeles and New Orleans, and a 30-minute drive from the tiny town of Alpine, Texas, the nearest Amtrak train stop. No matter what mode of transportation you choose to get you to Marfa, it’s going to take a while. Once there, you find yourself immersed in a quiet, dry, windy place about a mile above sea level that feels fittingly removed from any familiar urban or rural environment. The incredible expanse of land with few buildings in sight, along with the altitude, at least at the beginning, has a way of creating optical illusions and overwhelming visual stimulations. Marfa, like most new places, challenges your concept of scale, knowledge, and time—the precise challenges that have drawn artists there for decades.

While living amid the burgeoning New York art world, artist and writer Donald Judd returned to a journey in the early 1970s he had first taken in 1946 through Far West Texas on a train with a number of other young men serving in the United States Army. Like a few of his contemporaries practicing within the tropes of conceptual and minimal art, such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, and Nancy Holt, Judd was feeling the need to escape the stringent boundaries of the city, studio, and white-walled gallery. These artists’ conceptual art practices were not only pushing against political and societal issues of their time, but also the increasing capitalization of visual art in New York. Judd and his contemporaries found the sterile, white box of the museum and gallery a troublesome space, frustrated by the packed walls of the Museum of Modern Art and others. As Robert Smithson wrote about the museum in 1967, “Things flatten and fade. The museum spreads its surfaces everywhere, and becomes an untitled collection of generalizations that immobilize the eye.” Moving to create works in nature allowed these artists to focus once again on process, the environment, and the experience of creating and viewing works with room for contemplation.

Hoping to develop this new way of seeing art and nature, Judd moved to Marfa, where he purchased the former Fort D.A. Russell, a 340-acre site of a previous military base. With help from the then newly established Dia Art Foundation, he began to develop the land into a “museum” in 1979. As Marianne Stockebrand, former Director of the Chinati Foundation, wrote about Judd’s goals in creating the foundation that would arise from this impulse: “his ultimate aim was to unite art, architecture, and nature in an embodiment of his own philosophical outlook, which sought to avoid fragmentation and to promote coherence.” Today the collection includes Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986—situated in the artillery sheds renovated specifically for the works—as well as Judd’s 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984, that are aligned to present optical illusions, playing off the sun, the land, and the viewer. The barracks, mess hall, showers, tennis court, and artillery sheds are now all part of the visitor’s day-long tour, including installations by John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Ingólfur Arnarsson, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley. Each building contains the work of one artist, so as every door to a building opens, the environment engulfs viewers into a singular experience that only continues to grow as the door closes and they move on to the next building.

LSU Architecture Students at the Chinati Foundation. Photo by Meredith Sattler. Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons.

To embark on any pilgrimage, one needs an object of devotion, but the journey itself is inevitably personal—a journey to learn something about oneself or one’s surroundings that will remain, to some degree, forever ongoing. These ideas are at the heart of many earthworks in Marfa and beyond: Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1973-76, in Lucin, Utah; Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field, 1977, in western New Mexico; and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, which is embedded in the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. We may embark on a pilgrimage to see these works, but in the hopes of simply viewing Holt’s Sun Tunnels, for example, the journey to the works of art and experiencing the sun, the desert, the energy, and the light of the solstice becomes the “viewing” process. Instead of walking up to a painting on a wall, the surrounding landscape, temperature, and sound tap into mind, body, and soul.

Returning to Smithson’s writings, in 1968 he expressed the need for artists to leave their studios to create works: “The ‘classical’ notion of the artist copying a perfect mental model has been shown to be an error. The modern artist in his ‘studio,’ working out an abstract grammar within the limits of his ‘craft,’ is trapped in but another snare.” Today, many organizations, such as High Desert Test Sites, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and locally, A Studio in the Woods, as a few examples, have developed programs that invite artists to use and consider their natural surroundings as their studio through residencies and other programs, building upon the legacy of the Chinati Foundation and many great artist projects embedded in the environment. Similarly to Smithson’s call for the artist to escape the studio, my journey to Marfa and other sites as a writer and curator has transformed my professional practice, my understanding of our interconnectedness to our environment, as well as led to a great number of friendships. As Judd was well aware in his first visits to that amazing place, nature and our surroundings can quickly inspire a renewed rhythm for thinking, creating, and living, if we pause for a moment to look and listen.