Running through my mind these past few days has been the notion that Marfa is becoming a living form of Utopia for contemporary visual culture. By Utopia I mean that it is able to dream and then actualize as versus seek out an unsatisfactory substitute and thereby experience discontent. My thinking arises from being quite aware of the fact that Donald Judd decided that he had to control the entire space of the exhibition of his works, which is what gave birth to the idea and then the reality of Marfa. And that he knew from direct experience that his work contained qualities that could not either readily or at all be discerned by being showcased in the cold grey East Coast light of a Soho gallery in New York City. The evidence that directs my thoughts toward my envisioning Marfa as becoming a Utopia for the critical imagination comes not merely from having spent a few days in Marfa personally. It does not come merely from looking at everything that was there to see in the vast Chinati Foundation compound, which afforded Judd absolute control of the visual absorption of his work. My sense of a Utopia for art comes from the relatively new institutions in Marfa – United Artists, Ltd., Ballroom Marfa, the Marfa Film Festival, and the soon to be built Marfa Drive In that will showcase mostly non-commercial cinema and feature live music performances, and will hopefully continue to be programmed for the cinema by MoMA and similarly situated global institutions of every scale for modern and contemporary culture.
First let’s consider the program in Marfa of United Artists, Ltd., which
imagines and perceives itself to be a space for the production of art that is free from both critique and market strategizing, as well as situational art market forces. What is remarkable to me is that this program’s vision is similar to the mantra the LA artworld said to itself and to anyone else who would listen during the mid 1990’s – that LA was able to become a major center for the production of art because it did not have an art market. This of course was meant to be translated that LA art was art for arts sake, art made by and for artists, pure art, art above and beyond the market, untainted by market demands that marketized New York City artists produced under. This was always followed with a comment about LA being so strong because it had the strongest art schools. LA had the only art schools in the U.S. that had major internationally ranked artists on its faculties. It was never pointed out that at that same time LA was heavily invested in the German artworld, which had both a superb market and museum infrastructure and the intellectual and art historical portals that were not so readily available on the West Coast, and that the Dusseldorf Art Academy had as many as nine or ten world class artists on their faculty at any one time, dwarfing the art programs in LA. And this has not appreciably changed over the past decade. Peter Doig, Tony Cragg, Tal R, Rosemarie Trockel and Chris Williams are currently on DDA’s faculty. So the United Artists, Ltd. intellectual program represents a desired return to the core of the interest of the artist – which is to make an art that is beyond the needs of the art fair, art gallery, art market, but gives everything it has back to humanity in the form of a greater experience of beauty and a depth of command so as to offer revelations through the representative and remarkable object. The United Artists Ltd. space is not a commercial gallery, yet it does place works from its exhibitions into appropriate contemporary art collections. It thereby surpasses the measuring sticks of the gallery system.
Another Utopian program for the production, consumption and dissemination of art is Ballroom Marfa. This program started out in its 4,500 square foot exhibition space with four exhibitions a year, and brought them down to two exhibitions per year, which is one of the most generous amounts of time for a temporary exhibition anywhere in the world. The Utopian idea here comes through the notion that used to be so often mentioned about taking ones time to see the work. The actual phrase was that “it slows you down.” This is clearly accomplished by the fact of Marfa’s remoteness, and the largely static aspect of the Judd compound, with the exception of long term in development projects such as the sculptural space being devised by Robert Irwin. Marfa affords no competing gallery row of major international commercial exhibitions, and therefore one can spend not a few minutes in each gallery as one would in Chelsea, but one can instead actually stop and contemplate the art on view, and share ones thoughts with others, under the gorgeous West Texas desert sky. And then talk some more at the local artists bar. And that same quality of isolation and distance from the loud noises of commercialized and dense urbanity, which Los Angeles also used to claim was one of its key assets relative to the hyper density and intensity and speed of New York, is actually present at Marfa. The astounding Hello Meth Lab in the Sun installation that was built over several weeks in Ballroom Marfa possibly could have been produced anywhere, but it was not. it came into the world through Marfa, without the immediately naked pull and draw of either East or West Coast city lights. And no doubt that the opening was attended by the global art connoisseurs, again, other than the similarly situated United Artists Ltd., it was the only game in town. It was not available to be immediately reviewed by all of the major New York media. This attempt to be the lonely only is attempted in Los Angeles by the major galleries not having their openings all on a single night, but on weeknights across a given month, in order to have the gallery going crowd all to themselves. The fact and fiction of the exhibitions at both Ballroom Marfa and United Artists Ltd., comes into the world much more slowly. I personally did not know that Hello Meth Lab in the Sun was in Marfa until I was back from Miami last year. And therefore it is not immediately eaten and shat out.
Another program – the Marfa Drive In, comes just as LACMA in Los Angeles announces that it is curtailing its weekend film program in the LA Times. The Marfa Drive in will be a special treat for all of its visitors. It will be composed of a highly advanced design, it will have a world class program, and it will not be at the mercy of popular film culture audience numbers, like LACMA, which caused that program to be shut down in the film capital of the Western world. This happens while LA’s upscale galleries grow in number and in size, as the main Culver City gallery corridor lengthens, and as ancillary programs for art production and book publication come to LA. And I am not addressing here the small yet phenomenal Marfa Film Festival, which has already developed its own pilgrimage.
Marfa is able to make the experience of art as special as it can possibly be. And the idea of it – that it is so remote and yet so desirable – has caused this mostly poor Texas town to become all the more desired, to become all the more prestigious. It has only been a few years since Ballroom Marfa was launched, yet it is now one of the most prized destinations for an artists work. And the fact that everyone cannot know your work makes it all the more full of wonder. This is not the same as the private gallery views given to collectors. There are other relatively remote and gorgeous art cities – Portland comes to mind. But it has none of these remarkable institutions that would make it the new sensation of the artworld, but still again in a different way that the completely remote world that is Marfa.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles