Texas Two-Step

Texas Two-Step

June 2006, Carol and I were in San Antonio for one of Carol’s education for young children conferences.

San Antonio is pretty interesting, and the Riverwalk is swell, but while Carol was at her meetings, I wanted to go somewhere in Texas.

I had heard and read about Donald Judd and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, so I looked it up on the map and internet. Hmmmm, not just a day trip. So I dropped that and went to Bandera in the hill country for breakfast (look for “Thursday Breakfast near the end).

Sometime later, I mentioned Donald Judd and Marfa to Alison, our artist daughter-in-law. Oh, yes. She would love to go there sometime. After many mentions and dreams and then serious planning, mid-March of 2012 became the time

As it turned out, son Brian and Natasza would be vacationing in Texas around that time, as well. Hey, a family gathering!

OK then, we would fly from San Francisco to Midland TX, Eric and Alison would fly from Maine to Midland TX and Brian and Natasza would be able to meet us in Big Bend National Park. As it turned out both the Maine and SF flights would arrive in Midland about 9:30pm. We would spend the night in Midland and drive to Big Bend — in separate cars — and meet Brian there. Spend a couple days in Big Bend and drive to Marfa to visit Chinati, while Brian goes home through San Antonio. Sounds like a plan.

NOTE: Normally eats is about food. On this trip, I found the food, art, architecture and the trip itself intertwined to the point of being inseparable. I’m still cooking and eating, so there will be more recipes.

Texas Two-Step:

Sweeping in on US-90 from the northwest, we found Marfa and met Eric and Alison in the lobby of the El Paisano Hotel. Eric handed me my much missed bag (see the plight of my bag in “getting there”) and I checked into the hotel.

We went with them to see El Cosmico, an “alt lifestyle kind of place” where they are staying in a robins-egg-blue knock-off Airstream trailer. The next night they would stay in a tent. TeePees and Yurts are on the grounds, as well.

Eric and Alison's home for the night

here are some tee pees where they won't stay

here are some tents where they will stay tomorrow

El Paisano is the class historic hotel in Marfa. Built in 1930 it operated for many years as a Cattleman’s hotel.

The hotel was also the prime location for social events within a 100 mile radius of Marfa. In 1955 Warner Brothers chose Marfa as the location for the filming of the epic movie Giant. In June of that year the cast and crew including James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson made the hotel their headquarters.

The lobby is large and comfortable, with clay tile in rustic tones enhancing the floors and fireplace. Jett’s Grill at the El Paisano, the dining room, is to the rear left, sharing courtyard frontage with the lobby.

Carol and I are not campers, this is where we'll stay

We had made dinner reservations, but the dining room was plenty crowded and by the time our orders were to arrive, it was “in the weeds,” or so it seemed. My seared, rare, yellow fin tuna, served over Israeli couscous was, sadly, overcooked and rather dry. But the large serving of broccoli alongside was superb.

Carol loved her calamari and side salad. Likewise, Alison loved her tilapia tacos and Eric his Caesar salad and burger.


I’ve been getting up at 7:30 — vacation time. But on this morning, I woke up and it was still dark out. I looked at the clock, 7:30. OK, right… yesterday we crossed into Central Daylight Time and we’re on the extreme western edge of that time zone. We’ll have plenty of light into the night.

We asked around as to where to get breakfast; El P has only coffee in an urn in the lobby. SQUEEZE MARFA is the best bet,  just around the corner, facing the Courthouse.

It was a sunny, clear, 40-something morning, making a nice, brisk walk to the squeeze. We entered through a gravel courtyard with tables for two along one side.

There’s not a lot of decor inside, but it’s warm and nice. We took a seat at one of the heavy wooden tables just inside the entrance. Squeeze is basically a re-purposed house with a few partitions removed. We’re sitting in the Dining Room part with the kitchen to our left and to our right, the “living room,” with 3 or 4 tables. It’s the kind of place to spread out your newspaper, eat and stay for conversation.

I had the Continental Breakfast, $6.50, a big, buttery croissant, six half-slices of Swiss cheese, butter (too hard from the fridge) and strawberry jam. All told, it was quite satisfying. Carol had the yogurt thing with granola on the bottom and berries on top.

After, we got our car and eased over to the Chinati Foundation for our all day tour. The day was beautiful and sunny and calm, though not over 50 yet.

In the building, many colored CHINATI tee shirts and ball caps are for sale, as well as books on the artists represented at Chinati. Our tour guide introduced herself to we twelve and laid down the rules: NO cameras or phones, NO drinking except for water from a bottle, DON’T TOUCH.

There was a very brief introduction to Donald Judd and the Chinati Foundation and the difference between that and the Judd Foundation (the former is the museum, the latter, the estate, administered by his sons). Our guide said she worked best responding to questions — and it is likely that those who come all this way to Marfa for these tours, have done their homework. Many are not on their first visit. With that, we proceeded across the field to the first Artillery Shed housing Judd’s aluminum boxes.

the second gun shed is peeking out from behind the first

Once through the sliding entry door, one is confronted with rows and rows of shiny aluminum boxes arranged on the floor of the entire building.

image from Chinati web site

The boxes are of uniform dimension, 41 x 51 x 72 inches and made from “mill finish” aluminum plates, otherwise untreated.

The exterior walls are made of brick. The floors are concrete, scored in squares relating to the concrete columns supporting the concrete ceiling.

“Both buildings are 63 feet wide, but one has an extra bay, with a floor space of 18,000 square feet, while the other is barely 17,000 square feet. The two gunsheds were completed in 1939 and had room for 34 and 32 trucks, respectively.”

[from the phamplet The Making of Two Works by Marianne Stockebrand, available for purchase at the Chinati Foundation.]

The major exterior features of the buildings, their long walls of overhead garage doors, and their rather low, flat roof, were altered significantly by Donald Judd. He removed the doors, removed the tracks and hardware and replaced them with large cruciform windows. As for the leaky roof, Judd “covered the flat roof with a curved corrugated iron roof. Otherwise the buildings were left in their original state.” [ibid]

The mid-morning light comes from the east (left side) and the row of boxes along the east wall sparkle in the direct sunlight. There is no artificial light or fixtures. The effect is amazing and compelling overall, and then, examination of the individual boxes reveals more. Each box is different in some way.

“These include half and full subdivisions as well as volunes without any subdivisions. These are some examples: half-divided, fully divided, not divided. Of course it’s possible to place half divisions vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, and either to have them run from the center to the short side or to the long side; similarly they can run from front to back or from top to bottom. The same applies to the full length divisions…”


And so on and on, you get the picture. It’s much more interesting to look than describe. I didn’t examine every one closely, but one is compelled to go to the next and the next… “how is this different? Isn’t this like the one five boxes back?” And this building, vast as it is, houses only about 60 boxes. 40 more are in the second gun shed.
I asked our guide, “What is the transparent material, glass or plastic?”

“There is no transparent material,” she responded. “The cubes are aluminum and air.”

Well, we can’t touch — “a fingerprint will become permanent in 90 minutes unless removed” — so I guess that means the ‘glass’ is an illusion. Dang all, I could swear some of the ends or sides are glass… illusion is very powerful. And the light is bouncing everywhere and exposing and enclosing and bathing and engulfing. Well… no glass… and I felt free to touch “the glass,” to make sure.

We went to the second gun shed which houses cube #1, It is slightly smaller, has a slightly different floor grid, but the boxes are oriented in rows and the light is still doing its thing, although the building is on an axis about 15° to east of the first.

from the side, one can look through the gun sheds

We visited buildings of Fort D. A. Russell housing works of Jean Arp and “School No. 6” the abandoned Russian school house by Ilya Kabakov,

School No. 6, 1993
Ilya Kabakov created School No.6 in 1993 as a gift to the Chinati Foundation. The work occupies an entire building that is subdivided into rooms reminiscent of an abandoned schoolhouse from the former Soviet Union. The spaces are filled with faded posters, flags, and emblems; everything is broken, boarded-up, and neglected.

[from the Chinati website]

That took most of our morning. We took individual cars to town to the John Chamberlain Building. He works in bent and twisted metal — mostly from automobiles — and shapes them into sculptures — most would fit inside a 7 foot cube on the floor — although some are on the wall and smaller, a few others linear, on the wall or floor, and more open. This is the largest and best collection of John Chamberlain in the world.

image from Chinati web site

Painted, molded, steel is quite a contrast to the rigid boxes of shiny aluminum. My favorite was white — well, kind of dirty off-white with largish curved planes of metal, so it was more of a form than bits of stuff making a shape. And much of the interest was inside as you peek through openings to see framework and the ends of curved-in pieces.

Lunch break, a bit more than 1 1/2 hours and it’s a good thing. In Marfa, if you can find a restaurant, its closed for lunch, or until 4, or on Wednesday. There are maps and hours provided by our hotel or the Chamber of Commerce next door, but none have complete information… just put them together and look around. Most folks went to the Food Shark food truck, parked at the railroad station, but we wanted “sit down Texas.”

We finally got our act together and found the Lost Horse Saloon, which just started opening for lunch.

We walked into a BIG room with three pool tables. Beyond, a bar on the right and several big round tables. We were the only ones in the saloon and chose a big round table. The bar mistress said the BBQ wasn’t made yet and the soup of the day is tomato bisque. They do have chili — “it’s kind of hot” — and BLT sandwiches on Texas toast.

Eric and I ordered the chili, “Onions and cheese with that?” she asked.

“You bet.”

A very tall cowboy — straight out of central casting — came in from the back; big hat, boots, tight jeans, eye patch, big bushy mustache, the whole deal. Turns out he’s the owner and cook. Alison learned later that he is an actor, had a bit part in True Grit (Coen Bros version) and can be found at www.cowboyty.com.

The chili was quite spicy and good enough to make my forehead sweat.


Carol and Alison loved their BLTs.

We met back at Chinati for the afternoon session. We toured the remaining buildings of the former Fort D. A. Russell.
The buildings design and arrangement are a perfect fit for the Judd aesthetic and the spaces are the right size and configuration to house the contributing artists work.

Each of the buildings was meticulously cleaned, again keeping the walls, floors and in these buildings, even the original windows in some cases. Again, no artificial light was used (must be a creepy dark place at night). In some of the buildings, a cruciform pivot door replaced the original.

Three buildings are used for traveling exhibits by Jean Arp  — seen in the morning
Hiroshi Sugimoto and the copper sculpture of Roni Horn.

hiroshi sugimoto

The collection includes works in individual buildings of:
The poetry of Carl Andre
The paintings of Ingolfur Arnarsson
The paintings of John Wesley

Around the site are works of Richard Long and Claus Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen. A David Rabinowich sculpture is in “The Arena.”

Dan Flaven’s work sprawls over six buildings.

I learned a lot on the afternoon tour, thought those represented were interesting and admired their work, but I came for the Buildings, Art and Landscape of Donald Judd.

We took dinner that evening at Maiya’s, a block up the street from El Paisano.

It’s interesting that our waitress is an attendant at Cosmico, where Eric and Alison are staying. Also “the cowboy” came in and was hobnobbing at the bar. Alison mentioned that people in Marfa probably have to have many jobs each, as almost nothing is open every day.

The food at Maiya was excellent and well presented. I had the sausage with mashed potato, grilled fennel and radicchio slices with a sauce of red wine reduction.

my dinner at Maiya

The picture doesn’t reveal much except the dark sauce, but believe me, it was delicious. The taste of the sauce didn’t overwhelm, as the color did, but brought the flavors of the mild fresh sausage and vegetables together. I could do that! Maybe.

raw beet salad with onion and orange

Carol's spinach lasagna

Alison's spinach salad

Judd’s Concrete Boxes…

…GETTING THERE and the rest of our eats and trip.

4 thoughts on “Texas Two-Step

  1. Fun to read and see.
    The Judd Foundation is run by Judd’s adult children, I think one is female and one male.


  2. Calamari and yellow-fin tuna in Marfa? Supply chain improvements have been EPIC, eh? And the photo and description of the “extra hot chili” makes my mouth water (I can’t make our chili extra hot, ’cause Kel dunt like it that way. Gots to find it in a restaurant, and thus far, have not been successful in GA. Guess I’ll have to go to Marfa… Sounds like a great trip. I enjoyed reading your Google messenger posts throughout…


  3. Thanks Marcus, another great adventure, and culture, for us couch potatoes. The way you described the food, sounds like just out of SF.

    Can’t wait till the next chapter. Paula


  4. Who knew? I too can’t wait for “the rest of the story.”


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