Commentary: St. Louis Stacks Up To Marfa In Contemporary Art And Literature

Feb 6, 2015

Nancy Kranzberg

About eight years ago, I visited Marfa, Texas, a West Texas city known as a cultural center for contemporary artists and artisans. In 1971, minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa from New York City. He bought two large airplane hangars and some smaller buildings and began to permanently install his art and the story goes on. Later he acquired with the help of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell, and began transforming the fort's buildings into art space in which he invited other contemporary artists to show their works.

After Judd's death in 1994, two foundations have worked to maintain his legacy: The Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation. Every year the Chinati Foundation holds an open house event where artists, collectors, and enthusiasts come from around the world to see art in Marfa.

I went to this special weekend this year with St. Louis's own Jessica Baran who is a nationally published poet, art director of Fort Gondo and Beverly on Cherokee Street, an adjunct lecturer at Washington University, an art critic and writer for such prestigious magazines  as Art in America, Art Forum, and Bomb Magazine. I saw the galleries and art spaces and heard the lectures in new and enlightened ways.

Baran pointed out how St. Louis is right on the pulse of the contemporary art world. The St. Louis Art Museum and Laumeier Sculpture Park both have works by Donald Judd but she pointed out how the severity of the geometrical Judd boxes coexist in the severe West Texas landscape and become more humanized with an emphasis on the sensual materials he uses, drawing our attention to the stone and metal as seen in nature rather than in museums which somehow misses the point.

On the main drag of Marfa was a very upscale book store and art gallery and among the works by world famous artists, architects, and writers on the main book display table was our own Mary Jo Bang's very hip translation of Dante's Inferno. Bang has been internationally lauded and is Jessica Baran's mentor and Bang praises Baran for her brilliance.

Also at the Chinati weekend was Kristina Van Dyke, the Director of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Grand Center. She reminded me that the Pulitzer had along with Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary art space, and the Public Concern Foundation brought the Marfa Dialogues to St. Louis this past summer. The dialogues continued the examination of artistic practice, climate change science, and civic engagement.

At the Marfa Ballroom were films by Hubbard and Bircher, an American -Swiss team who make short films and photographs about the narrative of time and space. Baran reminded me that the team had a work at the Saint Louis Art Museum just recently.

Also seen was Gretchen Wagner who had been the Curator at the Pulitzer and is now the Director of the Oklahoma Contemporary Museum and is also the Director of the Marfa Contemporary Art Space. The Marfa space was currently featuring the work of Spencer Finch who a few years ago had a plein air ice cream stand in front of our Contemporary Art Museum. Over the course of six weeks, Grand Center pedestrians and museum visitors enjoyed free ice cream that had been mixed and frozen onsite by a mobile soft-serve machine powered entirely by solar panels.

Once again, I was proud to say that I was from St. Louis to all these artsy folks in Marfa for this special gathering. We are right in there with the best of 'em when it comes to featuring contemporary art and literature.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.