SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Highway 90 cuts through west Texas and stops just once for the blinking light in the tiny town of Marfa. Its desolate beauty is the kind of blank slate filmmakers love. The movie "Giant" was shot there, as were scenes from "No Country for Old Men." Marfa was also the perfect canvas for artist Donald Judd's ambitious dream to create an indoor-outdoor art museum beneath the wide, blue Texas skies. Anne Goodwin Sides paid the town a visit.
ANNE GOODWIN SIDES: If you come into Marfa at night, you'll hit the brakes at a bright candy box of a store, emitting an extraterrestrial glow. It's an art installation called Prada Marfa, a faux boutique displaying beautifully lit Prada bags and shoes. It's hard to tell whether this store-as-sculpture is meant to be whimsical or wry. Is it art disguised as commerce? Or a big, wet advertisement for Prada pretending to be art?
Mr. BOYD ELDER (Videographer): The thing about Prada people don't realize, all that stuff is handmade. It's like from the old guild system which is almost gone. It's not like manufactured in China.
SIDES: Boyd Elder's attitude and appearance are pure Dennis Hopper. Elder is a videographer and artist whose painted cow skulls graced album covers for the Eagles. He works out of a studio in an old water tank within sight of Pradab Marfa.
Mr. ELDER: The really ironic thing about it, too, is, you think about all the immigrants that have walked across the desert in tennis shoes and cactus stalks woven into sandals and carrying a bag. And then you walk by the Prada store, and you see these shoes and these Prada bags on the immigrant, drug-dealing path into the North. I hate it, but then in another way it's so outrageous you got to love it.
SIDES: Elder isn't quite sure what Donald Judd would think of Marfa's latest installation. Elder knew him for more than 20 years before Judd died of cancer in 1994. A titan in the contemporary art world, Judd was a cantankerous, larger-than-life figure who'd scored a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art before he turned 40. His meticulously proportioned aluminum and colored Plexiglas boxes were as much a signature of the 1960s as the work of Andy Warhol, Richard Serra and Frank Stella.
MR. ELDER: Donald didn't believe in creativity out of chaos. I mean, everything with him was like set, established, perfect size, perfect color. He knew exactly the way he wanted it.
SIDES: Judd wanted his art displayed in clean settings, unmediated by titles or artist statements or curator's notes. He grew more and more frustrated with New York's small gallery spaces. So in 1971, he moved to Marfa, Texas. Judd proceeded to build one of the most ambitious art fiefdoms anywhere. He bought 16 decaying buildings, an entire decommissioned army base and three ranches spread across 40,000 acres. On the old army base, he transformed a pair of immense artillery sheds into modern art cathedrals. Glass walls let the sunlight play against the surfaces of Judd's 100 aluminum boxes, making some shimmer, some glow from within like furnaces.
For his residence, Judd turned two former airplane hangars into a starkly modern compound called the Block. This home, library and private gallery open out onto an expansive plaza of pea gravel.
Mr. CRAIG REMBER (Collections Manager, Judd Foundation): This is the fusion of art and architecture for Judd, and it's very important because here at the Block, you see his furniture, his art, his living spaces, how he modified his living spaces for art and working.
SIDES: Craig Rember, the Judd Foundation's collections manager, walks along the razor-straight path separating a raised lap pool and a vine-covered pergola. Rember swings open the square, metal-and-glass front door that gracefully pivots in the center, and we step into a bedroom the size of a basketball court.
Mr. REMBER: And what you see here are the three variations of the so-called stacks that Donald Judd is pretty much - it's pretty much his signature piece. They are 10 individual units, each one measuring nine by 40 by 31. And...
SIDES: Rectangular boxes made out of stainless steel and yellow and blue Plexiglas are stacked like giant staircases that climb the walls in mathematically calibrated progressions. Larger boxes are placed in the center of the room like sleek futuristic sarcophagi. Judd didn't set out to build a personal shrine. He dedicated equally lavish spaces to the artists he admired most. A cavernous warehouse along the railroad tracks houses John Chamberlain's baroque sculptures of crumpled car parts. Six U-shaped barracks are the stage for Dan Flavin's hypnotic light installations.
Mr. DAVID NOVROS (Painter): There are a lot of artists who have had similar visions about having art in place but they only think about it for themselves. Donald was way beyond that.
SIDES: New York painter David Novros was commissioned by Judd to create works specifically for his exhibition spaces.
Mr. NOVROS: He was thinking about places where art could be seen by everybody for free made by a lot of different people, you know, who all share this one idea about making a thing in place, you know, and that's really unique.
SIDES: Judd's two children grew up in this vast, raw desert where sculptures outnumber people. Rainer, his 38-year-old daughter, says it took some adjustment.
Ms RAINER JUDD (Donald Judd's Daughter): As a kid, I was really into trees. And I would say, oh, where are the trees? There aren't very many trees here. And I don't know exactly why I was born liking trees to a man who liked the desert.
SIDES: An actress and screenwriter who looks and moves like a young Meryl Streep, Rainer oversees her father's estate as president of the board of the Judd Foundation.
Ms. JUDD: The reason I mention trees is because he would say, well, if you look out here, you can actually see the shape of the land, where if it's covered with trees you can't see it. And I think about the way he would talk about his work when people would call it minimalist and he didn't like that description. And just in the way that the desert is extremely rich and beautiful and it doesn't have a lot of trees, I think he was interested in creating extremely rich work that didn't have a lot of trees, if you know what I mean.
SIDES: The environment Donald Judd created in Marfa has drawn countless other artists who've put their own stamp on the town. Marfa's become a trendy art mecca that's attracting celebrities. Weatherbeaten ranchers still eat homemade donuts at Formica tables in Carmen's Cafe. But they may be sitting next to Lance Armstrong or Julia Roberts. To capture her father's relationship with the town, Rainer Judd began filming a documentary two years ago, called "Marfa Voices." One of them belongs to Jack Brunson, who helped Donald Judd build his art. It took Brunson a while to fully appreciate Judd's 15 concrete cubes, arrayed across a field of tall prairie grass.
Mr. JACK BRUNSON: You have to look at those and wonder what in the heck they are. But you sit up there on the hill and look back down there and watch that in the afternoon, and you watch the shadows move about, you can see you're looking at something that you never saw before. You don't realize it driving up the highway. You see these blocks out there and there's nothing. But if you get to the proper place and look, and watch - take your time and watch - you see art.
SIDES: And that's exactly what Donald Judd wanted. For NPR News. I'm Anne Goodwin Sides.
SIMON: You can see images of Donald Judd's art on our website, npr.org.