‘Ever changing, ever adapting’ Chinati Weekend

A 2004 Chinati Weekend dinner gathered the community and art patrons alike to rub elbows and eat together. Photo courtesy of the Chinati Foundation

MARFA — In the 33 years since Donald Judd invited art patrons to Marfa to visit his museum and walk among his works, Chinati Foundation has defined and redefined Chinati Weekend. So what is essential to the event that has spanned decades?

There’s the art, with tours through the collection and lectures from preeminent scholars. There’s lots of food, be it quail and lobster tails or a Tex-Mex barbecue. Live music – but is it bagpiping or Sonic Youth? And performances that have ranged from then-board member Tommy Lee Jones doing a performative reading of Judd’s writings to Wallace Shawn in a play directed by then-curator Rob Weiner.

Through the years, the event has seen that and much more, and to Ingrid Schaffner, Chinati Foundation’s curator, the annual weekend event is “ever changing, ever adapting.” So its latest adaptation – a wholly virtual affair from October 9-11 – is “yet another iteration of this live and ever lively event,” Schaffner says.

The first year of Chinati Weekend was a small beginning, where a cohort of patrons trekked into the Chihuahuan Desert to encounter the nascent foundation. It was 1987, and Donald Judd was inviting visitors to see works by himself and John Chamberlain.

“But it seems it was Judd wanting to open up Chinati to bigger visibility. It was an important beginning for this being a destination weekend,” Schaffner said. Those who made the trip to Marfa were met with a “progressive” party, welcomed to a Judd exhibition in El Paso and a dinner, the first of many hosted by the Chinati Foundation. The group was then shuttled into Marfa, toured through the foundation, fed and sent off. The first Chinati Weekend, then called Open House, was in the books.

Each year, the crowd grew larger. The formal dinners “with quail and lobster tails,” Schaffner said, gave way to block party-esque events where locals, patrons and some of the art world’s biggest names feasted elbow to elbow.

Sam Schonzeit, now a Marfa resident, attended several times in the early 2000s. He came to work as a docent for Chinati Weekend, slept on the floor of the Thunderbird Hotel before its remodel and ate among the locals and visitors.

“I remember sitting at long Judd tables on Highland and eating barbecue off of paper, sitting next to people from the town,” he says. “The sensation of sitting in the middle of the street and that this town felt so remote and that they were able to shut down a street to have a giant block party was wonderful.”

“And the fact that everything was free felt so generous and unexpected,” Schonzeit recalls. “It was not a small amount of people, it was like the whole town, hundreds of people at these long tables – it felt democratic and utopian even as a visitor.”

Early on, the gratis meals were actually a necessity – there weren’t enough restaurants in town to feed every visitor for every meal. As Marfa has grown into a year-round destination, the local offerings have grown too.

Schaffner says of the weekend’s essence, “it’s music, it’s food, and it’s really going to this ethos of Judd that hospitality is important and that we live with art, art should be a part of daily life, let’s eat with it, let’s hang out with it.”

When Judd was still at the helm of the weekends, there was food, music and revelry. “The Open House that is most memorable to me is the one held in 1991, the year that Claes Oldenburg’s Monument to the Last Horse was installed and dedicated at Chinati,” recalls Rosario Halpern, the foundation’s executive director from 1989 to 1992. “The weekend was lively and busy and full of excitement.”

“Besides the work of Judd, Oldenburg and Chamberlain, the exhibits that year included works by Josef Albers, prints by Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman, paintings by Richard Paul Lohse, among other works, plus an exhibit of one of the first artists in residence, Brian Wendelman of Sweden.”

Cueva de Leon of Fort Davis catered that weekend’s dinner, which fed hundreds. As the evening continued, Judd’s invited guest, Joe Brady Jr., entertained the crowd with bagpiping, an art form close to Judd’s heart. Then, Esteban Alvarez and Lupe Cataño lit a bonfire on the arena grounds, and, as Halpern recalls, “We all watched the flames and drank beer and tequila and had a good time.”

To translate and channel these moments through the internet, the foundation has gotten creative. While it’s been years since any bonfire outside the arena, at this year’s online weekend, a “bonfire” event will welcome special guests dropping in to “share stores, lore, maybe a song,” and “reflect on the history of this program that is such an important part of Chinati’s identity,” says Shaffner.

And instead of bagpipes, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen are dropping in to perform, Primo Carrasco and David Beebe will present the Truckload of Music, and local artists recorded sets on the Chinati Foundation grounds that will be streamed over the weekend. As for meals, while the dinners are on hold, supporters of Chinati Weekend have the opportunity to have a whole brisket from local eatery Convenience West shipped to their door.

“There’s something to nourish all of my cultural yearnings, which have been sharpened by this moment of pandemic and the relative isolation that we are all in,” Schaffner says of this year’s programming.

Though tours of the grounds have radically shifted due to the foundation only offering outdoor walking tours through the collection, virtual visitors can still engage with Judd’s works this year. Lectures will go on virtually, including a talk between MoMA curator Ann Temkin and Judd Foundation archivist and program director Caitlin Murray discussing the methodology of research for the MoMA’s current Judd retrospective.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the installation of the Dan Flavin works at Chinati, and thanks to the need to build the online platform for Chinati Weekend this year, the foundation plans to launch three online conversations about Flavin’s works this year, on their history, their materiality and the contemporary artists’ perspective, which can be attended by patrons around the world.

Even so, Schaffner hopes to bring everyone to Marfa again soon. “May this be a singular event and that we gather again next fall.”