Opinion: Studio Visit

A studio visit with Valerie Arber

“Where are all the artists?” a new acquaintance asked, as if the artists were in hiding. And to some degree they are, in their studios, homes and spaces throughout the town of Marfa, where evidence of artists at work is everywhere in sight — in galleries and backyards, the bookstore, the coffee shops, the hotels, the library, the art supply shop. Most declaratively hidden was the artist Donald Judd, who moved to Marfa from New York in the 1970s and bought entire buildings — including a supermarket and a bank — to spread out and work in behind closed doors and covered windows. The fortress-like adobe walls facing Kelly Street and Highway 90 shield from view his private compound for art and living, while up on top of South Hill Street is the former Fort D.A. Russell, which Judd transformed into a museum that integrates art, architecture and the land: the Chinati Foundation. As pilgrimage sights for ever-growing numbers of people, Judd’s spaces have contributed greatly to Marfa’s reputation as a one-horse art town. 

But, it’s not just artists. Haven’t we all grown relatively hidden to one another during this period of pandemic, first under quarantine and now still wearing masks? When I moved to Marfa last year to start my job as curator at Chinati, the museum was already closed to the public. Now as the community opens up, I’m happy to be able to pursue my avocation and everyday curiosity about artists and their work in this justly renowned creative town. With thanks to the editorial staff at The Big Bend Sentinel, I will be reporting on my studio visits with local artists. When I told my colleague Rob Weiner about this occasional column, he reminded me of Vincent Dilio’s excellent blog “The Real Artists of Marfa.” Written in 2012 for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, these online portraits remain relevant. Look for an upcoming studio visit with one of Dilio’s subjects, Ann Marie Nafziger, to be published here in the coming weeks. 

To be welcomed by an artist into their studio is always a privilege. A studio may be messy with materials and works in process percolating in every corner. Or, it may be as neat as a pin, with a computer on a table and a single chair. Books, music, pictures, postcards offer frames of reference and signs of inspiration. Plants, photos, a dog bowl, a cat, a baby, a couch, bottles, an ashtray, snacks, a comfy sweater, weird old work shoes — or the complete lack of any such distractions — display various habits and attitudes toward what constitutes a conducive working environment. Because no matter how relaxed or formal, intimate or vast, every studio is set up for the same purpose: to experiment, conceive, practice and perform creative work, for which there is no prescribed approach or outcome. When visiting an artist, I’m often struck by how the studio is — as much as any of the work going on inside of it — an expression of the vulnerability and joy of making one’s art. 

Valerie Arber is one of the first artists I met on my maiden trip to Marfa for Chinati Weekend in October 2003. Arber’s studio next to the train track comprises a discrete compound with a neat metal shack of a structure surrounded by a rusty corrugated fence. Perhaps the location is why it felt like I had arrived at a far western outpost of Provincetown, the East Coast artists’ colony that boomed after the railroad started bringing Greenwich Village modernists to the beach. Or maybe it was the rusty lawn chair in the gravel yard that evoked another time and place. Inside, however, was a different story. 

A white, open space with a peaked ceiling and a minimum of windows to offer a maximum of wall to hang and view art is the basic plan. There is a work table, metal flat files (boxy pieces of furniture with shallow drawers that are good for storing works on paper), and a slim mattress with a few bolsters and books piled around — noticeably Donald Judd Writings, a handsome brick in orange binding that we of Marfa consider something of a psalter. I was immediately drawn to the wall that presented itself as a studio survey of framed works that are apparently touchstones for Arber. They hang almost as a question: What does Valerie do? An artist who works on paper, drawing images and making marks, stamping shapes and printing patterns; she invents. 

A package of 3×5 index cards is at the root of her compositions of satisfyingly proportioned rectangles. A bin of stamps for random alphabet letters led to patterned fields of abstract ciphers. Scraps of mat board, constructed into V-shapes, produced blotted nets of ink on paper. My favorite origin story comes from the bingo emporium in Albuquerque, where Arber discovered daubers: an essential part of today’s turbo game, in which wooden markers are for chumps. Daubers make dots. And so does Valerie Arber, who for a time used bingo daubers in various colors to ink the shape that literally forms a dotted line throughout her work’s many serial investigations, which all go back to pearls.

One of the earliest works in the studio is a small drawing of a pearl necklace. The necklace belonged to Arber’s mother, whom she lost when she was young. As shapes encircling a void on an empty ground, the necklace prefigures many abstract compositions to come. Gooiest of which are the monotype prints, which I loved, of beefy dots topping cones of trippy colors. As Arber explained how she made them — by painting small plexiglass circles and arranging them on a press in order to squish the desired but unpredictable skids of color — I came to appreciate the craft and discipline that generally goes into creating works of extreme simplicity. 

We opened flat file drawers and flipped through folders. As an artist whose work is always close to printmaking and, for that matter, a printmaker — Valerie Arber’s husband is Robert Arber of Arber & Son Editions — she often creates multiple series of images that get loosely bound together in envelopes and portfolios, the design and making of which is also part of the work. Lettered in foggy graphite, one album, titled Smoke Rings, reveals a set of prints, each with four luminously hazed circles of a particular shade of Gauloises blue. Due to some unanticipated fugitive property of the pigment medium, these prints are slowly fading, ephemerally enough, like smoke rings.

A next drawer in the flat files contains folders of large drawings that had originally come together in 2009 for an exhibition at the Marfa Book Company. As I looked through the drawings, Arber described the installation of some 75 works, which were hung salon style and may have looked like a group show. There were variously patterned abstractions intermingled with unique images of boxed forms that upon closer examination revealed aquariums, swimming pools, an ant farm. When I asked about the uniformly strange palette, Arber attributed the overall body of work to a bargain. On a trip to Pearl Paint, the one-time mecca for artists in New York, she just couldn’t pass on the grossly colored gouaches that were priced to move.

When I asked Arber what she is currently working on, she pointed to a large, white foam-core construction taking shape in the corner of her studio. “That’s my tree,” she explained of the project that had taken root during the pandemic, adding that while this has been a very productive time for many of her peers, she herself has found it difficult to maintain a studio routine. Fallow periods are followed by new growth. On the wall behind the tree hangs a pink-and-white text, a motivational message Arber painted in 2011 after a move into a previous studio led to creative block. It reads: GO VAL GO. All studio indications show that she does, and will, continue to work the steady beat of modest shapes, repetition and patterns that give her art its quiet authority.

Valerie Arber’s art can be seen in Marfa in the lobby storefront of the Hotel Saint George (where a wall of her works is displayed in, coincidentally, the same space as her 2009 show); behind the checkout desk at the public library; through her website valerierarber.com; and in the window of Arber & Son Editions, where a banner overhead bears the Arber emblem, an abstraction of a tree.

Ingrid Schaffner is a writer and the curator at Chinati Foundation.