In Marfa, a Trove of John Chamberlain Works Is Reopening

Restoration has wrapped up on the John Chamberlain Building, one of many exhibition halls dedicated to contemporary artists at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

The Chamberlain Building in Marfa. Photography by Florian Holzherr, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation

In 1971, Donald Judd rented a house in Marfa, a quiet town in the desert of western Texas, where he would acquire 34 buildings and more than 32,000 acres of ranch land over the next decade with the help of the Dia Art Foundation. The properties, which would open as the Chinati Foundation in 1986, comprise a sprawling museum where Judd exhibited not only his own abstract work, but the like-minded artists he admired greatly. Today, the nonprofit institution presents permanent large-scale artworks that are deeply introspective—from Roni Horn’s severed copper cones to the mesmerizing fluorescent lights of Dan Flavin—while inextricably linking art with the surrounding land.

The first Chinati Foundation structure to open—a series of three converted wool warehouses downtown—was dedicated to sculptor John Chamberlain, who installed 22 large works made from crushed and welded automobile parts. But the region’s extreme high altitude, desert heat, and winds battered the structure, which long reigned as the world’s largest permanent installation of Chamberlain’s work. The Chinati Foundation identified the Chamberlain Building as its top priority as part of a 2017 master plan looking toward the future and earmarked $40 million for ongoing restoration efforts. After a meticulous year-long process undertaken by Houston-based firm Schaum/Shieh and JC Stoddard Construction, a firm involved in preservation efforts at the Alamo, the building is finally reopening tomorrow.

John Chamberlain’s steel works. Photography by Florian Holzherr, courtesy the Chinati Foundation

Restoring the warehouse to Judd’s exacting standards was no easy task—especially considering the Chamberlain Building falls within the Central Marfa Historic District, which the Texas Historical Commission recently nominated for listing in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Water infiltration required replacing the building’s metal roof entirely, including original fiberglass skylights that bathe the interior with abundant natural light. “It was revelatory how much natural light comes into the place when the skylights were replaced as Judd had intended them to be,” says Jenny Moore, director of the Chinati Foundation. Further interventions include the restoration of the expansive pivot doors, replanting the Judd-designed sotol garden outside, and cleaning each of Chamberlain’s steel sculptures. 

“We were fascinated by what we saw in Donald Judd’s work on the John Chamberlain Building as a restoration not to a historical moment, but to an ideal state,” Schaum/Shieh partner Rosalyne Shieh says of the project. “He’s not restoring the warehouse in a historic way, but instead to an idea of a warehouse, deliberately as a typology.”

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