Artful Traveler

Touring the Art of the American West, Part 3

Alia Al-Senussi, Abdullah AlTurki, and friends posing with a Richard Long sculpture in Marfa
Alia Al-Senussi, Abdullah AlTurki, and friends posing with a Richard Long sculpture in Marfa
Alia and Abdullah with a Dan Flavin at the Chinati Foundation
Alia and Abdullah with a Dan Flavin at the Chinati Foundation
Hanging out between the galleries
Hanging out between the galleries
Jumping in the John Chamberlain room at the Chinati Foundation
Jumping in the John Chamberlain room at the Chinati Foundation
Entering one of the cavernous Donald Judd rooms at the Chinati Foundation
Entering one of the cavernous Donald Judd rooms at the Chinati Foundation
Posing outside Ballroom Marfa
Posing outside Ballroom Marfa

This summer, Libyan Princess Alia Al-Senussi, an active patron of the arts in London and the Middle East, and Abdullah AlTurki, an influential collector in Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene, took a tour of the art on offer in the great American West, beginning with studio visits (and assorted cultural diversions) in Los Angeles and moving on to Donald Judd's compound in Marfa, Texas; Roden Crater, James Turrell's epic site in Arizona; and other towering landmarks. Here, the two friends and frequent collaborators recount their journey in the third installment of their travelogue for Artspace.

The morning after arriving in Marfa, we woke up at the Thunderbird Hotel with a palpable sense of excitement about the day ahead. We made a reservation at the local café Mando's for breakfast, figuring 13 people would be hard to accommodate as walk-ins. We grabbed the complimentary bicycles at the hotel's front desk and rode out, tootling down the highway. Mando's is a dive-y diner, and yet absolutely perfect for our first breakfast. We had greasy eggs and toast, and the waitress laughed in our faces when we asked for fresh-squeezed orange juice and fruit.

After breakfast, we had our first art appointment of the day: a tour of Ballroom Marfa to get some more tips from the art nonprofit's founding director, Fairfax Dorn. Her wonderful staff also told us their stories, and made arrangements for us to see their favorite stores in the area. But it was Monday in Marfa, meaning that a lot of the stores, studios, and galleries were closed. Fairfax gave us a map and told us where and when we should visit various destinations. 

For our first stop, we headed to the radio station and bookstore. As we traveled down the road, we saw a sign for a show at Marfa Contemporary by Bryan Adams and wondered to ourselves if it could possibly be the musician and photographer Bryan Adams. Indeed it was! Unfortunately the museum is closed at the beginning of the week, but we emailed Bryan—whom a couple of us had met through our dear friend Kenny Schachter—who found someone to let us in to see the show, which was filled with captivating photographs.

The printmaking shop Arber & Sons Editions proved an illuminating visit for us, with Robert and Valerie Arber taking the time to explain their decades-long practice in Marfa working with artists like Donald JuddBruce NaumanIlya and Emilia Kabakov, and John Baldessari. They are special people, and the work they produce is beautiful. We spent an hour with the Arbers and then continued meandering through town, stopping by the Wrong Store which we recognized from the "60 Minutes" segment on Marfa. While Morley Safer hasn’t generally proven himself to be the most knowledgeable critic of contemporary art, the segment did spotlight the couple behind this quirky emporium. As with everyone else in town, they were welcoming, kind, and generous.

El Cosmico was our final stop of the morning—an 18-acre encampment of vintage trailers and assorted tents in the desert on the outskirts of town, off the road that leads to Mexico. Operating as a rough-and-ready hotel, it was just as fabulous as the art attractions, and we flitted around the teepees and trailers taking even more pictures.

Fat Lyle’s, the food trailer where we grabbed our lunch, was across the street and down the road—as everything seems to be in this place. It was every bit as delicious as a food truck in Texas should be, with Brussels-sprout sandwiches, kosher sausages, and fresh-cut fries that definitely sated our appetites. We were stuffed—but who can say no to homemade Snickers? So we found it within ourselves to finish off multiple orders of dessert.

Next, we had a 2:30 p.m. appointment at the Judd Foundation for a tour, our first glimpse into the life of the man who helped make Marfa what it is today. We split up into two groups, and our insightful and intelligent tour guides led us through the various buildings that comprise Judd’s legacy. His exquisite symmetry is everywhere—Judd was meticulous, and since his death his home and studio have been kept just as he left them. We noticed that his books were arranged in a most peculiar fashion, with the post-20th-century library arranged by date and the pre-20th-century one by subject and geography. We puzzled over how he could possibly have searched through these long shelves, and imagined what it must have been like for him to ponder life’s conundrums in these rooms.  

Touring building after building and room after room—with anecdotes about Judd thrown in by our guide—made us realize this man was a special variety of genius. We drank it all in and reached the last room, the pièce de résistance of the tour, where the artist himself sifted through materials, colors, and prototypes while making his work. As the tour came to an end, we understood how Judd's symbiotic relationship with Marfa gave birth to his masterpieces. Meanwhile, our fellow traveler, the collector and curator Dana Farouki, traded goodbyes with our tour guide along with anecdotes and art-world gossip, giving us all some insight into her New York friends and fellow art luminaries.

We made our way back to the Thunderbird, touring the rest of the town a bit on our walk, tired yet mentally refreshed. En route, we ran into our dear friend Elise van Middelem, an Artspace curatorial advisor, in the street. We had an inkling she would be in Marfa at the same time as us, and we made plans to hang out later that evening after we showered off the dust—but hopefully not the magic—of the day.

The 1956 movie Giant is another important part of Marfa’s lore: it was filmed there in Hollywood’s heyday, starring the sumptuous onscreen trio of Elizabeth TaylorJames Dean, and Rock Hudson. They stayed at the Paisano Hotel, so we wandered its hallways, which are packed with movie paraphernalia and various objects for sale, and finally settled on their terrace for some chips and salsa and their famous margaritas. The light of the day gradually faded and we moved on to dinner at the fine-dining destination Cochineal, joined by old friends like Elise and new ones like Fairfax. 

Afterward, Fairfax led us away from the delicious warmth of dinner to admire the awe-inspiring night sky overhead. The Marfa lights—otherwise known as the "ghost lights," eerie reflections in the sky—can’t be missed, and we had a perfect midnight viewing arranged by nature. We lay back and watched countless shooting stars too, and saw the starriest of starry nights that any of us had ever witnessed.

The next morning started sluggishly, and we sought out the best coffee to be found in town, courtesy of Frama at Tumbleweed Laundry, a Laundromat-cum-coffee-shop a couple blocks from the Thunderbird. Revived and refreshed, we drove to Chinati and were greeted yet again with true Marfa hospitality, this time by Marella Consolini, the chief operating officer of the Chinati Foundation. We were treated to a tour by our dear friends Lori and Alexandra Chemla, a formidable mother-daughter-team of Chinati board members who founded the Chinati Contemporaries (which both of us have joined). We had previously emailed them from the road to say that we wished they could be with us in person, not knowing the surprise in store that they had organized for us.

Chinati is a spellbinding destination, telling the story of Judd's art and legacy, as well as the context of his life: his friendships, his aspirations, and the megalomania that exists in great men and women— who else but a crazy person could have created work so beautiful? Chinati’s silos and row houses are relics of war and sadness, having housed German POWs in World War II. Judd bought the former military fort from the United States government in the 1970s and transformed its haunting spaces into perfect vessels for art. We made our way through the fields and buildings, viewing Judd’s cubic aluminum sculptures as deer danced around them and stopping to see the other works in the collection: extraordinary light pieces by Dan Flavin, a giant schoolhouse installation by the Kabakovs that filled an entire building, sculptural interventions by Richard Long, and so much more. 

It’s all put in context by our visit to the Judd Foundation the day before, our conversation with the Arbers (during which we admired prints that the Kabakovs made on their visit to Marfa), and the stories we heard from everyone we met in this unique village. We excitedly emailed Ilya and Emilia to let them know we were there, at the site of their school—the two are artists who mean very much to Alia, as they were responsible for her start in the art world. 

Our last mission in town was lunch at the arty cafeteria-style restaurant Future Shark, where our pack of hungry wolves enjoyed another delicious meal. We ate, rested, and mused aloud on everything we had seen over the past couple of days in this strange, quirky little town, taking pictures in front of the town water tower to complete our time in Marfa—or so we thought. We hardly suspected the the disasters about to befall our happy troop. Fairfax came to see us off, and gave us specific instructions for our arrival at Cibolo Creek Ranch, which some might say was a curious choice for a night's sleep in Marfa, but we were under a strict directive from Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, who insisted that we couldn't miss it. We were told to head straight south, past Chinati, past El Cosmico, and drive for 30 miles until we came to a low stone wall on the right that serves as the entrance.  

We set off in somewhat of a hurry as we wanted to arrive in time to relax a bit at the hotel before our 4:30 p.m. horseback-riding reservation—for what could be a more apt diversion for a group of Middle Easterners, a Spaniard, and a Filipino than horseback riding at a ranch in the middle of West Texas? We eventually found the low stone wall and arrived at Cibolo at the end of long and meandering road through four miles of ranch, but Abdullah’s car still lagged behind. Thirty minutes went by, then another 30 minutes, and everyone started to worry. The people in the front office didn’t seem concerned, but this just didn't feel right.  

Phone service evaporated a long time ago, right around the border-patrol station three miles south of the Chinati Foundation, so we knew there was no way to contact anyone. We tried emailing him using the WiFi at the hotel, but met no response. Three of our group set out back the way we came and made it all the way back to the border patrol, stopping to ask the officer if there was a way to find out if there has been an accident reported on the road. He couldn’t find any record of an accident, but said that while we were there he was obligated to ask for our identification. At this moment, we realized we had made a perilous mistake—none of us had our IDs!  

Since Alia is an American citizen, he didn't ask her for further proof, but the other two members of the search party had answered truthfully that they were not American citizens and didn't have their identification with them. The officer considered this problem and went inside to run their names through the computer database while his colleagues joked about a crazy married couple at the station who they believed couldn't possibly be married, since one was wearing a Yankees hat while the other one wore a Red Sox hat. At last, the first officer came back with a stern warning that we needed to return to our hotel immediately—that he would let us go this time. We were relieved by his kindness, and also the news that finally came through on our cell phones that Abdullah’s car had been found and that its party of six should reach at Cibolo shortly.  

We carefully drove back to the ranch, hoping that our stomachs would eventually unknot themselves so we could at last enjoy an evening of preordered s'mores, for the dream of horseback riding had already passed. It turned out that Abdullah's car had suffered a flat tire as they—yet again—had failed to follow the careful instructions, turning instead onto a false road on the wrong side of the highway and then retreating to the town of Shafter, about five miles out of the way. They eventually hitchhiked with two kind ladies in a big white van and tumbled out with all their belongings at the ranch. We rescued the car thanks to AAA, and hoped our next day’s journey wouldn’t be so eventful. Once safely back at the hotel with moods calmed and anxieties reduced, we enjoyed the magic of Cibolo and start praising Richard’s choice of hotel for us rather than cursing the predicament he had gotten us into.

Artful Traveler: Touring the Art of the American West, Part 1 
Artful Traveler: Touring the Art of the American West, Part 2 
Artful Traveler: Touring the Art of the American West, Part 3 
Artful Traveler: Touring the Art of the American West, Part 4 


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