The aluminium box is as solid as a laboratory bench, its gleaming sides an oil slick of blues and greens, a contusion of colours reflecting the desert sky and grasslands. I close one eye and the box becomes transparent, appearing to slip across the concrete like a giant ice cube. I squint through my other eye and the box seems to levitate. "Some of these boxes are known to move," says Kat McKenna, our guide at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. "The heat from the sun activates the molecules in the metal."
One gleaming box would be remarkable enough but an installation of 100 boxes, each exactly the same size (1.0 by 1.3 by 1.8 metres) arranged in a strict rectangular grid of three rows and housed inside two former gun sheds, and you have a work of art. Namely Donald Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminium, 1982-1986.
It all began in the 1970s when renowned minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa to escape the New York art scene, buying the abandoned 138-hectare Fort DA Russell military base and turning it into a contemporary art museum. For a dusty dot of a town in Far West Texas one can only imagine the buzz when such an avant-garde came to stay.
Judd showed his works alongside displays by other artists such as Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, John Chamberlain and Richard Long. "His aim was to build a permanent collection utilising the abandoned military buildings," says Kat, leading us into School #6 by Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. Reminiscent of an abandoned schoolhouse from the former Soviet Union, Kabakov's installation is displayed in a former barracks. "It's a 3D canvas with the building as the frame," says Kat.
Today the collection is known as the Chinati Foundation and is one of the world's largest permanent installations of minimalist art. To the creative and the curious Marfa is a pilgrimage site, a destination worthy of the long journey (Marfa is the definition of the middle of nowhere).
Leaving the barracks we pick our way through a field of straw coloured grass to the edge of the property, the hills of the Chihuahuan Desert huddled on the horizon like a discarded hessian sack. Here, snaking through the crackling grass stands a series of giant concrete boxes, Judd's 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984, each as empty and commanding as the landscape. "Judd's work activates the grasslands," says Kat. "And in turn the grasslands activate the works." In a nutshell this is what Judd's vision of art, architecture and nature is all about.
I'd boarded Amtrak's Sunset Limited train in Los Angeles for the journey to New Orleans, with the plan to get off at small settlements that took my fancy. Alpine was one such stop, a ranch town known as the gateway to Big Bend National Park and for its annual cowboy poetry gathering.
I hire a car and push west on Highway 90, pulled along by a desiccated landscape of grass, sky and horizon. Thirty minutes later I arrive in Marfa, population 2000, a place so otherworldly I feel I've arrived by space ship.
It's early morning as I wander the backstreets, a huddle of weatherboard and adobe shacks leaning about like an abandoned film set. Even the one traffic light is blinking in slow motion. But what at first feels desolate gradually reveals a charged and compelling underbelly.
Judd died in 1994, but his legacy drew other artists, drifters and dreamers, eventually turning this tiny Texan town into a liberal, bohemian community. There's a public radio housed in a former petrol station; a dance hall turned nonprofit art space; and a laundromat serving lattes. But unlike other "arty" towns, Marfa feels genuine; marching to its own beat but grounded by its blue-chip pedigree.
A complete tour of the Chinati Foundation takes fours hours covering all 15 buildings across 2.4 kilometres (with a two-hour break in the middle). We finish at the John Chamberlain installation in the centre of town, a collection of 22 sculptures housed inside Marfa's former Wool and Mohair Company building. As I'm discovering, every building, shed and warehouse deserves a second look.
Later that afternoon I hit the road again, heading deeper west in search of another Marfa oddity – Prada Marfa. The heat-hazed highway drags me through a brittle landscape made famous by movies such as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Squinting against the glare I see it, a glass-fronted Prada store standing on the edge of Highway 90 just past Valentine, its appearance as sudden as an outlaw.
The replica Prada store, complete with shoes from the autumn 2005 collection, is a permanent sculpture by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. Sealed by a door that cannot open, the luxury goods have been left to disintegrate, the artists' statement against consumerism.
It's almost dark as I drive back to Alpine, the slick tarmac a silver arrow as I shoot past the Marfa Lights viewing area, an elevated site where mysterious lights are reported to have been seen regularly since 1883. I don't stop (it's late, I'm alone) but I do see something flickering on the horizon. I close one eye and white lights begin to dance like fireflies. I squint through the other and the lights stop. Headlights? Aliens? Who knows, but one thing is certain, there is more to Marfa than meets the eye.
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles. See unitedairlines.com
Amtrak's Sunset Limited train connects Los Angeles with New Orleans, stopping at many cities including Alpine. Seats with reservations start at $195 and upgrades to a superliner roomette starts from A$390 per person. See railplus.com.au or call 1300 555 003
Chinati Foundation is open Wednesday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm. A guided tour of the full collection costs US$25 adult/US$10 student. See chinati.org
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of United Airlines, Rail Plus, Texas Tourism and Visit Big Bend.