Today, Marfa is a tourist destination and a major center for Minimalist art. Attractions include Building 98, the Chinati Foundation, artisan shops, historical architecture, a classic Texas town square, modern art installments, art galleries, and the Marfa lights.
The area around Marfa is known as a cultural center for contemporary artists and artisans. In 1971, minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa from New York City. After renting summer houses for a couple of years, he bought two large hangars and some smaller buildings and began to permanently install his art. While this started with his building in New York, the buildings in Marfa allowed him to install his works on a larger scale. In 1976, he bought the first of two ranches that would become his primary places of residence, continuing a long love affair with the desert landscape surrounding Marfa. Later, with assistance from the Dia Art Foundation in New York, Judd acquired decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell, and began transforming the fort’s buildings into art spaces in 1979. Judd’s vision was to house large collections of individual artists’ work on permanent display, as a sort of anti-museum. Judd believed the prevailing model of a museum, where art is shown for short periods of time, does not allow the viewer an understanding of the artist or their work as they intended.
Since Judd’s death in 1994, two foundations have worked to maintain his legacy: the Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation. Every year the Chinati Foundation holds an open house event where artists, collectors, and enthusiasts come from around the world to visit Marfa’s art. Since 1997, Open House has been co-sponsored by both foundations and attracts thousands of visitors from around the world. In 2008, the Chinati Foundation changed the format of the Open House weekend, eliminating various events. This significantly reduced the number of visitors. The Chinati Foundation now occupies more than 10 buildings at the site and has on permanent exhibit work by artists such as Ingólfur Arnarson, Dan Flavin, and Claes Oldenburg.
In recent years, a new wave of artists has moved to Marfa to live and work. As a result, new gallery spaces have opened in the downtown area. The Crowley Fountation theater and its theater annex host public events with seating for over 175 as a public service to nonprofit foundations. Furthermore, The Lannan Foundation has established a writers-in-residency program, a Marfa theater group has formed, and a multifunctional art space called Ballroom Marfa has begun to show art films, host musical performances, and exhibit other art installations. The city is also 37 miles (60 km) from Prada Marfa, a pop art exhibit, and is home to Cobra Rock Boot Company and The Wrong Store.
Here’s a little story I wrote about my trip to marfa in 2006, I went twice in one year April and October, I must have liked it.
DateCreated3/21/2007 12:41:00 AM
Marfa: Things Haven’t Changed Here Much Since.
This is a tale of a traveling family, quite the family, 3 architects and an art worker. Going to view art in the desert, in a newly posh little town called Marfa. Our little family drove out to Marfa in a station wagon, this is often the car of choice of a family, I guess that makes us one big happy family, by some standards.
There were many newly posh towns in the country, growing out of some cultural phenomena; ski valleys (Jackson Hole), museuming (Bilboa,Spain), shopping (Hong Kong, PRC), tourism(Canberra, Australia), art festivals (Cannes), Sundance, lots of money poured into a small town for the recreation of rich people, I have to admit this technique can make some awfully charming towns, Marfa is one of those towns.
Things haven’t changed there that much since the 1950’s, the town still exudes the same desolate, open feeling, your vision shooting out onto the desert plains from the town in every direction, the sky showing you how small you are underneath its blue dome. Marfa is the same but different, experiencing a different kind of change, a cultural change, that has lead to hot shots buying up every piece of property available and sticking an art gallery in it, but the town is as it should be, a working town on a singular economy of art. For its use lends itself to just one kind economy, it used to be a military town, and now art. Which is fitting for it’s founder Donald Judd was a WWII vet who turned to art after the war, much like James Boyce and several other post war modern artist.
We started out driving through the hill country stopping in a charming little German town named Fredericksburg, parked the car and walked onto Main Street lined with quaint little shops, mostly full of what some people would call clutter, others memorabilia, still others keepsakes. We walked past these stores like they don’t exist or are full of nothing, everyone else is there for the shops. I am curious to see a working main street along this busy road.
This Main Street is now a tourist attraction for it is rare that one can walk along a street full of shops, even though the street is probably fifty feet wide with four lanes of traffic running though it, its still charming or we all have to think so since there isn’t much like it. Main street is full of crap for rich white people to buy: Vera Bradley bags, fig jams, fake antiques; it was long ago a functional oasis to provide useful things to people, that need for functionality has rotted away (Walmart rules), but it still seems to be an oasis, just not the functional one it probably was, but perhaps it helps people fill a need of nostalgia; to remind them of things of usefulness and a feeling of desperation. That longing for the days when they used to come to town and get a sody pop, becauase we don’t have them on the farm — that kind of nostalgia. As we walk past the stores, no one says anything, but I think we all think the contents are so expected, so why bother?
In the Fredericksburg brewery, we ordered scotch eggs, our lovely waiter had a mullet, which I hadn’t noticed at first until he turned around. We ate and drank, with a knife and fork, some nice beers. We found the car still parked behind Main Street, reminding us of our drive ahead.
We drove out into the desert, where the cell towers become fewer and the wind turbines more frequent. Leaving civilization as indicated by the decreasing bars on our cell phones, these wind turbines are monuments of sustainability, these things could be our saviors, but now they are just icons for energy nerds and a threat to coal fired power plants and utility companies everywhere.
This trip is brought to you by the American highway system, what would I do with out it? We are driving along interstate 10, one of the major highways in America that spans Jacksonville, Florida to Las Angeles, California all across the south, miles and miles of asphalt. It looks so desolate that you would have no idea it is a thoroughfare of that magnitude. Bisecting habitats, mountains, dynamiting hills so we can drive fast, into the desert, it still takes 7 hours, that’s how far we are going into the desert. We drive all fenced in, next to a median that is mowed for miles and miles, I wonder if we have any idea what it costs to mow this, we could have sheep eat it but, based on the large amount of road kill, killing after killing, for miles, that might not be a good idea. Those poor animals plowed into at eighty miles per hour, perhaps the American government has something against armadillos, deer, foxes, coyotes, antelopes.
As the road cuts into the hills you see that the trees out here grow straight into the rock, a testament to their harsh environment, full of life growing low to ground all together reaching to the big sky that faded in to twilight as the moon began to raise its self over the horizon. We drove through the night, moonlight beaming down on our drive, illuminating the desert hills and buttes; usually you can’t see your hand in front of your face, so I enjoyed the landscape instead of sleeping, on this rare moonlight occasion.
We got to Marfa under milky sky masked by moonlight. Getting out of the car, legs’ aching, we stare off into the desert, this is a common thing to do when you get to Marfa. Stare off into the distance and try to see the mystery lights. My hypothesis about this is that it is really some kind of mental cleansing ritual, supported by folk tales and dancing headlights in the distance. Marfa becomes meditative this way. A complete break from the world, things haven’t changed here much since the 1950’s, the desert is still large and open, the town is full small remnants preserved by the dry desert, and the horizon is still long and empty.
After seeing the nothing-ness we went on into town. And then we saw the lights, bright gallery openings in rustic store fronts and new holiday houses lit up, land prices curiously shining high; the people are definitely not from here, crossing streets on foot and gathering in galleries on ground levels, this is the bright flare that Marfa has once a year; this is the explosion weekend, the town is booming for this one weekend, and the debris from the explosion comes trickling down the rest of the year. The town is at its busiest, population doubles for the weekend from 2,000 to 4,000 in town. This is then the densest area in the county, Presidio county, this one county alone is three times the size of Rhode Island, but 10 times emptier. That’s a whole lot of land and not many peopleâ€”doesn’t happen much anymore, on this earth, at least not for me, a city dweller, I suppose there are few landscapes like this now; over the ocean there are few people, also the planes in the air are fairly not dense. If one billion passengers fly on two two-hour flights a year, that means that there must be (on average) 500,000 passengers in the air at any given moment.
We have made our pilgrimage to this landscape of nothing-ness, but surely all these people are not coming here to see nothing, surely that is just my interpretation of the desert. Marfa is being visited by more and more pilgrims every year and the place seems to get older and newer every year. A charming town in that sun baked kind of way; it’s the kind of environment that ghost towns are made of. An ancient town hall from 1886, a wonder in itself, anchors the town and provides food for the art fungus. It’s like you’re visiting the ruins of an ancient time and wondering why they are there at all. The town starts to look like an evolutionary mixture of history and newness, like some body wiped the dust off a dirty old window and could see for miles. There are small mountains in the distance, the sky is big, the town is full, and the lights are on. This newly posh little place was the perfect place for a cowboy to kick back after a long ride into town. I found myself enjoying the crisp air of the desert, a cold that I haven’t felt for months. And my blood full of a different kind of oxygen.
After finding our place to sleep and friends we settle our things and want to go see some of those lights. Weary of blue laws and dry counties in this state, I never go anywhere without the ability to party, because there is nothing worse than arriving in a one bar town and the bar is closed. So when we arrived in town I pulled out 2 bottles of 6$ wine, finest wine worth buying, like everything else, when you decide you are going to drink fermented grapes and you see though the concept of ‘the best money can buy’ or ‘just right for your pallet’ bullshit then you can really drink cheap wine, and not feel bad about it. It’s a release from that feeling of its not good enough, because all it is in the first place is rotten fruit. Not feeling bad that you are a cheap son of a bitch is a good start, but there is a lot more to not feel bad about. For instance, the erosion from the grape fields, if it would be paid for it would probably cost 35$ a bottle, but that stuff is usually left out of the equation, those pesky consequences of holistic thinking.
“Cheers to that,” I say swigging down my first glass of wine. Tonight is going to be a good night I thought as I poured another for my friends, I was impressed with myself for thinking ahead.
We find the local hip hotel, opened by an hotelier that I know, her success almost seems like an accident but she knows what is cool and has money now to open success via a formula of cool. She is following suit with Donald Judd, knowing that the exclusiveness of this place is reason for its mystery, its elitist potential, its darling culture, its solitude, its meaning.
We got to the hotel’s bar, which looked like it had had it for the night. Tables full of empty glasses, the staff wasn’t interested in cleaning anymore, everyone was too drunk. It was crowded, so space was limited a concept unfamiliar to the land in this area, as soon as I saw the people in the corner leave, I attacked their spot.
Let me tell you about this particular weekend in the newly posh art town that I am descending upon. Its open house weekend for the large local “flagship” museum (Chinati Foundation), art hipsters and directors from New York and California and everywhere else are in town. Wearing cowboy boots they just bought and the tightest jeans you could imagine. This brings an interesting mix of local art townies and jet setting hipsters all into one town the ancient and the new all at once.
There are no mystery lights this weekend nor will you hear how James Dean shot a film here (Giant, 1956), there is a different folklore around now. This is because of Donald Judd’s Mecca-like minimalist art haven, only for the art person who wishes to make the trip, its remoteness pronouncing its elite-ness. It is a pilgrimage, to see nothing, to see your own humanness, the raw emotionally devoid artifacts left behind by a man who understood making. He understood how we can have our own understandings and the world meanings nothing until we say so. In his making he found beauty, everything else was extra, ideologies, dogma, thing that get in your way of you and your meaning and your experience and what that means to you.
Donald moved his army of austerity into the military base, with one exception the firm idea that these pieces would be permanently installed, they would be immortal to the art world, they would be timeless artifacts soaring through the universe’s time stratum, they would become gods.
The objects, this art is like a Rothko painting, you should start at it for half an hour, then you might appreciated it, forcing you to slow down and stop failing to notice. Its not about communication, its about an inquiry of being. Just be. Be with yourself, stop the chattering mind. This brings me to how I got here. How I came to understand this art, this contemporary way of knowing the world and how I know that that is what it is, how I now see the world as full of crazy people farmed from a lifetime of not seeing, a life of ordinary consciousness. The world is malleable and deeply undefined, the histories established by modern art and the rest of the world are radical in the frequency they change yet incredibly homogeneous.
The thing about this little town are the tourists, its not your average tourist, family of four with pot bellies and digital cameras, all complaining about how different everything is. It’s the there to be seen wearing cowboy boots tourist from a big city like New York. Perhaps they aren’t tourists, perhaps they are pilgrims, traveling 12 hours to view art, a modern meaningless pilgrimage, yet as we are humans it has much meaning to us, individual meaning. Ever feel like you are ashamed to tell someone you did something so ridiculous, like a 12 hour pilgrimage to see art, or that you might be bragging a bit, about a trip to Napa Valley that had so much meaning it in for you, the vineyards, the landscape, the views or Marfa: the art, the austerity, the desert, the charming little town, the art galleries. Its like an underhanded sales pitch, ready for you if you can slow down enough to look at it.
The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote that Ortega y Gasset wrote that the ”bigotry” of modern society ”consists in presenting culture, withdrawal into one’s self, thought, as a grace or jewel that man is to add to his life; hence it is something that provisionally lies outside of his life, as if there were life without culture and thought, as if it were possible to live without withdrawing into one’s self.” [Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/04/arts/art-architecture-the-last-great-art-of-the-20th-century.html]
Ancient Greeks thought ‘to educate’ was to draw out of oneself and not to be given something. Its already in you, you just have to be willing to understand it. Marfa is that place that isn’t cluttered with things, it has some space for the ideas within you to come out.