“Once you get there, you get it.” Med­i­ta­tions on Marfa

MED­I­TA­TIONS ON MARFA

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IF you are trav­el­ing east to­ward the tiny Texas town that sculp­tor Don­ald Judd put on the art-world map, you’ll likely be keep­ing your eyes peeled for a drab build­ing on the side of the road. Out­side Valen­tine (pop. 125 in 2016), you might pull the car over when you see it: Michael Elm­green and In­gar Dragset’s 2005 in­stal­la­tion Prada Marfa, a min­i­mal­ist store­front that ap­pears iden­ti­cal to its Soho coun­ter­part. You’ll take it all in, snap­ping oblig­a­tory photos of dusty Prada bags sit­ting be­hind thick poly­car­bon­ate win­dows pocked with bul­lets and pithy graf­fiti (“Dumb” is one sear­ing cri­tique).

You’ll gaze up at the end­less blue sky, and as Bor­der Pa­trol SUVs whiz by on the two-lane road, you might pon­der what ex­actly all the fuss is about Prada Marfa, im­ages of which you’ve seen in count­less In­sta­grams. You may have fig­ured out its cri­tique of the very artis­tic pil­grim­age you’re on, along with its com­men­tary on the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the town you’ll en­ter af­ter about 36 more miles. But once you’re con­fronted by this piece of art smack-dab on the pale, windswept West Texas plains, much like Marfa it­self, you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to fully un­der­stand it.

That’s the premise of two re­cent books about the mys­ter­ies of Marfa, any­way. Kath­leen Shafer’s Marfa: The Trans­for­ma­tion of a West Texas Town (Univer­sity of Texas Press, 2017) is an ex­plo­ration of the town’s own sense of place. The au­thor quotes the slo­gan of the Marfa Vis­i­tor Cen­ter: “Marfa: Tough to get here. Tougher to ex­plain. But once you get here, you get it.” Shafer adds dryly, “Well, let’s hope so.” In poet Jef­frey Yang’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with painter Rack­straw Downes, Hey, Marfa, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber by Gray­wolf Press, Yang de­scribes a trip to see the Marfa Mys­tery Lights as “some ver­sion of the No Tour.” In the poem “Travel Writ­ing,” he calls Marfa Judd’s Marfa has plenty of de­trac­tors — the first Lan­nan Foun­da­tion writer-in-res­i­dence in town, Peter Read­ing, called Judd’s pur­chase of many of Marfa’s build­ings “a spoilt-child, he­do­nis­tic shop­pingspree,/procur­ing half the town.” Par­o­dies of Prada Marfa, still more meta-com­men­taries on the Marfa art in­dus­try, have be­gun to crop up. Tar­get Marathon ,a tiny cin­derblock rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a Tar­get store, was in­stalled in 2016 by un­known per­sons along U.S. 90 out­side Marathon, Texas, more than 90 des­o­late miles from Prada Marfa. In 2013, lo­cals fought a quick and de­ci­sive bat­tle against an­other par­ody along the same high­way, Play­boy Marfa, whose core el­e­ments — a con­crete box struc­ture, a 1972 Dodge Charger painted matte black, and a large white neon sign — ref­er­enced the three orig­i­nal artists of the Chi­nati Foun­da­tion: Judd, John Cham­ber­lain, and Dan Flavin. But the neon sign is in the shape of the iconic Play­boy bunny logo, and the in­stal­la­tion it­self turned out to be an ad­ver­tise­ment com­mis­sioned and paid for by Play­boy. Play­boy Marfa was dis­man­tled the same year by or­der of the Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, un­der pres­sure from Marfa res­i­dents.

On Oct. 12, The New York Times re­ported on the Judd Foun­da­tion’s plans to ren­o­vate six of the 21 build­ings the foun­da­tion owns around Marfa, the town where Judd lived and worked be­gin­ning in the 1970s. The idea, spear­headed by the artist’s chil­dren, is to ful­fill ex­hi­bi­tion plans he made dur­ing his life­time and to add more than 42,000 square feet of new spa­ces for pub­lic con­sump­tion. The Chi­nati Foun­da­tion, the mu­seum Judd founded in Marfa be­fore his death in 1994, show­cases his work as well as that of other artists and re­mains open as a mecca for art tourists.

Ac­cord­ing to the late lo­cal his­to­rian Ce­cilia Thomas, whom Shafer in­ter­views in Marfa, “Judd in­tro­duced the area to the art world. … It saved it. The ranch cul­ture had just faded away.” Shafer de­scribes that his­toric cul­ture as a force that “con­tin­ues to

This place Hol­ly­wood likes to mas­ti­cate for a bit to spit out its land­scape

Tourists come to look at the edge of the dirt where artists play and work

per­me­ate the town,” demon­strated by the Stet­son­topped and Wran­gler-clad men who still drive their pick­ups past the Ho­tel Paisano, the ren­o­vated lodg­ings where James Dean, El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, and Rock Hud­son stayed while film­ing Gi­ant.

This old-time Marfa, still mainly pop­u­lated by His­panic fam­i­lies who have ranched in the area for gen­er­a­tions, co­ex­ists with “the new cul­tural land­scape, that of art. It’s the com­bi­na­tion of these two fac­tors that de­fines this new Marfa iden­tity.” The city of 2,000 at­tracts in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors year-round, and with the con­flu­ence of the Chi­nati, Judd, and Lan­nan foun­da­tions, Marfa’s sta­tus as a cul­tural cen­ter means it sees a steady ro­ta­tion of new res­i­dents. Hol­ly­wood has come to call again, too, ev­i­dently peg­ging the high desert of the Trans-Pe­cos as an equally apt set­ting for quirky Westerns (No Coun­try for Old Men, There Will

Be Blood) and ex­per­i­men­tal med­i­ta­tions fea­tur­ing over­sexed women (Larry Clark’s 2012 Marfa Girl and

I Love Dick, the 2016 Ama­zon series based on Chris Kraus’ cult fem­i­nist novel and set against a so­cial back­drop of Lan­nan and Chi­nati aca­demics).

“Peo­ple al­ways want to com­pare Marfa to Santa Fe,” a lo­cal told Shafer one day. “What’s sim­i­lar is there are three distinct cul­tures here — ranch­ers, His­pan­ics, and the art mafia. But also eco­nom­i­cally this has be­come sim­i­lar to Santa Fe.” Shafer won­dered how so. “Ev­ery­one has to have three jobs,” the Mar­fan ex­plained. “Ei­ther you have no job and a new car, three jobs and no car, or three houses and seven cars and you’re here three weeks out of the year.”

Both Shafer and Yang use the Marfa Mys­tery Lights as a metaphor for ways of see­ing Marfa it­self. In 1883, as he drove cat­tle to­ward Marfa, rancher Ralph Ellison saw weird lights quiv­er­ing in the dis­tance at the base of the Chi­nati Moun­tains. Though he fig­ured the flick­er­ing lights were Apache fires, he saw no ev­i­dence of a camp the fol­low­ing day. The story has been handed down through gen­er­a­tions, and a view­ing area for the mys­tery lights was built in 2003. The­o­ries to ex­plain the strange il­lu­mi­na­tions abound: They’ve been chalked up to Apache ghosts sig­nal­ing their lost chief, un­der­ground phosphorescent gas, car head­light pro­jec­tions, and even Mar­fans with flash­lights who are try­ing to main­tain the flow of con­spir­acy-the­o­rist tourists. But for Shafer, the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of the lights is that “in a group of cu­ri­ous on­look­ers, some peo­ple will see the lights, and oth­ers won’t. I think about the way we see things, how we see the land­scape. But it’s also about who is do­ing the see­ing. See­ing a land­scape is not a given; it’s an ac­tive process.”

In both books, the pe­cu­liar lights shift the per­spec­tives of a Marfa vis­i­tor. In Hey, Marfa, Yang quotes Ellison de­scrib­ing the fate­ful night he saw the lights:

“And a lit­tle while af­ter night came, a full moon rose up over the moun­tains and it was still a beau­ti­ful sight to see those moun­tains by moon­light. They looked like they had just moved up a lit­tle closer.”

Yang rolls the reader into Marfa via var­i­ous quotes from those who have lived there.

L. C. Brite, cat­tle­man, church­man, 1885: “Be­fore me was a new and un­tried coun­try ... an ex­per­i­ment.”

Don­ald Judd, circa 1972: “… There was no fur­ni­ture and none to be bought, ei­ther old, since the town had not shrunk or changed much since its be­gin­ning in 1883, or new, since the few stores sold only fake an­tiques or tubu­lar kitchen fur­ni­ture. …”

Jour­nal­ist Sterry Butcher, Au­gust 2007: “I moved to Marfa from Austin in 1993. … And I thought, ‘Wow, there’s ev­ery­thing you need here and noth­ing more. There’s no ex­cess at all.’ ”

A char­ac­ter called Gun­slinger Stra waxes ex­tra-poetic about the town on a barstool at the now-de­funct Padre’s:

Marfa is no arid La Jolla, no Palm Springs decoy … this place is per­ceived as a small cos­mopoli­tan oa­sis, cel­e­brated for its cur­rent in­dus­try: art . ... pop­u­la­tion wa­vers around two thou­sand, 70% Obama vot­ers, most com­mon sur­name Sanchez or Martinez, pick your plot: Latino or An­glo, book­store’s to die for, ditto the ra­dio sta­tion, cozy li­brary, camp in a trailer, eat Mediter­ranean in a trailer, drool over Ra­mona’s bur­ri­tos, chains scarce mind clears, leave your pre­tense at the Prada, a quiet sim­plic­ity set­tles in . ...

Yang also quotes Judd’s cook and gar­dener, a lo­cal named Lo­rina Naegele, on Judd’s hav­ing awak­ened her to art:

He brought me over here and I had never seen art, okay, so he brought me over here and he showed me ev­ery­thing, and I said, “What is this?!” and he said, “That’s art.” and I said, “Oh …! Okay, well …” That’s when I started know­ing what art was. I had never seen it.

In Hey, Marfa, Downes’ paint­ings and draw­ings of the elec­tri­cal sub­sta­tions that dot the mo­not­o­nous desert land­scape pro­vide still an­other way of see­ing both Marfa and its art. His de­tailed and hy­per­real ren­der­ings of wires, steel, iron, and wood some­how echo the ba­nal­ity of Judd’s most fa­mous Marfa in­stal­la­tion, his 1980-1984 15 un­ti­tled works in con­crete ,a group of open squares and rec­tan­gles of cast con­crete slabs that sit sentinel along the Chi­nati prop­erty. In the book, Downes quotes Cézanne: “By force of look­ing and work­ing na­ture be­comes con­cen­tric.”

Both books sit­u­ate Marfa in the realm of terra incog­nita, which has as much to do with the town’s re­mote na­ture and split iden­tity as it does its prox­im­ity to Mex­ico. It’s a place where cow­boys and rough­necks share space with skinny-jeaned hip­sters who may only have just the vaguest glim­mer of why they’re star­ing at con­crete shapes in the name of art, where Apache leg­ends bor­der U.S. Army out­posts, where the pres­ence of javeli­nas and coy­otes leads Yang to the con­clu­sion, “Hey Marfa, you’re too far out to turn into Soho.” As with most vast and un­know­able land­scapes, the mean­ing of Marfa comes from what we im­pose upon it.

Marfa: The Trans­for­ma­tion of a West Texas Town by Kath­leen Shafer is pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Texas Press.

Hey, Marfa: Po­ems by Jef­frey Yang, with paint­ings and draw­ings by Rack­straw Downes, is pub­lished by Gray­wolf Press.

Left, Play­boy Marfa, 2013; photo Kath­leen Shafer; right, Rack­straw Downes: Down­town Marfa Sub­sta­tion, Look­ing East, 2003; graphite on pa­per; courtesy the artist and Betty Cun­ing­ham Gallery

Rack­straw Downes: From Marfa to Pre­sidio via the Grid, 2003-2004 Part 2 — Down­town Marfa Sub­sta­tion; oil on can­vas; courtesy Lan­nan Col­lec­tion; top, Tar­get Marathon, 2016; photo Kath­leen Shafer

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