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