It’s 428 miles from Austin to Marfa. And although there are eight (inhabited) towns on, or at least near, the route, that still gives plenty of time staring at sand to think about why you’re bothering to go in the first place. For a little Texas town, it punches well above its weight. It’s a small, hot, dusty town (pop. of 2000 peppered across a few small blocks) with an airport for private jets and a lot of big names hiding out eating tacos.
It was artist, Donald Judd, who started it all in 1971 when, tired of the New York art world he came to to this desert town for its whistling, tumbleweed space, and rented a house. His big, clean, simple (if not minimalist) works and installations are preserved in Marfa by the Chinati Foundation and in some way by the Judd Foundation, and are the original draw. There are other foundations too, and artists inspired to do big conceptual things of their own. There are also plenty of filmmakers and screenwriters and actors.
Anyway, to the untutored eye Marfa could look like a scrapyard, given the rusting cars, industrial pipes, corrugated iron, baked empty earth lots, scrub and weed pushing on through adobe buildings, just-there electrical substation, railway tracks and sidings, abandoned trailers, faded signs and what-nots. There are plenty of towns like this down here that aren’t artsy; they’re just poor. In fact, Valentine, the next town west, has most of the same stuff lying around in it, but it’s not the Chosen One.
Musing in the parking lot of El Cosmico – the super-cool, urban hipster, pricy airstream trailer and teepee retreat – I wonder whether this isn’t all a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It has a ‘Creative Lab’ and ‘Amphitheatre’, but off-brochure there’s not much to distinguish this site from the Tumble In RV Park on the others side of town where you can pitch a tent on the scrub for $15, or to be honest, from some of the yards you pass on the way, where old cars and RVs sit abandoned in the sun. Or am I just telling myself that because they’re full? The fact is that despite feeling suckered in by the term ‘vintage’ and the nice retro signage, I do find it all weirdly beautiful – and clearly so does everyone else rolling up in the hope of a cancellation.
That confusion applies to Marfa as a whole. One part of me says let’s be honest, if people really want to go somewhere to get away from it all, there are a hell of a lot of places to choose from in Texas. That might have been Marfa when they filmed Giant and James Dean was down to earth and flirty friends with all the local girls and Liz and Rock hung out at the Paisano, but today’s town is too popular to be free and cheap and lawless. There’s something a little tense and self-consciously special here, that makes me feel like a voyeur and a fan rather than a relaxed escapee.
Then there’s the Marfa Lights. Even the bloke some hundred or so miles away who gave us the gas to prevent us from running out of fuel on the I-10 and ending up as two piles of bleached bones, even he asked if we were going to see the Marfa Lights. Everyone talks about them – there’s an observatory, maps – the lot. These aren’t the aurora borealis. They’re a bit like headlights, although to be fair they come from a place without roads and were spotted by a rancher, Robert Reed Ellison in 1883. So remain sceptical? Or abandon yourself to awe and wonderment? There’s a lot of thinking on both sides. Personally, I’d have gone for wonder, but for Mr Sceptic, back in the car with the radio on.
The other part of me though is loving it; admiring telegraph poles, cactus, empty buildings. Confusing. Fact is some things about Marfa are indisputably lovely, like so many of the buildings – Ballroom Marfa, the old National Bank, the Contemporary gallery and Pizza Foundation, the Courthouse and the Thunderbird motel, and random private homes. Plus, there’s the 50’s – 60s style signage, the never-to-be-forgotten art – Judd’s, and others, with Prada Marfa one of the biggest, funniest and the best, and perfect encapsulation of Marfa’s cool weirdness.
BTW Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl (wanton youth, small-town Texas), shot in Marfa, won Best Picture at the Rome Film Festival.