To Marfa, on a Tuesday in December

When high art and hipness move in, what happens to a tiny Texas town?

Barbecue for 1,000 at Open House, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation
Barbecue for 1,000 at Open House, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation (Photo By Rachel Cobb)

Marfa is a legend silk-screened on a trucker cap. I walk into a packed Chelsea gallery and before I can untangle my scarf I spot it, stuck on the shaggy head of some kid up against one of the gallery's blindingly white walls. He's pulling on a beer and grinning out from underneath the uncracked nylon brim. The hat's brown and actually says "Ballroom Marfa" in careful light blue letters: It's a souvenir from the contemporary art space at the heart of what can only be described as the scene in that suddenly hip Big Bend town. So I figure, okay, this kid's been to Marfa. And it's just a beat later that I realize there's not a soul in the crowded room who needs to ask him what or where Marfa is. They already know.

I should not have been so surprised. The opening featured the dream yarns and hacksawed Americana of Matthew Day Jackson, a talented young artist who'd been in Marfa this fall for a show at the Ballroom. The show opened during Chinati weekend, a townwide art festival centered around the Chinati Foundation's annual open house each October. I was one of many New York kids who flew out for this year's event, and from its blur of parties I recognized a dozen faces in the crush for the Chelsea gallery's dwindling stash of tepid Stella. And if the rest of the crowd hadn't yet been to Marfa, they'd probably seen one or two or seven of the Big-Art-in-a-Little-Town stories that the dailies and glossies and trashy European art mags have been kicking out for years. So I can connect the dots here, but I can't shake the weirdness: I'm 2,000 miles northeast, lost in New York's breathless hustle for the next best thing, and everybody who's anybody can name-check a one-stoplight county seat on the far side of Texas.

Full disclosure: I lived in Marfa 31/2 years myself. I have been hired to tell you how the place has changed, to tell you about the art and the money, to toss one more Big Art/Little Town clip on the pile. I am typing now in the young writer's stereotypical cold New York apartment and struggling mightily to keep this feature story from melting into a love letter. It's a Tuesday in December. The grass in the flats is bleached white, and the wind piles tumbleweeds in bulbous drifts against barbed-wire fences. There'll be ice on the road once or twice this season, and no one will know how to drive on it. On the porch the dog's water bowl freezes over some nights. Beyond simple facts like these my objectivity is not to be trusted.

It is an easy place to fall in love with. Marfa is hung out on a railroad line about seven hours due west of Austin, smack in the middle of the most mythic corner of our most mythic state. The landscape can best be described by the dreamy dust that comes out of your mouth with the words "Far ... West ... Texas ..." Say 'em slow and you'll see it: treeless plains so wide you can just about see the curve of the planet, their waving yellow grass spiked by yucca and rubbed down in dead spots by fat red Herefords. There are hawks on telephone poles and jagged blue mountains perched like compass points on the horizon. In any month of the year the brilliant high-altitude sunlight can make naked eyes screw up and water.

People who move to Marfa will sometimes sit and swap stories about how and why they came to town, like sweethearts recounting how they met. I've collected many such stories – the desperate cross-country road trip, the transcendental visit on that clear November day, the divorce in a big city far away – but for this assignment let's stick to the first one. Donald Judd was an 18-year-old soldier on his way to Korea when he first saw Far West Texas from the window of a bus in 1946. It was Dec. 17, a Tuesday. He sent his mother a telegram from Van Horn, an hour's drive northwest of Marfa: "1260 POPULATION. NICE TOWN BEAUTIFUL LAND MOUNTAINS." Fast forward to the early 1970s: Judd has become a successful New York artist but is feeling cramped by the city's gallery scene. He wants space and quiet. After scouting trips across much of the Southwestern U.S. and into Mexico, he settles on the desert he'd first seen a quarter century before.

In Marfa Judd found a way to fuse his twin passions for art and architecture into one, elegantly simple vision: Make art like buildings. If architects designed their work to fit one unique site and to stand in that site permanently, he argued, then why couldn't artists? Judd wanted to create a venue where he and a few contemporaries could make massive, permanent site-specific installations. It was a grand ambition, and Texas during the 1970s was flush with oil money looking for grand ambitions. In 1979, the Dia Foundation, backed by the Menil family of Houston's immense oil fortune, purchased an abandoned cavalry fort just south of town, and Judd went to work creating what would become the Chinati Foundation. "Oil was crazy, the art market was going crazy," says Michael Roch, a Marfa artist who would work for Judd a decade later. "It was a moment of the stars aligning."

Meanwhile, the town of Marfa was slowly drying up. Its population had peaked during World War II, when an airbase east of town had filled the restaurants, bars, and hotels with flyboys. After the war came a bitter drought that crippled the local ranching industry during the 1950s. There was a memorable summer in 1955, when Liz Taylor and James Dean came to town to film Giant, but as each year came and went, more families left than arrived, and the kids grew up and moved away. The Seventies oil boom drew families up to Midland and Odessa for work. The town's two doctors retired and passed away, the two pharmacists closed up shop. The only dentist committed suicide. For their medical visits local residents crossed the pass to Alpine or drove to El Paso and Midland, and their shopping dollars followed. The Safeway closed, the dry cleaners closed, the drive-in closed.

Glenn Garcia is a Marfa native who hired on at Marfa National Bank as a new college graduate in the late 1970s. At the time, he says, he felt like he got the last job in town. He is now the bank's senior vice-president. "People were not moving in to Marfa. And the young folks, they really had to move out. There wasn't any industry here to sustain them or keep them home," he remembers. "Marfa was really slipping. We were going downhill fast."

Judd died suddenly in 1994. The Chinati Foundation was left with a few hundred dollars in the bank, a collection of semiderelict buildings Judd had purchased around town, and the spread of Judd's huge, permanent art. The work is difficult to describe, and I'm tempted not to. Marfans will jabber on about how we moved to town, sure, but when the big art's brought up we just smile, shake our heads in disbelief, and say things like "They're just ..." or "Yep." It's a bit like sex that way, I suppose. When I worked as a guide there – the work is shown by guided tour only, except during the annual open house – we were instructed not to give visitors a spiel but to simply unlock the doors, show them in, and let the art be. That sounds like an affectation until you see the work yourself. Stretched north to south along a full kilometer of prairie sits a procession of garage-sized concrete rectangles, while inside two of the fort's huge brick artillery sheds sit another 100 rectangular works of gleaming aluminum. The restored sheds' walls are now almost entirely windows, and on a sunny day the metal pieces come alive, singing to every single thing in sight: the cracked cement floor and faded bricks, the concrete works out in the field, the golden grass, the thorny mesquite, the iridescent blue sky. Think of Judd's works at Chinati as monuments, without all the dead soldiers monuments are often made to carry. Think of them as Stonehenges for the machine age: We have lost track of the solstice, but every once in a while we still need to stand in a hallowed spot and watch the sun move around noble, man-made things.

The Chinati Foundation started knocking on doors. "There had been very little effort to reach a public at the time. We were too busy building the work," says Chinati associate director Rob Weiner, who first came to Marfa from New York City to work for Judd in the late 1980s. "It was very much word-of-mouth at the time. When [Judd] died and we were broke, we knew we needed to spread the word if we were going to survive. We had a great story to tell people about art and Marfa."

Gallery-hopping during Open House
Gallery-hopping during Open House (Photo By Rachel Cobb)

"The way I see this thing, the foundation that Donald Judd laid is the stockpile of wood," Garcia says. "When it ignited, man, it really ignited. We just didn't see it coming, and coming as fast as it did."

Nobody knows exactly how many people have moved to Marfa in recent years. Sometime after the 2000 Census – right as the woodpile was starting to catch – the highway department removed the old "MARFA POP. 2424" sign and replaced it with one that said, "MARFA POP. 2121." Local officials dismissed the figures as too low, and five years on it's even harder to tell. There are certainly more cars on the street, and you can't attend a social function of any size without being introduced to so-and-so who's just bought so-and-so's old house. Real estate prices have tripled, and local crews are booked with renovation work months in advance. But for every new face you'll see during the week, there's three more, maybe, you're likely to see only between Friday and Sunday nights. They see the doctor, refill prescriptions, and dry-clean their clothes in Houston, Austin, Dallas, or New York. They don't vote in Marfa, but they hire contractors there.

This isn't a criticism, merely a statement of fact: I'm now a long-distance Marfan myself, thumbing my mail-delivered copies of the Big Bend Sentinel and worrying about getting somebody there to fix my leaky roof. We're an ever-widening Marfa diaspora now, one that flocks home on certain weekends for festive glee-club reunions. Add to that the waves of weekend tourists bunking at the venerable Hotel Paisano and the hip Thunderbird Motel, the little sister to Austin's Hotel San José, and Marfa can feel like a different town on different days of the week. There's Marfa on a Tuesday in December, and Marfa on a bright March Saturday during spring break. And then there's Marfa on the second weekend in October.

People will tell you that you won't get a true feel for Marfa during the madness of Chinati weekend, or Open House, as locals call it, and they're right, of course. But I'd argue that you can't understand the town if you haven't seen that college kid who's spent the last two years wandering around Open House in the same dirt-smeared pink bunny suit, just to be part of the show. Jets line up at the Marfa airstrip, hotel rooms fill for counties around, and a table at Maiya's Restaurant cannot be had for love or money. This year no fewer than 22 galleries bought ads that week in the Sentinel, and we all staggered from art to art under the blazing October sky. Everybody wore sunglasses. I saw Andy Warhol's big copies of Jesus, I saw paintings that glowed in the dark, I saw Agnes Martin and Man Ray prints in a garage. I saw tailgate parties for art. On Saturday night, locals and visitors alike turned out for Yo La Tengo's roaring set on a makeshift stage in the gutted Holiday Capri motel; the air was giddy with potential, and you could almost feel the band lay another cord on the Marfa woodpile. In the back of the hall kids two-stepped to the feedback in vintage cowboy boots. When, at a party later, a bemused local friend of mine asked, "How many people in this room besides me have a real job?" it seemed too perfect a night to answer. We smiled, shrugged, and headed back to the cooler for another beer.

The weekend's long over, so now we can go ahead and say it: gentrification. It's always a slap, that word, but I'm afraid it's unavoidable here. Gentrification is a natural enough process, but we never quite get used to it. We're Americans, and we believe in equality: When rich folks buy poor folks' houses, the inequalities of class float right to the surface, and it makes us all a bit squeamish.

Now, gentrification has its up sides. Marfa is livelier than it's been in 50 years. Everything's getting a new coat of paint, and new money has restored many of the town's modest but handsome adobes originally built in the early part of the last century. There's a shot in the arm to Marfa's civics, too, as new arrivals are taking part in the community – most notably, old and new Marfans alike have rallied around a successful two-year effort to create a public health clinic in town. David Lanman exemplifies the trend: About three years ago he bought four fire-scarred walls on a neglected lot habitable only to cacti, beer cans, and stray cats; after a year's worth of sweat, money, and latter-day Leonard Cohen records played loud enough to be heard over the chop saw, the results are stunning. His house complete, Dave shouldered another project: He's now mayor.

The new energy is not lost on the natives. "My wife and I and my son, we always discuss how Marfa is in a lot better shape now than it was before," says Mando Vasquez, 80, who for four decades ran a garage in the building that now houses the Ballroom. Vasquez has served on the board of the Presidio County Museum alongside several newer Marfans. "These people, mostly art people, they came in and bought all the buildings made of adobe. They fixed 'em up and they tried to make 'em look like they did the day they were built. We give these people a lot of credit for the way Marfa is now. It's converting into a real nice town.

"But quite a few of the old folks here, they don't like changes," Vasquez says. "They can't see how these people can come and put so much money into one building. Because we – including myself – heck, we're poor folks. Really, it takes a lifetime for us to have a nice home with all what we'd like to have. And when anybody, when these young folks come here and they're building something overnight, we say well, wait a minute."

And so there's gentrification's other side, the side that makes the word sting so. Money revives Marfa but remakes it as well. Over the last couple of years, anyone who actually works for the wages Marfa can afford to pay has been priced out of the local housing market. This is frustrating to watch, especially when a fair portion of the new folks buying property in town don't appear to need to work themselves.

"I'm not trying to lump anybody together, but it seems that anybody who can afford to buy an adobe house is an artist or wants to become an artist," says Keith Hernandez. Keith's 24. He grew up in Marfa, left to attend school at Southwest Texas State, and returned home and found a job as an apprentice to a local electrician. In Marfa's endless renovation, he is never short of work. "They think, hey, I can move to Marfa and buy an adobe house and open up a gallery and that's the end of it. I have friends that are artists, that have gone broke going to art school and given all their heart to their work. But there's people who say, hey, we aren't doing anything this summer, let's move down to Marfa and buy an adobe house for $195,000 and open a gallery."

I can just about hear him shrug over the phone. "But I know how this little town works. I hope that they come, because it makes me money. It's a double-edged sword. I don't think of it as a bad thing, and it's not the greatest thing either. I'm happily stuck in the middle of everything."

To Marfa, on a Tuesday in December
Photo By Rachel Cobb

I am learning that shrug myself. Last year, in a dinner conversation with friends, I got a little salty over the pending arrival of Marfa Community Radio. The new station, KRTS 93.5FM, is an Austin-backed group that plans to begin broadcasting in February with a mix of local programming and a feed from National Public Radio. I've since spoken to them, and they're an experienced, professional bunch, and I look forward to listening. But at the time it had stuck in my craw. NPR, I said, hell. Didn't we all move out there for the silence, to get away from that big-city chatter? I tried to describe the thrill of heading home to Marfa from El Paso, of crossing the ridge at Sierra Blanca and listening as the dial went blank. What silence?, my friends pointed out. Everybody in town except you and your arty crew already has cable anyways. If you want silence, you can turn your damn radio off.

When you're driving across West Texas, my dad used to say, you have to open the car door and watch the gravel on the highway shoulder just to make sure you're still moving. He'd grin and shake his head: It's the middle of nowhere. The phrase is irresistible to anyone who's driven the plumb-straight, 74-mile stretch from Marfa to Van Horn under a full moon, fighting the urge to shut off the headlights and steer by the stars. But the truth is that Marfa's been celebrated as the middle of nowhere so many times now that the cartographic epithet is starting to ring a little hollow. On a recent flight to Texas even the in-flight magazine had a picture of Judd's boxes, alongside a blurb locating them "in an area so isolated it is called the despoblado – the 'unpopulated.'" (No Marfan I ever knew ever uses this word, but it's become a common travel writer's crutch; I suspect the writer lifted it from, say, Marfa's latest appearance in Travel + Leisure.) You can find the middle of nowhere in an airline rag, alongside a list of Baltimore's family vacation hot spots and a map of the Delta hub in Atlanta.

It's easy to understand why the ideal of Nowhere is so appealing. Tiny, faraway towns have a persistent pull on the restless imagination of a country whose cities and suburbs feel increasingly like the stylish but empty insides of one giant Target. Clear away the clutter and life becomes easier to see. Marfa has one giant Exxon sign and a new Subway in one of the gas stations, but the Target is still three hours away. "You're out here on the frontier, and it's otherworldly," says Vance Knowles, who moved to Marfa from Austin two years ago to coordinate music and film projects at the Ballroom. "Everything just kind of stands out here, whether it's a hamburger, a cement box, or a guitar player."

The trick, then, is not to mistake Marfa's fetching surfeit of space and light and quiet for emptiness. The middle of nowhere is not an entirely blank canvas. When the artists Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen flew out from Berlin this fall to install their conceptual work Prada Marfa, they encountered a desert every bit as "desolate" as they'd hoped for. "We found that it looked almost exactly like the computer renderings we had been doing at the studio back in Berlin, made from Googled images," the duo told the El Paso Times. Their installation is a mock-up of one of the designer's stores, complete with this year's entire fall line. The idea was that the display would be sealed like a time capsule and left to the elements. In an interview with the New York Times just before Prada Marfa's debut, Yvonne Force-Villareal, one of the project's backers, was excited to see if a "cowboy" would shoot his gun at the fake store, or perhaps if "a mouse or a muskrat makes a home in it." Within 48 hours of the piece's opening, somebody had smashed a window, cleaned out the handbag display, and left their critique on the walls in spray paint. DUMB, they wrote, and for added emphasis, DUM-DUM.

If the perps had just stuck to your standard four-letter words, it would have been easy to dismiss their act as mere vandalism. Instead, it was an odd testament to the level of discourse in the Big Bend. Now, Prada Marfa was not actually in Marfa, but one county over and 35 miles west by the side of the highway in Valentine. The sign says POP. 217 – "practically being a ghost town," as the Berlin artists described it to the reporter from El Paso – but there's a school (home of the Pirates), grant money to build a sewer system on the way ($1.8 million) and a post office (ZIP 79854) that makes a special cancellation stamp each Feb. 14. A Prada handbag costs more than most people in Valentine make in a month – or most people in Marfa, for that matter. Yet Dragset and Elmgreen saw the place as nothing but the straight man in a one-line hipster joke: It's a Prada store in the middle of nowhere!

Just who broke into the store, nobody knows. Valentine Mayor-for-life Chuy Calderon is pretty sure it was someone from out of town. "Over time, there'll be some graffiti on it," he says. "But our people here wouldn't have done it so soon and wouldn't have caused so much damage. It just doesn't fit the character of this town." Whoever did it, it's worth noting the immediate force of their opinion. At the Chinati Foundation, Judd's concrete boxes have sat behind a low fence just a few yards off U.S. Highway 67 for more than 20 years now. Most area folks you talk to will tell you the works are nothing more than glorified irrigation culverts, and yet they've sat there naked in a field for two decades without a scratch.

Maybe people see Chinati's economic benefits and leave the place alone, or maybe they leave the boxes be out of the West Texan's reverence for barbed wire and private property. Or perhaps the boxes have simply been there long enough that people are used to them. I'm inclined to believe Judd's work remains untouched because of a tacit understanding that, unlike Prada Marfa, it relates directly to the land on which it sits. The boxes may leave a lot of people cold, but they do not condescend or patronize, and they do not depend on an idealized, blank-canvas nowhere. In their own peculiar way, the boxes evoke an appreciation for the strange landscape as deep as that felt by any third-generation rancher. "Anybody who moves here should have to wait three years before they're allowed to do anything," a friend of mine in Marfa likes to say, as we gossip about some newcomer who's had the temerity to show up in town after we did. It may be catty, but Prada Marfa's cheap sense of place reveals the axiom's kernel of truth. Judd had been in town a decade before he set to making his massive works, and it shows.

Marfa is the next Santa Fe, the wags used to say. Marfa's the next Aspen, the next Bisbee, the next South Beach, the next South Congress. Marfa is just like Soho in the Sixties, I can remember a woman crowing one night over a plastic cup of cheap Zinfandel, congratulating herself three times in the same sentence. White is the new black, Thursday's the new Friday, Brooklyn's the new Manhattan, and Marfa's the new Brooklyn. "People mythologize Marfa," says Mayor Lanman. "People make it up. It's really just a tiny little town."

During Open House this year someone posted plywood signs in front of the Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa National Bank, the Marfa Book Company, the post office, and a handful of other landmarks around town. On each sign, with no caption offered, was a blown-up photo of the building it stood in front of. Here's the legend you came to see, the signs informed us, like the placards at a national park overlook. And that's Marfa's biggest change yet: Unwittingly or no, the crowds that flock there now are coming to be a part of the myth as much as to see the town itself.

Again, I'm implicating myself here – I could have visited any other weekend this fall, but I felt a curious imperative to be there for the Yo La Tengo show, just to claim one tiny role in the next chapter of the Marfa story. So I could say I was there, man. These days, there's enough of us outlanders clamoring for a piece of Marfa that you can actually count up the empty square feet reserved for us. Second homes are claimed but empty space. Each of the new galleries' tastefully appointed rooms is a great space, to use a phrase you hear a lot in Marfa these days, but press your nose to the glass most weekdays and they're just empty space. Where Andy Warhol's Jesus hangs now, open for viewing Friday and Saturday 1-5pm, you used to be able to buy 10-packs of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for a dollar, seven days a week.

As they watch their town fill up with weekend spaces, folks who live in Marfa have gently staked out their own territory. They'll enthusiastically, almost defensively point out that there are still days when the town is just dead. "There's still weekends, thank god, that maybe you'll talk to a tumbleweed," Knowles says. The date I kept hearing was a Tuesday in December. Marfans gracefully accept, even revel in the ever-growing number of busy weekends, but they carry those silent winter nights in the back of their mind. On a Tuesday in December, there are no myths and no magazines. On a Tuesday in December it's just a little town out in the bleached-white grass, with the dog's water bowl freezing on the back porch.

"The greatest thing about Marfa," Keith the electrician says, "is that it was Marfa before everybody moved into it." end story

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