Marfa is a 1.4 square mile town in the southwest corner of Texas, near the border with Mexico, and in the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert. It is, astonishingly, a Mecca for contemporary art lovers, collectors, gallerists and artists.
It is also the next place you should visit in America.
This town of just over 2,000 people has a well-deserved cult following. It began as a railroad waterstop and later developed a sizable army barracks for military training and then encampment for German POWs. After the war, the barracks were decommissioned and the town began to fade into its arid surroundings. That is until 1973, when artist Donald Judd grew tired of the commercialization of art in New York City and moved himself and his quest to create permanent art exhibitions to Marfa. It is no understatement to say things have not been the same since.
Judd believed in permanent exhibition space and he put his money where his mouth was when he purchased a 340-acre tract, which included the abandoned buildings of the former U.S. Army Fort D. A. Russell, to display his and his contemporaries’ works. In his own words, “Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.”
He placed dozens of massive cement structures in the weeded vicinity of the barracks and 100 works in mill aluminum each measuring 41 x 51 x 72 inches inside of the main buildings. He then created the Chinati Foundation to look after it all. He was no shrinking violet.
From that point until 2005 Marfa still managed to remain known mostly to Texas rail historians, census workers and the art cognoscenti. It was when Scandinavian artists Elmgreen and Dragset installed Prada, Marfa 30 miles west of the town that things began to change again. A locked-front faux Prada store in the middle of nowhere speaking to consumerism and, originally, impermanence, Prada, Marfa was an AP-wire sensation and drove visitors and documentarians alike to the desert.
Marfa, Texas, meanwhile, is also Schizophrenic. It exists as two very different souls untitled, seamlessly, with one front. It is a small border town with small town amenities, ethics and crime that happens to house two large Border Patrol facilities. It is also a cultural oasis in the Texas high desert with some of the hottest names in contemporary art exhibiting in and visiting the town. The restaurants and hotels seem few – until you remember that the town is a mere 1.4 square miles big. You can find a Dairy Queen and a Dollar Store but rent is $900 a month, houses cost $150,000 to $500,000 and Marfa International school is a free school that is architecturally designed and situated on four-acres on the outskirts of Marfa.
So what is Marfa? Is it a collection of art galleries or is it a tiny town in Americana? Is it a water stop on a railway or is it a destination? Everyone seems to speak a little Spanish but, according to the last census, the population was 94% white. The contradictions seem to stretch as far as the eye can see in any direction.
None of that matters because the long journey to Marfa has become a pilgrimage for contemporary art collectors, lovers, gallerists, and road warriors. You do not have to be an art lover to appreciate it, you can simply be running from something, searching for something or just trying to find a place to take a break. They take all kinds. And that is the other weird thing. I know a thing or two about small towns — I lived in two of them for my high school years. Very few small towns are as open-minded, as healthy, and as full of ex-pats as this one. The residents in Marfa are welcoming and helpful. They are supportive of one another, offering up shared rides to big cities nearby as well as opinions on art, travel and food. They also exude an inner peace that seems to come from not just living in such a peculiar place but really, deeply, truly getting it.
Marfa exists firmly as two places, but it knows its role well. As the publicity from Prada, Marfa flooded the AP wire 10 years ago causing visitor numbers to swell, the town extended her arms, embracing the new visitors and residents alike in her warm embrace. A coffee shop opened. A bookstore learned to ship ceramics and an old roadside motel scrubbed up and stocked posh toiletries for the Yankees. Anywhere else this shift might cause a crisis of confidence but in Marfa. Well, that’s just another day and another exhibit.
Perhaps fittingly, it was only as I was preparing to leave that I gained a perspective that made sense of it all. Our group of eight was gathered at the Marfa Airport waiting to begin our four-hour journey back to New Orleans. My friend,Virginia, walked out of the flimsy yellow dwelling that doubled as both a home and an airport terminal with a smile on her face and a pamphlet in her hand. She thrust it at me. In the top right corner was printed, “Marfa. Hard to get to. Harder still to explain it. But once you get here, you get it.”
Marfa is indeed hard to get to, and there is no getting around that. Fly into Midland or El Paso and plan to drive 200 miles from either airport. That’s the thing about Marfa: no one is accidentally passing through. Alternatively have a very good friend with a private plane fly you in directly. Exciting. Fascinating. Terrifying.
There are basically three places to stay. Hotel Paisano where James Dean famously stayed while filming The Giant and containing the most souvenirs and the best happy hour in town (only happy hour in town?). Then there is El Cosmico, a 21-acre campground where guests stay in teepees, yurts and vintage trailers and use communal bathrooms and showers. Lest you feel too far from commercialism while staying there, you can also pop into the “lobby” and pick up $200 purses.
My recommendation: The Thunderbird. A fully restored and pared-down 1950s motel with a swimming pool, lounge, and bicycles and record players on loan. The rooms are clean, there is no mini bar and no television but Dairy Queen is next door in case it’s date night.
Maiya Downtown Marfa, industrial minimalist chic. Good food, slow service.
Cochineal farm to table food and a nice wine list. Their date pudding is nearly as famous as Donald Judd.
Food Shark the best food truck on the planet. On. The. Planet. Falafel plates and sandwiches, Shawarma salads, sparkling water, and Zapps (is this really Texas?).
Marfa Burrito: No website. Route 67 on the way to Chinati. Ramona famously cooks burritos anytime she answers her door but her posted hours are 6am to 2pm.
Coffee Shop behind Marfa Book Co. One of the nicest iced lattes I’ve had anywhere. They also keep a few baked goods on hand and a super friendly attitude. Beware the Grapefruit “Shrub” which is actually some kind of grapefruit syrup and vinegar served over sparkling water. I’m not saying it’s bad – I’m just saying beware.
Museum of Electronic Wonders & Latenight Grilled Cheese Parlour. The name says it all, doesn’t it?
Chinati Foundation. It is unwise to visit Marfa without at least trying to understand Donald Judd. The best way to get a handle on who he was and what he did for the town is to head out to his compound. Book a tour in advance — they take all day but there is a two-hour break at lunchtime. Despite what they say you can easily ride your bike there from any of the three hotels listed above. (Fair warning: the light rooms go on FOR-EVER. Just remember I said that.)
Brought to you by the people who support Prada, Marfa, Ballroom is a contemporary arts space at 108 E. San Antonio St.. They have rotating exhibits and prefer projects with a “significant cultural impact ”
Have an early afternoon Margarita Verde at The Paisano and then stroll around downtown for a slice of Americana on the border. Expect a few galleries. A few restaurants. A few great tchotchke shops with, naturally, expertly curated goodies. Bring your wallet. Send me something.
Wrong Marfa is another gallery and working space. When we were there we stumbled across an Alabaman artist we had been looking into for months. What luck?! The pieces on display ranged from $50 to $5000. Everyone in our group found something they liked and several people found several things. I’ve since looked back and seen a few of their previous exhibits and I’m telling you – good stuff.
The Thunderbird Motel has bicycles for loan, including tandems, for $20. When we asked about a lock the bearded man at the front desk said, “Oh don’t worry, if something happens to them we won’t hold you responsible. We don’t have crime like that in Marfa.” What?!
Walking / Running
Marfa has an area of 1.4 square miles. That means that you can cover all of Marfa on a 30 minute morning run or a walk around the town. Give it a shot. It is a nice way to see everything from ground level and pick out sights that you might want to visit during your two-hour lunch break from Chinati.
The railroad track
Remember? Marfa was originally a water stop on a rail line so that railroad still runs right through it. The railway is still a significant part of its architecture and daily life. Hotel Thunderbird even gives out ear plugs for sleeping in case the sound of the train bothers you at night. For what it’s worth, it never did.
An installation by artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa is an installation worthy of your time. It is set 1.4 miles outside of the diminutive town of Valentine, Texas and is a 30 minute drive from Marfa. Originally built with biodegradable materials and meant to slowly fade back into the earth, plans changed when a week after its installation vandals broke in, damaged the building and stole the Prada bags. It is now secured, monitored and maintained and is worth a visit. The best pictures are taken in the early morning hours or just as the sun is setting.
100-year old adobe building that houses a rocking bar and the only live music venue in Marfa. Also pool tables, foosball, shuffleboard, fireplace and patio dining. It is pet friendly, of course.
Want more ideas? Check out Wrong Gallery’s extensive list of to-dos here.
Spoiler alert: This mysterious phenomenon is actually a reflection of car headlights on US 67. And when you are there and staring out into the nothingness it looks a lot like, well, a reflection of car headlights on US67.