March 4, 2018

Marfa, Texas

by Rosemary

The railroad tracks run right through Marfa, and passing trains blow their whistles at all hours of the day and night. Some of them are passenger trains, but they don't stop here; the nearest station is in Alpine, 26 miles away.

Although Marfa is the county seat, it is, to say the least, service-challenged. The three-person police department was dismantled in 2009, leaving the city to rely on the highway patrol and county sheriff's department for law enforcement. The department re-opened in late 2017, leading to complaints about the increase in the number of speeding tickets being issued.

There are a couple of grocery stores, but some residents prefer making the drive to Alpine to shop. With a population of around 6,000, Alpine is three times the size of Marfa, and has retail shopping, a hospital, a university, and even a McDonald's (the next closest is in Van Horn, 74 miles away). Although Marfa does have a few restaurants that are clearly intended to appeal to an upscale clientele, it can be hard to eat out, as offerings are somewhat limited. One restaurant we visited had a drink menu that was four pages of fine print, and a food menu that consisted of three appetizers and a single entree (some kind of beef). We walked out, and no one seemed surprised.

The County Courthouse.

So how did we end up in a town like this? Why did well-meaning friends encourage us to come here?

Over the past half-century, Marfa has managed to develop a reputation as a center for the arts. In 1971, an artist named Donald Judd moved here to work on his vision of creating permanent exhibitions of minimalist art. He bought some land and buildings, and began carrying out his plan. After his death in 1994, The Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation both have worked to maintain his legacy. Additionally, other artists have moved here and a few small galleries have opened.

As we drove around town, looking for those galleries, we found that not all of them have been able to succeed; plenty of places on the list were out of business. Nevertheless, the foundations and other organizations relentlessly organize events and exhibitions, continuing to attract tourists, artists, and writers. Rich people have bought second homes here, driving up the price of real estate, which is frustrating to many local residents whose families have lived here for generations. Despite an ongoing lack of basic city and county services, property taxes have doubled, creating a hardship for average homeowners and businesspeople. Increased property values are meaningless to them, since they just want to go on living there, not to sell their homes. Young people have trouble finding decent jobs and affordable housing, so they move away.

Meanwhile, at the Chinati Foundation, we took at look at Judd's "15 untitled works in concrete," a series of boxes spread out across one kilometer on the edge of an open field, which is also home to a group of pronghorn antelope.

In two nearby hangars are "untitled 100 works in mill aluminum". These are reminiscent of the concrete boxes, although much smaller and shinier, with more complex interiors.

One of the challenges of tourism in Marfa is that most things are open only three or four days a week. If you aren't there on the right days (we weren't), you are out of luck. Fortunately, after having seen a couple of exhibits and having read descriptions and reviews of the others, we didn't feel bad about what we were missing.

We did drive out to see "Prada Marfa," a house-sized sculpture by Elmgreen and Dragset. It isn't in Marfa, but was installed on the outskirts of the tiny town of Valentine, about 26 miles north of Marfa. It is a replica of a Prada store, and contains real Prada bags and shoes.

Installations that aren't really what they look like seem to be a theme here. For example, this service station looks perfectly normal (if a bit too clean), until you take a closer look and realize there are no nozzles. The price list is also a clue.

Not every shut-down service station has been converted to art, although I thought the real one in its natural state was more interesting than the one that had been dressed up.

The encounter with the fake gas station put me in a skeptical mood. When I saw the big, shiny, public radio station building, my inclination was to see it as yet another ironic installation. However, it turned out to be real. Then I had to wonder: Was there ever really a Holiday Inn here, or is this crumbling sign just another art project?

In a town where anything can be declared a work of art, some things need to be clearly labeled.

Having done all we could do here, we continued driving across West Texas, on our way to New Mexico.

Note: We were here at the start of February.

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  1. So glad for an explanation, "Why Marta?" I was wondering!

  2. It is weird town.


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