Contemporary Art in Texas
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Contemporary Art in Texas

Eric Ryan Anderson
A vibrant center of minimalist and contemporary art thrives in the Texas desert. Paul Alexander takes a panoramic view of the landscape.

You sit here and the whole world comes to you," Lynn Goode
Crowley says as she sits in a chair near the front window
of the Marfa Book Company. In this speck of a town in far
west Texas (population 2,100), some 180 miles southeast of
El Paso and 57 miles north of the Mexican border, Crowley's
incongruously urbane bookstore–coffee shop is the
unlikely center of civic and social activity. And because
Marfa has become one of the hippest art communities in the
country, almost anyone might wander through the front door.
"Tommy Lee Jones has a ranch nearby," Crowley says. "One
day, Ian Schrager came in and bought Hip Hotels, a
book that includes his properties, from me! Then there was
the time Julia Roberts came in and bought a CD.
People magazine called to find out what CD she
bought. So I said, 'I'm not sure. I think it was something
by Lyle Lovett.' I thought I was being funny, but the
reporter didn't get the joke."

Crowley and her husband, Tim—at the time, a
successful Houston-based attorney—are the driving
force behind the "new" Marfa. "In 1997, we passed through
on the way to somewhere else," she says. Not an easy thing
to do, since Marfa is in the middle of nowhere: to be
exact, on a highland plain in an upper corner of the vast
Chihuahuan Desert. To get to Marfa, you have to fly to
either El Paso or Midland, rent a car, and drive for three
hours (unless you have a private jet and fly into Marfa's
minus­cule municipal airport). "We were driving back to
Houston," Crowley explains, "and we stopped in Marfa. It
was four o'clock in the morning—and as we stood in
front of this old, abandoned grain warehouse I knew we
needed to buy that building and come here."

The Crowleys did buy the building, which they renovated and
converted into a theater—one of the best performance
spaces in far west Texas. Over the next few years they also
bought and renovated a half-dozen or so other buildings on
or near Main Street, among them the former hotel that
became the bookstore. They were not alone: in recent years,
area businessman Joe Duncan purchased and restored the
landmark Hotel Paisano, and Austin hotelier Liz Lambert,
whose family has ties to west Texas, acquired the
dilapidated Thunderbird and Capri motels. The redesigned
24-room Thunderbird juxtaposes contemporary design with
Western touches—handcrafted furniture in pecan wood,
cowhides on polished concrete floors. It opened early this
year and will eventually expand into the Capri, across the
street.

Marfa has also been overrun by art galleries. Drive through
town and you see them everywhere: the Eugene Bender
Gallery, Galleri ­Urbane Contemporary Art, Marfa Studio
of Arts, and Ballroom Marfa. The official opening in April
2004 of Ballroom, an art space founded by Fairfax Dorn and
Virginia Lebermann, was the social event of the season. "We
have a love for west Texas and the landscape," Dorn says.
"We were visiting Marfa and felt there needed to be a place
where you could combine art, music, and film. That's what
Ballroom Marfa does—it breaks down boundaries."

Just why Marfa has become an art mecca can be summed up in
one name: Donald Judd. One of the most important minimalist
artists to come out of the New York art world in the
1960's, Judd, having grown tired of living and working in
the confines of the city, moved to Marfa in 1973. (He had
been to Van Horn, 74 miles north of Marfa, in 1946 as a
serviceman on his way from Alabama to Los Angeles en route
to Korea; years later, in 1971, he had passed through
Marfa.) In the late seventies, with the financial support
of the Dia Foundation, an arts organization funded by
Schlumberger heiress Philippa de Menil, Judd began buying
up property in and around town—principally a 340-acre
former army base called Fort D. A. Russell. Judd renamed
the base the Art Museum of the Pecos and set out to
establish permanent facilities to display his own work,
along with pieces by fellow sculptor John Chamberlain and
fluorescent-light works by Dan Flavin.

In the town itself, Judd, with Dia, bought the vacant
24,000-square-foot Wool & Mohair building. Renovations
were overseen by Judd, and 22 of Chamberlain's car-wreck
sculptures, dating from 1972 to 1983, were permanently
installed. The Dia-Judd partnership ended in 1986 after a
falling-out that was resolved—only when Judd
threatened legal action—by Dia transferring the
ownership of all its property and art in Marfa over to
Judd. Judd then changed the institution's name to the
Chinati Foundation, for the nearby mountain.

Judd bought a separate house in Marfa for his own living
space, fenced it off, and called it the Block. In the late
1980's, as the sales and value of his artworks boomed, he
began to buy up more and more of the town—the old
Marfa National Bank, a supermarket, a grocery store.
Ultimately, he owned nine buildings in Marfa, plus 34,000
acres and three houses outside town. After Judd's death, in
1994, oversight of the Chinati Foundation was assumed by
Marianne Stockebrand, his companion during the last five
years of his life, and Rob Weiner, his art assistant.

In time, Chinati's collection would feature an outdoor
sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; works
by Roni Horn and Ilya Kabakov; a multipart installation,
occupying six U-shaped former army barracks, of colored
­fluorescent-light sculptures by Flavin named
Untitled (Marfa Project), the artist's final work;
and Judd's masterpiece—100 shimmering boxes, 41 by 51
by 72 inches, made of mill aluminum and displayed in two
former artillery sheds, cavernous buildings that have had
their doors replaced with huge glass windows to let the sun
spill in. A companion work by Judd featuring 15 concrete
boxlike forms is displayed outside the artillery sheds in a
field.


Because of Judd, Flavin, and others, Marfa today is a
pilgrimage site on the international art landscape. When it
was founded, in 1883, its only relation to high culture was
its name. A railroad engineer's wife who read Russian
novels (in Russian) baptized the town with the name of a
minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. "At
first, Marfa was a watering stop on the railroad," says
Cecilia Thompson, the local historian. "But it soon became
a cattleman's town, with the huge herds that came west in
the decades following the Civil War." Marfa was still very
much a rancher's outpost in 1930, when the Hotel Paisano,
its most famous building, opened its doors. Designed by
noted Southwest architect Henry Trost, who studied with
Frank Lloyd Wright, the Spanish colonial–­revival
structure was based on Trost's design for the Hotel
Valverde in Socorro, New Mexico, and marked by "red-tile
roof parapets, delicate ironwork balconies, and areas of
plasteresque ornament," as described in a published account
of the hotel.

The high point of the Paisano's history came in 1955, when
the cast and crew of Giant occupied the hotel during
the film's three-month shoot in and around Marfa. "It was
the most exciting thing we've had in Marfa in all these
years," says Lucy Garcia, a town native who was one of a
half-dozen teenagers to hang out at the hotel during the
shoot. "Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor were here, but
they were a little too big for Marfa. They gave us
autographs but wouldn't allow any pictures. James Dean let
us take pictures of him at the hotel and showed us the
lasso rope trick he was learning for the movie. He told
jokes. He had such a pretty giggle."

A drought in the fifties coincided with a collapse of the
cattle industry and weakened the town's economy.
Consequently, Judd was able to buy a lot of property in the
community in the eighties. But he didn't do much with the
buildings when he bought them. "Judd wanted to put his art
in the natural landscape where it belonged. He did little,
if anything, to the town as he bought it up," Thompson
says. "Judd never mingled. He actually didn't make an
impact on the town—its façade, that is. That
wouldn't happen until Judd died and civic leaders like the
Crowleys moved in. They actually invested in the
town. Take Main Street, for example. They're responsible
for waking it up." Part of that revitalization involves the
Hotel Paisano. It fell into disrepair in the eighties and
nineties. In 2001, Joe Duncan bought the building for back
taxes ($185,000) and restored it to its original splendor.
James Dean's suite looks just as it did 50 years
ago—and there are still no telephones in the rooms.

Marfa is a place full of traditions. Judd himself
inaugurated one of them in 1987: the annual Open House
(this year, October 8 and 9). The town plays host to a
party that includes art exhibitions, readings, lectures, a
street dance, and, for 2005, a concert by the rock band Yo
La Tengo. Though Open House almost doubles the town's
population, all events and meals are free.

But the tradition that has come to define the city most is
not even explainable. Every September (this year, September
2–4), a festival celebrates the Marfa Mystery Lights.
Just outside town, at a certain bend in Route 90, you can
stand on the side of the road in the desert and, looking
south toward Mexico, see fleeting visions of light that
flash about in the sky. First recorded in 1881 by a young
cowboy named Robert P. Ellison, who was tending a herd of
cattle and thought he had spotted the campfires of Apache
Indians, the lights—still unaccounted for by
science—appear and disappear, and seem to divide and
travel in the night sky. Near the viewing site where you
can best see the Marfa Mystery Lights, a plaque explains
why they cannot be physically located: The flickering
lights are "an unusual phenomenon similar to a miracle
where atmospheric conditions produced by the interaction of
cold and warm layers of air blend together so it can be
seen from afar but not up close. The mystery of the lights
will remain unsolved."

PAUL ALEXANDER is the author of six books and two plays.
He writes often about politics for
Rolling Stone.



WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Paisano
207 N. Highland Ave.; 866/729-3669 or 432/729-3669;
www.hotelpaisano.com; doubles from $89.

Thunderbird Motel
601 W. San Antonio St.; 432/729-1984;
www.thunderbirdmarfa.com; doubles from $95.

WHERE TO EAT

Jett's Grill

Hotel Paisano, 207 N. Highland Ave.; 432/729-3838; dinner
for two $40.

Maiya's

103 N. Highland Ave.; 432/729-4410; dinner for two $60.

WHAT TO DO

Chinati Foundation Visits to the museum are
available by guided tour only, Wednesday through Sunday. 1
Calvary Row; 432/729-4362; www.chinati.org.

Marfa Book Co.

105 S. Highland Ave.; 432/729-3906; www.marfabookco.com.

Marfa Theater

Austin & El Paso Streets; 432/729-3906.

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