Tucked away in southwest Texas and at least three hours from the nearest airport is a small town rarely stumbled upon by accident. But that’s OK – because those who need to find Marfa, find Marfa.
Sitting on a magnificent stretch of nowhere, Marfa an unusual place even by Texas standards – two parts cowboy town and one part artist colony. The entire region, propped up on the high desert above Big Bend National Park, is otherworldly. The distances are vast, the sightlines almost eternal. The Marfa Lights, a mysterious nighttime illumination, add to the area’s spectral beauty.
When it was founded in the late 19th century, Marfa was a rail stop for oilmen. Then it became a ranchers’ watering hole. Now locals are welcoming the kind of people who thought they’d never set foot in Texas – interlopers from liberal cities such as New York City and Boston.
Why do they flock to this slightly crazy, one stoplight town of 2,000 souls? Because Marfa is a magnet for fantastic art.
Donald Judd saw its potential first. An artist who came to define American minimalism, Judd moved from New York in 1973 in search of an asset he considered better than paint on a flat surface: in his words, “actual space”. And he found what he was looking for in the desert.
Judd set the stage for a renaissance that, by the mid-1980s, had made Marfa an oasis for artists and art lovers alike. Then, in 2005, the famous installation Prada Marfa, created by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, acquainted the world with the town.
Marfa doesn’t instantly resemble a hot spot for art. It never has – and that’s part of its charm. There’s the Hotel Paisano, which played host to the cast of Giant (including James Dean and Liz Taylor) in 1955, and the pretty Presidio County courthouse. Both American small town staples. But nose around a little and in an old low-slung military installation you’ll find the Chinati Foundation - a contemporary art museum set up by Judd and featuring some of his finest work, including the monumental “100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986”.
Five minutes up the road on San Antonio Street there’s the angular beauty of Ballroom Marfa, a gallery built from the shell of an old 1927 dance hall. Ballroom’s new Sam Falls exhibition merges sculpture, painting and photography in a way that is singularly inspired by the west Texas landscape. You want cacti growing in an old pick-up truck? You’ve got it.
Just one minute walk west brings you to Marfa’s newest addition, the Marfa Contemporary, which has just started an exhibition of new work by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija. Lebrija’s trademark humor and anger has now been leavened by beauty and grace as in “Untitled 2015”, a languid sculpture of a besuited man leaning sadly against a wall.
Lebrija’s art handily encapsulates the two tenets that unite Marfa art in general: it must be beautiful and it must say something.