MARFA, TEXAS–Here are a few things to know about the Plymouth Rock of contemporary art pilgrimage. Its largest employer is the Department of Homeland Security. Ranching is the biggest industry. The cemetery is segregated between Hispanics and whites and separated by barbed wire. Christopher Wool, the town’s most famous living artist, has been selling paintings at auction for $25-30 million, up a mere 350,000% from 1993. NPR’s “All Things Considered” is piped onto the street from Marfa Public Radio’s storefront. The ratio of young women with MFAs to male counterparts is approximately three to one, the same as Hispanics to whites. Its largest landowner is a dead New York artist.
The dead guy is why people know about Marfa.
In the early 70s, Donald Judd, an established artist, architect, designer and writer, best known as a founder of minimalism, went on a buying spree. He liked West Texas’ emptiness as a young man passing through on a train. By the mid-80s he owned property in and around Marfa now valued at $40 million, including half of the buildings on Highland Avenue, the main downtown commercial strip.
At the time of Judd’s death in 1997 few knew about Marfa. His passing attracted major media attention, and many Marfa mentions. But people really only started to visit the isolated town in the late ’90s, via two Houston developers with good taste, who basically bought the rest of downtown. And in the 2000s interest came back to Marfa again, via a great PR campaign and countless magazine features.
Marfa is now a bona fide cultural destination. It’s been a lot of attention for a town of 2000 five hours from a major city in one of the darkest corners of America. Real world humans might wonder why no art world humans mentioned the border war HQ on the front lawn of a museum on a former military base. But Marfa isn’t a town as much as an “idea,” like one big conceptual art installation.
Despite international repute as a one-of-kind cultural destination, Marfa is reminiscent of Hudson Valley or New England towns with arts communities, like Beacon or Provincetown. Were said town a hundred miles out to sea and without a public beach. All the views from Marfa are onto rich dudes’ ranches. It’s an island surrounded by private land.
Admittedly, the vistas are perfectly minimalist with 70-mile visibility, a panorama of green shrubs dotting light brown dirt, the occasional small mountain, some plateaued. Twilight lasts two hours. There is one majestic museum: The Chinati Foundation, 300-acres of abandoned military base purchased by Judd. It’s now home to two of his large-scale permanent works—most prominently a series of boxes inside and outside the refurbished base—and several installations by peers like Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. It is also home to the Judd Foundation, which does not get along with Chianti (art world politics, so messy). Take a tour of Judd’s houses and studios, it’s so worth it. Downtown there are a handful of galleries and arts spaces open a few days a week, a few good restaurants, a bookstore across the tracks from a slow food truck. And that’s about it.
Most interestingly, Marfa is one of the few places where the art bubble collides with the post-9/11 national security bubble that spawned the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite Marfa being a frontline of the border war, during my five long days there I didn’t hear a mention of anything political. Militarism is big business in Marfa. Driving around you see so many kinds of security—sheriffs, deputies, actual “rangers,” Highway Patrol, Border Patrol, other government agencies—it’s hard to know when flashing lights pull you over, and they will, whether you’re allegedly committing a moving violation or a federal offense.
Adjacent to The Chinati Foundation’s entrance is the US Border Patrol Marfa Station, the command center for the Big Bend Sector of the Customs and Border Protection, which is the umbrella of the Border Patrol. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, is the biggest police agency in the nation. It has doubled in size since 9/11 and now employs more than 43,000 Border Patrol agents and customs officers.
The Marfa station’s design screams brutalist dictator’s bunker—angular concrete, slat windows—with a large fenced in parking lot filled with odd vehicles, like a backhoe and dirt bikes. Since 9/11, the Marfa Station has doubled in size. The Big Bend Sector employs over 700 agents, covering 420 miles of Mexican border and 130,000 square miles of US territory, an area half the size of Texas. DHS employs more locals than the arts and hospitality combined.
Although you’d likely never know it visiting as a cultural tourist, war has been the major economic boon in Marfa history. After World War II, when men returned to base, the population reached 5000. The base is now the Chinati Foundation.
“When I started there were 7000 of us now there’s over 40,000 nationally.” said retired Border Patrol agent and local realtor Bob Wright. “In Marfa there were just 70 agents. It’s 700 now. Today there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We are failing. There is no industry here. It’s all art or state and federal jobs. It’s an island surrounded by huge ranches.”
Prada Marfa is the most photographed place in West Texas. I drove 30 miles up the road wondering where this store was. I found a sign welcoming me to Valentine, TX, population 217, wondering if I’d missed Prada. But after a few miles I found the shop. Romantic, but false advertising: Prada Marfa isn’t even open—it’s a conceptual art joke by Berlin duo Elmgreen and Dragset—nor is it even in Marfa. Prada Marfa is a fake store that isn’t even in Marfa: What more can be said about today’s contemporary art lunacy? See below.
The most recent major local controversy was when New York artist Richard Phillips and Playboy collaborated on a sculpture that looked like a crooked Judd cube with a black Porsche on top, next to a pole with the bunny logo on it. Playboy? In Marfa? Never.
“Kill the Bunny” became the slogan, printed on stickers, then applied to walls, bumpers. After a summer of fighting, it was removed fall and became a part of Phillips’ first museum retrospective at Dallas Contemporary.
The line between the unacceptable Phillips’ Playboy car and a heralded fake Prada store is blurry to non-Texans and non-art world residents alike. It makes no sense even when the artists themselves try to explain what, exactly. Elmgreen and Dragset’s statement:
…due to the founder Muccia Prada’s personal interest in contemporary art…she donated shoes and bags… Prada Marfa never had any commercial link to the fashion brand Prada, unlike the Playboy bunny which went up this summer initiated by Playboy itself…
Or as resident debauched painter Jeff Elrod told Vanity Fair in 2012, Marfa is like “a badass international airport bar I’m in a first-class lounge of American Airlines. I’m talking with really interesting people from all over the world who I won’t ever see again.” Unappealing as a lounge filled with rich assholes sounds, he certainly was right about the airport comparison, with all the Homeland Security about town.
The arts community’s strange lack of introspection was not lost on locals. On a Saturday night at the Grilled Cheese Parlour (its hours of operation are 9pm-1am Thurs-Sat—warning: quirk overload) a group of Mexican-American kids were sitting on tiny stools surrounded by weird shaped TVs.
A kid looked up at me. “Didn’t I see you at Pueblo Market yesterday?” Ah, we had briefly met in aisle four, by the soda jugs, which he was stocking.
“Sup bro,” say, trying to sound young and cool.
“I’m Lando,” he said, then introduced his crew.
We all started talking. Life after high school came up. A few hoped athletics would carry them to state schools. Two others wanted to join the army. None wanted to work for the DHS, however.
What’s the difference?
“At least in Afghanistan I won’t have to deport my relatives,” Lando said over an exotic grilled cheese.
Space is wonderful, and Judd owned thousands of acres of it. But for the common man Marfa’s two square miles can be suffocating. To escape, one must drive an hour south, past a scary CBP checkpoint and endless fenced-in ranch land, to the borderlands. There you finally find open, public space at Big Bend State Park and the connecting National Park. The state park has one of the best roads I’ve ever driven, winding along the Rio Grande–you can spend the day swimming across to Mexico and back. I saw maybe five other cars over 50 miles of perfect road.
But to prevent the migrants’ pursuit of happiness, CBP has has erected fences, deployed SUVs and blimps, installed cameras, hired informants, created quasi-legal prisons and courts. There are even Predator drones buzzing 12,000 feet above the Rio Grande.
To truly feel free from the Border Patrol and Texan/American racism, you have to go into Mexico. A country that is more tolerant, fun and exciting than America.