MARFA | Land of the Lost
“Don’t drop it!!” I yelled in mock alarm.
I’d just mentioned to the proprietor of Many Stones, the rock shop in Terlingua, Texas, that my mom and I had driven down from Marfa. Mostly in good fun, but also with a healthy dose of genuine mockery, he was holding up a work of contemporary art for our admiration and possible purchase—which was, of course, imaginary. He’d likely perfected the joke over many years: a rock shop owner, selling empty air! These rubes will believe anything!
Grizzled locals ribbing the art crowd who helicopters in, lingers just a while, and jet-sets out: Is it a cliché if that’s what they genuinely think? And who are art tourists to fling around words like “cliché,” hmm?
My mom and I spent three days in Marfa, and we saw most of what it has to offer the out-of-towners. Most tourists come to see the art—expansive installations by Donald Judd, Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, and other confrères of 1960s minimalism, most of the works permanent and overseen by Judd’s Chinati Foundation. Almost everything is advance-ticketed in order to keep the crowds similarly minimalistic. Other tourists come to see the famous Marfa Lights, a ghostly atmospheric effect. Yet other tourists, for instance Anthony Bourdain, come for the food and continue on to Big Bend National Park, which is even deeper in, on the Mexico border. Bourdain would be dead before that episode aired. Judd died before his time, too.
The great irony of Marfa is that it isn’t really trying to be anything other than what it is: a tiny, dusty Texas town. The city of Marfa website pitches it as “more than just a place. . . . It’s a state of mind,” but my mom and I agreed that that gives the wrong idea. The folks who run the town and the art foundation really do want to keep Marfa a smallish, authentic (in the true-to-itself sense of the word, not the external-culture-police sense) place where tourism doesn’t make life insufferable for the locals. Donald Judd left New York for Marfa because he dug it as it was: small, remote, cheap. It’s the outsiders who insist on projecting onto it all sorts of loco imaginings.
My initial trip research turned up these two young ladies who sought it out as a backdrop for their fashion show:
Then there’s this, which makes me think “ugh”:
I have no words for this:
I mean, if you’ve spent many a summer in tiny midwestern towns, as both my mom and I have, there’s nothing . . . magical and transformative about being back in one. In fact, it’s familiar, comfortable. People wave at you when you’re out for a run. Shop owners have time to chat.
And now that we’re on the subject, I’m actually highly suspicious of art people who profess too much astonishment at experiencing a remote place. How many art hotshots in New York or L.A. or San Francisco actually grew up in the metropolis, hmm? And indeed, while waiting around for our tour of The Block, Judd’s former home/compound, I struck up a conversation with a guy, who turned out to be a Local Kid Made Good: grew up nearby, cut his teeth as a Chinati tour guide, now is employed at the Smithsonian in DC, and was back in town for the holidays to see his family. He was taking the tour as an excuse to jaw with old coworkers.
Of course now that I’ve debunked the place, it’s time to admit that I did have a transcendent moment in Marfa. As a lifelong James Dean acolyte (who even made the long, lonely drive to Cholame on one milestone death anniversary to linger at the fateful spot on the highway, at the exact time of day of the crash, with the similarly besotted), I’d known for years that his last film, the epic Giant, was filmed in Marfa. He died just days after principal photography wrapped. What I hadn’t realized was that the Hotel Paisano, where my mom and I stayed, was where the cast had lived for the month-plus of on-location filming. Massive production stills plastered the lobby, and the hallways were filled with little gems for the inquisitive guest with time on her hands, for instance a photo essay by some guy who’d visited the remains of the train station in Maryland where Elizabeth Taylor’s character was shown embarking for Texas with Rock Hudson, her new husband.
It was decrepit now, and that made him sad.
At least there was still something to see. Nothing at all remains of the Reata mansion, which was only ever a facade to begin with—time and tide, fires and looters have disappeared it all—but the spirits of those film legends, all gone now, hovered everywhere for me in Marfa.
As you leave town, for sure stop to take a photo at Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa (I bet the rock shop guy secretly loves the idea of that place! so snarky!). But also linger a while in the desert just outside of town and commune with the ghosts of the big ones—and I’m talking about Judd and Bourdain here, too—who likewise stayed a moment or longer, and for some of whom it was more or less a last stop.