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DEEP IN THE ART OF TEXAS
 
(2023 - Winter Issue)

Writer: LAURA BYRNE PAQUET



The drive from El Paso to the small West Texas town of Marfa takes about three hours. Along the way, the occasional pecan farm stands out amid the low-lying agave plants and creosote bushes of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Every 50 kilometres or so along U.S. Route 90, small towns appear on the horizon, like bits of amber regularly strung on an enormous, dusty necklace. They were founded in the 1880s as water stops for the thirsty steam engines of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Just before we reach Valentine (population: 109), things get a bit strange. We pull over to check out Prada Marfa, an artwork by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Resembling a small store, the permanently locked adobe building displays shoes and purses from the fall 2005 Prada collection. The artists have intentionally left the structure to decay over time, hoping it will become a ruined time capsule.

GIANTS OF MARFA

Closer to Marfa, we stop again—this time, in front of a huge installation by California-based artist John Cerney. In 2018, he used plywood to recreate scenes from Giant, a 1956 movie partly shot here. We pose for selfies in front of a larger-than-life James Dean before driving on to nearby Marfa.

At first glance, Marfa looks like just another water-stop town. A four-way flashing red light hangs above the intersection of San Antonio Street and Highland Avenue. Wide thoroughfares built for pickups and farm machinery stretch into the distance. However, unlike roads in Valentine, Marfa’s streets are lined with sleek shops and galleries.

At Garza Marfa, a home decor boutique, a set of four colourful cotton table napkins costs US$64; a modern leather living-room chair rings in at US$1,995. A few blocks away, the RULE Gallery is hosting a temporary exhibition of avant-garde collage. And the non-profit Marfa Studio of Arts sells inexpensive, locally made jewellery, paintings and other items to support its children’s art programs.

THE BIG Q

All of this begs the question: How did this isolated Wild West town become an artistic hotbed? The answer lies largely with the late Donald Judd, who first saw West Texas in 1946 at age 18, through the windows of a cross-country bus.

By the late 1970s, Judd had become a renowned sculptor. Longing to escape a Manhattan art scene he found increasingly claustrophobic, he remembered the Chihuahuan Desert landscape that had captivated him as a teenager. He purchased the abandoned Fort D.A. Russell on the edge of Marfa and began setting up what is now the Chinati Foundation, an unusual museum of contemporary art.

ART FOR ART’S SAKE  

Today, buildings scattered across the former military site are home to challenging artworks.

On my visit, I’m particularly taken with untitled (dawn to dusk), a 2016 work by Robert Irwin. It consists of an entire building, where natural light pours through regimented flanks of windows. Interior spaces separated by transparent fabric walls are alternately light and dark. The long, silent corridors provide room for my mind to wander. I connect with that piece much better than I do with Judd’s landmark installation, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. It’s probably just me; other visitors appear fascinated by the huge metal boxes installed inside two former artillery sheds.

The presence of Chinati drew artists and other creative types from around the country to Marfa. Today, the town seems to hum with the sound of unseen artists hammering metal, sawing wood or spinning pottery wheels behind studio doors.

Or perhaps that hum is the sound of an approaching freight train on the railroad line that still slices through downtown, between Marfa’s domed 1886 courthouse and my digs at the modernist Hotel Saint George. As I settle into bed on the last night of my visit, a muffled train whistle lulls me to sleep. Do I dream of Prada shoes and James Dean, aluminum boxes and agave-dotted deserts? If I do, I don’t remember in the morning.

FINE DINING IN A SMALL TOWN

Splurge on a multi-course prix-fixe dinner at Cochineal restaurant. There, executive chef Alexandra Gates—a 2020 semi-finalist for the James Beard Award—creates memorable small plates such as rabbit confit, using local, sustainable ingredients. Reserve far in advance, as space is limited.

INSIDER TIP

Some claim they’re UFOs. Others say they’re mirages or distant headlights. Whatever you believe, the Marfa Lights reportedly hover above the desert on the south side of U.S. Route 90, about 14 kilometres east of Marfa.

Travel Planner

For more information about Marfa, see visitmarfa.com.

For Texas travel tips, go to traveltexas.com

 
 
 
 
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