May 31, 2017

Dallas <3 Marfa

Writer Lauren Smart considers a big city’s love affair with a small desert town

The eyes of the art world first turned toward the small West Texas town of Marfa in the ’70s. That’s when minimalist sculpture Donald Judd began laying the groundwork for The Chinati Foundation, an extensive art space on the site of an early 20th century fort build to deter Mexican bandits.

Since then, the sleepy, one-stoplight town has become a cultural outpost and creative mecca for artists and scenesters in search of a weekend diversion, a quiet summer, or a second home. Recent pilgrims include Beyoncé and Natalie Portman. But Dallasites have long felt a particular magnetic pull to what was once just a desert whistle-stop.

The trek to Marfa isn’t an easy one. More than 500 miles southwest of Dallas, the road trip takes upwards of seven hours—less if you give into the urge to speed across the expansive, near-empty plains. Flying into Midland-Odessa, the nearest airport, still requires a three-hour drive. Perhaps this is where the mythology of the place begins. There are three types of people in Marfa: those who traveled a great distance to get here, others just passing through, and a few with plans to stay forever.

At any time of the year, current and former Dallas residents can be found meandering the quiet streets—whether it’s filmmakers like David Lowery and Barak Epstein during the Marfa Film Festival in the summer; musicians like Sarah Jaffe or Zhora during September’s Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love; or painters and curators, like Zeke Williams and Leigh Arnold, during Chinati Weekend each October.

On event-laden weekends, spots like the upscale restaurant Cochineal, four- wheeled Food Shark, and Planet Marfa—a bar complete with teepee—are hopping. The rest of the year, you’ll have to cozy up to a hotel bar, like Jett’s Grill at Hotel Paisano, where Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean stayed while filming Giant in the ’50s. But then, no one goes to Marfa for the food.

For Buck Johnston and Camp Bosworth, it was the landscape. The artists packed up their Dallas home to move west 16 years ago and now run the Wrong Store and Gallery.“If you don’t like this landscape, you won’t last long,” says Johnston.

The delicate oppression of the West Texas desert has long sparked the imagination of television and filmmakers, too, most recently setting the scene for Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, and I Love Dick, a new Amazon series from Jill Soloway (Transparent) based on the cult-classic Chris Kraus book. The fascination is not misplaced. A sunset over the high desert plains and Davis Mountains belongs on every bucket list.

A clear-skied sunrise will elucidate the emergence of Marfa as a polestar for minimalism à la Donald Judd. The ephemeral nature of the jewel-toned sky as it paints the flatlands seems also to consider the nature of beauty that gives precedence to our immediate surroundings, while also implying the complication of the canyons and mountains of Big Bend National Park, just miles beyond the horizon line. It’s not that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it’s that the concept of beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The purity of Judd’s vision is best seen on days when The Chinati Foundation opens at daybreak for a special viewing of his 15 works in concrete and 100 in mill aluminum.

Dallas has made its mark on the art scene in Marfa as well. Eugene Binder Gallery sits just a few hundred yards from City Hall on the main drag. Its namesake was an active member of the art community in Dallas, where he owned a gallery for nearly three decades before taking his artistic sensibilities to Marfa in the ’90s. He regularly exhibits Dallas-based artists, including recent shows of work by Paul Kremer, Liz Trosper, John Pomara, Arthur Peña, and Luke Harnden.

The Details: Read more on Marfa in the June-July print edition of 1530 Main, available at The Joule. 

Photo | Donald Judd Art  © Judd Foundation / ARS