The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Report from Marfa


CLUI associate William L. Fox spent the fall of 2002 in Marfa, Texas, as a Lannan Foundation writer-in-residence. He submitted the following report about his impressions and experiences in this increasingly unusual place, linked to the developments at Beacon in a number of ways.

532The city of Marfa at the intersection of some of the few highways in the southern half of far west Texas. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

THE WEST TEXAS TOWN OF Marfa, population approximately 2,500 residents and visitors on any given day, is located on State Highway 90 about 200 miles southeast of El Paso, or 500 miles southwest of Dallas. It sits at 4,688 feet above sea level on the Trans-Pecos plateau of the Chihuahuan Desert, and is surrounded by the arid remnants of cattle ranches. Look down most any street and at the end you’ll find a barbed wire fence; beyond that, it’s all open range that’s been grazed for more than a century down to bare dirt in places. A multi-year drought has put many of the local ranchers out of business, but the town has found other ways to survive.

Marfa, reputedly named by the wife of a railroad executive after a minor character in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, was founded in 1881 as a water stop for the Texas & New Orleans Railroad. Some two dozen trains daily still roar through town at all hours, often at more than 50 mph. Coal headed west for power plants, camo-painted military vehicles going east, and shipping containers bearing the logotypes of multinational corporations rolling in both directions are among the cargo.

Marfa is only sixty miles north of the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico, and local arroyos bear names from the previous century such as Contraband Gully. It comes as no surprise that the principal employer in town is the Border Patrol, which maintains 200-plus agents to patrol the largest sector in the American Southwest: 135,000 square miles and 420 miles of border. The patrol’s motor pool here includes buses for transporting illegal immigrants en masse back across the border, as well as a semi-trailer truck rig for hauling away larger vehicles.

North of town a large white plastic aerodynamic balloon is anchored by a long cable to a U.S. Air Force facility, one of the country’s ten “tethered aerostat radar system” blimps. The system was started in 1985 to provide counternarcotics surveillance and deter airborne drug running. The blimps are twice as large as the Goodyear models, can fly up to 15,000 feet, and see aircraft out as far as 200 miles. Marfa’s facility was put into service in 1989, and the blimp is visible most days as it hovers a few miles outside town in the startlingly blue sky.

Patrolling the border first became an economic mainstay of Marfa in 1911 when the U.S. sent cavalry to harass Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Biplanes were housed in large canvas hangers and deployed in reconnaissance flights over his troops. The duties were turned over to the newly-formed Border Patrol in 1924, but what was Camp Albert became Camp Marfa, and then with the active lobbying of citizens the fulltime Fort D. A. Russell. Its barracks were constructed in 1920, and long artillery sheds in 1939. At its peak in 1945 during WW II, Marfa had 5,000 residents, 200 of which were German prisoners of war housed on the fort grounds.

A couple of gas stations, a small market, some motels, a liquor store and a Dairy Queen are scattered among the businesses along the highway. Intersecting US 90 at right angles is Highland, the town’s main street, which is anchored at its northern end by the Presidio County Courthouse, a three-story Renaissance-revival structure built in 1886 and recently renovated. Nearby is the Paisano Hotel, an historic structure and headquarters for the 1956 movie classic Giant, directed by George Stevens, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Dennis Hopper and James Dean. The hotel now hosts a variety of weekend visitors, including escapees from the lower and hotter cities of Texas, hunters of pronghorn antelope and the local mule deer (the latter’s estimated regional population standing at 151,000)–and international art consumers, many dressed in the inevitable all-black of the self-conscious cognoscenti.

The sculptor Donald Judd (1929-1994) served at Fort Russell during the Korean War, then returned in the early 1970s, seeking a place in which he could permanently install his work. Museums and commercial galleries often were unable to display his larger works, which depended on running out a long series of minimalist permutations in three-dimensional forms. The answer was to buy massive amounts of inexpensive property in a remote location, thus forcing viewers to come to terms with his work on a ground of his own choice.

Judd first bought up properties in downtown Marfa, among them the bank on Highland, and an entire city block along the highway, which he subsequently surrounded with a high adobe brick wall, much to the consternation of residents. Judd named the place “The Compound,” and turned its spacious industrial buildings into studios, libraries, and living quarters. Upon his death everything was left exactly in place, per his request, including his bedroom slippers. As a result, visitors can readily trace a variety of Judd’s working habits. A bed sitting in one corner of a large studio space allowed him to live with early pieces and think through their implications. The severe geometries of Navajo blankets and Mimbres pottery were kept in full view, as were all of his kitchen utensils arrayed on shelves and walls in calibrated order of size and shape. Top quality cookware and an elaborate turntable for playing classical and traditional bagpipe music indicate a predilection for quality tools.

Starting in 1979, Judd began refurbishing the army buildings on the southern edge of town, sharing the old fort with the offices of the Border Patrol. The barracks and artillery sheds, themselves minimalist serial objects, became stage sets for the work of Judd and his friends, fellow sculptors Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. Judd’s one hundred aluminum boxes are installed in the two high-ceilinged artillery sheds, and the light admitted by windows on all sides allows the works to hover, reflect, disappear, and then come back into view as you circle them. Flavin’s arrays of fluorescent tubes in various colors turn the U-shaped barracks into subtle meditations on color theory, and make you feel as if you’re walking into a sculptural equivalent to Rothko paintings.

Other works on site include the nostalgic recreation of a Soviet-era schoolhouse by Russian installation artist Ilya Kabokov, concrete poems in vitrines by Carl Andre, as well as more recent sculptures by Roni Horn and Richard Long. Outside the barracks stands a 19-foot-tall horseshoe by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, “The Lost Horse,” done in homage to the final cavalry mounts to be put down here. Robert Irwin is scheduled to install a piece in forthcoming years. Tours through the Judd’s 340-acres on the fort, as well as for various facilities in town, can be arranged through the Chinati Foundation (named after a nearby mountain range).

Marfa is thus a major thoroughfare for cultural and material goods moving east and west along the traditional ley lines of Manifest Destiny, and an armed outpost maintaining a calculated rate of flow from south to north that is allowed to supplement the other flow, but not displace it. That is to say, the influx from Mexico of an illegal but critical low-wage labor force is kept to a politically determined rate. The flow of material products is regulated by NAFTA and inspection stations on the interstates and highways. And as with drugs, the war on terrorism is conducted by the Border Patrol, now augmented with federal troops recently reintroduced into the area since 9/11, an interesting resonance with the year 1911. The modernist aesthetic, which moved steadily westward from northern European countries during the 20th century, marched through town and left behind a fort dedicated to high art. The more colorful aesthetics of the southern hemisphere, traditionally posited in opposition, are relegated for the moment to craft stores and smaller galleries in Marfa.

No report from here would be complete without a mention of the Marfa Lights, a flickering presence outside town of undetermined origin. The Texas Department of Transportation has kindly provided a parking lot and viewing platform for nighttime use, framing the mystery in institutional architecture–a window on what most scientists agree may be nothing more than the headlights of distant vehicular traffic, though traveling in which direction no one can say. 

533Scopes at the official Marfa Lights rest stop and veiwing area east of town. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell