Sunday, November 17, 2019

Marfa Live

Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Marfa, Texas

The target of my four-night sojourn was the tiny art mecca of Marfa, Texas. Or maybe Marfa was an excuse for a road trip through the part of New Mexico called “Little Texas”, a sprawl of ranch and scrub that looks, feels, smells and votes like the Lone Star State. Along with ranching and the frontier mentality that comes with it is Big Oil. Southeastern New Mexico is exploding thanks to due to massive oil reserves in the Delaware Basin that runs six miles from Ral to Carlsbad. These riches have created boom town conditions that have driven real estate through the roof and created a housing shortage that has forced drilling companies to build workers camps with temporary housing made from shipping containers and with 24 hour security to keep out hookers and drug dealers. $100,000 a year jobs abound for low skill workers and so does simmering resentment for taxes that mitigate real estate taxes and pay for much of elementary and high school education throughout New Mexico. New Mexico is now the third largest oil and gas producer in the country after Texas and North Dakota. And by 2023 the Permian Basin in Texas and the Delaware Basin will combine to be the world’s third largest oil producer behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. It’s a very big deal.

The Palace Theatre and the Presidio County Courthouse

Just south of Carlsbad, the epicenter of Little Texas, I drove south through the Guadalupe Mountains, sped through the lamentable Van Horn, Texas and dodged the gauntlet of green and white Border Patrol trucks that line the road to Marfa. The Border Patrol is a huge presence on the highway and on hillsides that overlook migrant routes in ribbons of arroyos that point north into the United States. Hidden by a stand of Mesquites ten miles south of Van Horn were two young soldiers with semi-automatic weapons at the ready. It was a chilling moment. 

Then 37 miles past the famous Prado store in Valentine I was in Marfa and found the antidote for the heartburn I contracted in Little Texas.

The Saint George Hotel

The Hotel Paisano

To have a hipster enclave in the middle of no damn where Texas is quite improbable. There really is no there there and yet it seems to work. The town enjoyed a flicker of fame when the film Giant was filmed there in 1956. Its Hotel Paisano co-starred in the movie and was Marfa’s first claim to fame.

Donald Judd's concrete installation at the Chinati Foundation

In 1971 the Minimalist artist Donald Judd from New York City fell in love with the Chihuahuan desert and rented a house for the summer. When he needed more space to produce and display his large scale art he bought two aircraft hangers at the WWII era Marfa Army Airfield. Then he bought two ranches and in 1979 acquired Fort D.A. Russell which became the Chinati Foundation which exhibits the work of modernists Ingólfur Arnason, Don Flavin, Claus Oldenburg, Choose van Bruggen and IIya Kabakov along with Judd.

Marfa Books in the Hotel Saint George

Clearly, Judd’s Chinati Foundation was catnip for the wave of artists that have descended on Marfa. The Lannan Foundation has established a writers-in-residency program. There’s a theatre troop and the Marfa Ballroom shows art films and hosts live music. Marfa Myths is an annual music festival that has its roots in the stark landscape of Far West Texas. There are 19 galleries in the town of 2,000. And I do mean 2,000. There are no suburbs and the nearest towns of any consequence are 20 miles away.

On two warm October days Marfa felt a little like Southern California, a touch of Palm Springs and a whisper of Santa Barbara. The simplicity of the architecture and of the contemporary art scene was somehow freeing.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

For years, we have heard bits and pieces and read brief descriptions of Marfa, but your blog this morning certainly brought the tidbits together. Never been there. As you indicated, it is pretty much and truly in the middle of nowhere, and on the way to no place in particular, but we appreciate seeing the photographs you took, along with your description. The last paragraph describing it as a little bit of Palm Springs and Santa Barbara was perfect (not in the Trumpian sense). Having spent some time in Hobbs, Eunice, Jal, Artesia, and Carlsbad while working at the State Library, I was familiar with the oil and gas industry in New Mexico, but not with the huge boom that has happened since the late 90s. Thanks for updating us on that, and bringing the lonely, wide-open to our eyes. Great blog, Steve.