Marfa: This Must Be the Place

By Summer Wilson

Something special happens when you turn off of Interstate 10 at Van Horn, Texas, on your way to Marfa. The sky opens up, cars become few and far between, you climb to almost 5,000 feet above sea level, and time slows down. The scale of the ruggedly beautiful land is vast and isolating. It instills a transcendent feeling of possibility, potential, and independence—a feeling that has inspired filmmakers, artists, poets, and cowboys for centuries.

Marfa is a one-stoplight West Texas town where you’ll find ranch hands and saloons alongside experimental artists and modern art galleries. Artists come here for the space and the pure, clean light, joining the ranchers and cowboys who work the mystical land, as well as Marfa’s Hispanic community, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of the population and includes many families that have called this small town home for generations. 

Cowboys co-exist with experimental artists in Marfa, set in the wide open spaces of West Texas (photographs by Bob Anderson).  

Artist Donald Judd, drawn to the empty desert and in search of change, moved to Marfa in the early ’70s and began acquiring buildings, eventually including the town’s abandoned army base. On the site of that army base, he created the Chinati Foundation; there, he installed 15 untitled works in concrete and 100 untitled works in mill aluminum and invited other artists to permanently display their work as well. After Judd’s death, in 1994, the Judd Foundation was formed, opening his home and studio spaces to the public.

Judd wanted to create a different way to experience art, outside the confines of galleries and institutions, where art is often placed in white windowless rooms for short periods of time. To Judd, the environment that art is installed in is as important as the work itself. In Marfa, he created pieces that are site-specific and permanent, so we see them exactly the way he intended. The artillery sheds that hold his mill aluminum works feel more like cathedrals than galleries. Light interacts with the space, constantly changing the environment and the art in unexpected ways. The experience deepens, grows, and changes as quickly as the light does. 

Photograph courtesy of the Chinati Foundation.

The artists living and creating in Marfa today may work in different styles and disciplines than Judd, but many are influenced by his belief that one should not draw a line between work and life. Perhaps Marfa’s biggest draw for artists is its isolation. Being 200 miles from an airport keeps the mainstream comfortably at bay. People feel they can be completely themselves, and because Marfa is an inconvenient place to call home, only a certain type of person stays.

We recently made a pilgrimage to this art mecca. In addition to Judd Foundation archivist and programs manager Caitlin Murray, we spoke with Bob Anderson, a former professional photographer who now takes pictures when inspiration strikes. With a view that seems to go on forever, he lives in an Airstream trailer perched at the edge of town. Bob came to Marfa on a road trip more than six years ago, stopped for a drink, and ended up staying for six weeks. Since then, he has spent half of each year in Marfa; now he says it’s more home than anywhere he’s lived before.

Artwork by Marfa-based multimedia installation artist Adam Bork, who is also the proprietor of Food Shark and the Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour.

We spent time with many other people, including Ty Mitchell, owner of The Lost Horse Saloon, where locals, cowboys, artists, and tourists can connect over a drink. It may be the place where this diverse community began to let go of their differences, embrace the change that has happened, and talk about the inevitable change to come as more people seek out this special place. Some will pass through; some will come, decide it’s exactly what they’ve been looking for, and never leave. 

Explore Marfa with us, in this video (click to watch).

We’d like to offer our heartfelt gratitude to all the generous people who gave us their time and helped shape the story. Special thanks to Jenny Moore, director of the Chinati Foundation; Caitlin Murray, archivist and programs manager at the Judd Foundation; Bob Anderson, photographer and gentleman; Meghan Gerety, local artist; Adam Bork, multimedia installation artist and proprietor of Food Shark and the Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour; Eugene Binder, owner of the Eugene Binder Exhibition Space; Robert Arber, Tamarind Master Printer at Arber & Son Editions; Ty Mitchell, owner of The Lost Horse Saloon; and Ellery Aufdengarten and his sons and crew, for graciously allowing us to film them working early one morning at their ranch just outside of town.

Artwork by Marfa-based artist Meghan Gerety.

May 2, 2016

Video: Summer Wilson

Layout: Nicolle Rodriguez

Images: as credited