What’s Up With Marfa?

by Brandon Zech October 22, 2018

I knew about the myth of Marfa long before I made the nine-hour trek out west to the town. An art paradise sprung from a once sleepy small West Texas town into a destination spot for those in the art know — thanks to, originally, the mind and money of Minimalist artist Donald Judd — Marfa has in the past ten years invaded the cultural zeitgeist. It nearly goes without saying that a lot of the full-time residents of the town haven’t been the driving force behind this change. If you ask around, some Marfans hate the ‘boom,’ while others recognize that it’s a byproduct of the place in which they choose to spend their days. 


Beyonce in Marfa Texas in front of Prada Marfa

Though Marfa has a long history with celebrity and Hollywood — it is famously where Giant was filmed in the 1950s — from an outsider’s perspective, a recent turning point was in 2012 when Beyoncé shared pictures of her visit to the town. All of a sudden, Prada Marfa, a 2005 artwork by Elmgreen and Dragset that had long been contested and vandalized, served as the backdrop to a selfie by one of the world’s most famous performers. Of course, with this came with an excess of press and social media response, and the myth of the town was perpetuated: Why would Beyoncé hang out in Marfa? What’s there that is so worth seeing? 

I should acknowledge the unavoidable irony of my role in perpetuating the Marfa myth as I write about it. Glasstire has, of course, per its mission to report on art in Texas, covered Marfa’s various events, festivals, and weekends. By spilling more ink over it, the myth lives on and grows.

Donald Judd's 100 works in mill aluminum

Donald Judd’s 100 works in mill aluminum at the Chinati Foundation

But there’s a reason that those of us who have visited Marfa continue to go back to it and talk about it. And while some of that is because of the art, that’s not the whole story. I find myself retracing my footsteps less and less each time I return — by this I mean in recent years I’ve revisited fewer of the permanent installations that, since Judd times, have remained unchanged. Granted, the Judd Foundation’s buildings and the various site-specific works and installations at the Chinati Foundation have a charge about them that is remarkable on the first visit — an electrical magnetism that makes everything about Judd’s vision, Minimalism, and the importance of the landscape suddenly click. Seeing all of Marfa’s permanent installations in person — the 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 15 untitled works in concrete, and pieces by Roni Horn, John Chamberlain, and others, is a bewitching experience that can’t be replicated through videos, photographs, or words. 

Repeat viewings of these works feel something like visiting old friends, rather than inviting any radical shift in perspective. Even so, over the past four years I have doggedly returned to Marfa for its annual Chinati Weekend, which is the town’s knock-down-drag-out, crowded (by West Texas standards) affair in which collectors, philanthropists, and artists alike flood the town to compete for each others’ attention. Why?

I’ve come to believe that it’s because of the town and its people. If you travel to Marfa, one of the best reasons to go is so that you can be immersed in a place where you have time: time to take in the landscape, time to waste, time to spend with old friends and new. On my first visit to Marfa in the summer of 2014, I had a week to burn — obviously too long a visit for a town that’s only 1.6 square miles. And if you have any misconceptions about Marfa, here’s where I’ll shatter them: there’s nothing to do there. Once you visit Judd and Chinati (both of which require timed bookings for full-collection tours), go through a handful of other galleries and non-profits, make the 35-mile drive to Prada Marfa, and spend a few hours in the various shops lining the town’s main drag, you’re done. And so begins your confrontation with time.

Marfa Texas

Marfa, Texas

The thing is, everyone in town is dealing with the same nothingness, the overabundance of an element that we’re so often wanting. This, combined with the lack of places to be, means that you consistently run into the same people over the course of a day — which leads to chatting, which leads to dinner, which leads to drinks, and so on. On my first visit, I came to know an artist couple because we were on the same Chinati tour, then ate lunch at the same place (which is not hard to do in Marfa on a given day), and then ran into each other multiple times throughout the rest of our respective visits. We still talk. 

And also, Marfa acts as an equalizer among visitors. The West Texas slowdown erases some of the art world’s pretension; it relaxes people and makes them easier to talk to. Everyone who travels to Marfa is just passing through — there’s a lack of obligation, and even a coolness that comes from having nowhere to be. This is reflected in the dispositions of many Marfans, or at least those who are in the position to fraternize with visitors. 

When Marfa is busy, as it is for Chinati Weekend, it’s easy to lose sight of the slow, easy personality of the town because there is “so much” to do. (I use quotes because, by city standards, the schedule is still pretty lean.) When the town feels overrun (for Marfa), stuffed to the gills with art-hungry visitors and social-media herds, the town’s subtle relationship with easy time and people can get lost. Some of the Marfa-based art events that have popped up since Judd colonized the town don’t help. Akin to “plop art,” these projects come to town and forget to work with the elements of Marfa that make it truly special.  


Richard Maxwell Ads at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa Texas

Richard Maxwell, Ads, at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph by Alex Marks.

With that on the table, I’ll admit that 2018’s Chinati Weekend, which was even more spare than usual programming-wise (this is a good thing), presented one of the most thoughtful, kind, and gracious pieces of art that I’ve ever seen in Marfa.

Ads, a performance piece by New York artist, director, and playwright Richard Maxwell, acted as a portrait of the Marfa community — the real Marfa community, one that actually lives in and around the town. To create the piece, Maxwell and his team worked with a local producer to record monologues of community members talking about their beliefs. Participants were asked to write a text based on this prompt, which they then read aloud for Maxwell’s camera. They also had the option to go off-book and speak from memory, which, charmingly, shows in the finished project. Ultimately the piece is a “performance” because it’s partly theater: for each of Ads’ showings throughout the weekend, a selection of about 12 of the 45 monologues were chosen and assembled into a narrative by Maxwell, meaning that no performance was the same. The videos were then seamlessly projected in a way that reflected the video feed onto a glass sheet, giving the speakers a spectral feel. 

Richard Maxwell Ads at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa Texas

Richard Maxwell, Ads, at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph by Alex Marks.

Normally Maxwell’s Ads project is presented in a black-box theater space in whichever town it’s in, and everything is dark and quiet save for the monologue and the footsteps of performers walking on and off screen. The Marfa version, however, was hosted in Chinati’s Ice Plant building, in a section of the raw and industrial space that’s open to the elements. During one screening, a lightning storm in the distance lit up the sky and thunder boomed, giving certain speakers a godly clap of approval. In another, birds chattered in the nearby trees and filled the silences when speakers stared at the audience. Sometimes, sections of the metal fence in back of the space were visible through the image of the narrator, tripping the realization for viewers that the speaker before us was only a hologram. All of these elements only added to the Ad‘s power. 

Maxwell and Ads found their way to Marfa to capture the town’s power without co-opting it. Maxwell was able to use his position as a storyteller to tease out the contradictory narratives of the town — from a child who thinks McDonald’s is the bane of humanity’s existence, to individuals who have contrasting views about religion and theology, to the town’s longtime residents who believe in what Marfa can and will be, despite its rapid change over the past 30 years. And Maxwell brought forward the Hispanic and Latinx population of Marfa, which is a community that, even though it makes up 68.7% of the town according to the 2010 U.S. census, can often feel ignored by a white, touristy, art-seeking audience. At least two of the monologues in Ads by Hispanic women were presented, in Spanish, without subtitles. In a town that is considered “made” by Donald Judd and the art elite and that features permanent installations by a number of older white men, Ads felt like a small but important step in showing outsiders the other talents, thoughts, and views Marfa has on offer. 

Zoe Leonard 100 North Nevill Street Marfa Texas Chinati Foundation

Zoe Leonard, 100 North Nevill Street

Maxwell’s performance reminded me in a way of Zoe Leonard’s 100 North Nevill Street, a project that turned Chinati’s Ice Plant building into a huge camera obscura four years ago. That artwork was also a simple gesture that reflected back the elements that make Marfa special: time, landscape, and people. But here’s the thing: Marfa doesn’t need tailored artworks to realize this. The people who live and work in the town, day in and day out, know that these are the things that make Marfa great. It’s us, the visitors, who need a wake-up call and works like Ads and 100 North Nevill Street to make us slow down, and look at what (or who) is right in front of us. We don’t love Marfa because of Donald Judd, James Dean, or Beyoncé: we love it because of the duality between the grandness of the West Texas sky, and the intimacy provided by the town and its people. 


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Martha Hughes October 23, 2018 - 10:07

This resident of Marfa since 2004 says: Well said, Brandon. Please return often, during times when “nothing” is going on.

Laurie Dorfman October 23, 2018 - 10:10

Well written and spot on about the allure of Marfa…

Buck Johnston October 23, 2018 - 10:26

Brandon: Thank you. I still believe it is the best small town in America. ADS was something real special.

Dan Workman October 23, 2018 - 13:13

The only thing missing from this (excellent) essay, is the weird rite of passage that is traveling to Marfa. My trips there have been by private plane (tiny!), 30-year-old motorcycle, and a Ford Focus overloaded with sound equipment for a performance piece. Each journey ended at a ‘different Marfa’. The means and duration of travel had some weird quantum influence on how I perceived and experienced the town, leading me to believe that it is never the same town twice.

Kristen Reichert October 23, 2018 - 13:27

Finally. Someone outside of West Texas gets what makes a place with nothing so great. Thanks for a well-written article.

Susan October 23, 2018 - 14:51

The unexplained cosmic magnet that drew so many of us there is a real thing. The relationships that have resulted are treasured jewels.

H October 25, 2018 - 14:36

Really great! Sorry to have missed this year.

Cindee Klement October 28, 2018 - 08:14

One of my most memorable trips involved an intense game of Jenga in the tiny cofffee shop/laundry with my husband, son and his bride to be . I always think of our Jenga cube when I think of Judd’s work and Marfa.

Lorraine Benini October 29, 2018 - 19:56

It is a pilgrimage to Marfa, one that often allows us to shed the commotion and cacophony of a busy city or scheduled routine in another reality. It was the same when we owned the Benini Galleries and Sculpture Ranch, an hour from Austin and San Antonio. People often spoke of the unexpected benefit of the drive to our project allowing the tensions and “noise” of their customary lives to dissipate as they drove sixty miles to tour our 143 acres where Mother Nature then embraced them along the sculpture trails. Since it is at least a day’s drive for most people going to Marfa, we, and others, tend to stay at least several days. It seems that establishing a cultural outpost like this has the benefits of the slow art movement, where we can truly connect with the artwork and the environment that holds it, and often receive a full and unique experience unlike the more rushed intensity we encounter in our city museums…..

Greg Metz November 5, 2018 - 07:44

Great report and captured profile Brandon… from one having made that Sojourn trek many times over a few decades both on and off Chianti weekend. TY!

Joan Fabian, San Antonio January 26, 2022 - 12:22

Well done and fabulous. I hope it never looses that element of time where past present and future hang together. Been loving it since ’94. Thank you!

Joan Frederick January 27, 2022 - 11:29

If you ever knew Marfa BEFORE Donald Judd, you would not feel such awe and make up these “connections”, although I guess you can feel whatever you want to feel when you come to Marfa. It’s on my birth certificate and I spent my summers until 18 in Marfa, when it truly was magic. The magic came from the small town, the people and the setting that dwarfs everything else, because once you go to Big Bend, you know it’s the center of the universe. And when you see “wannabes” and superficial nuveau riche arriving to flash and glam with the latest somewhat so-called latest art scene, it seems like these invaders are just there to look good and then split. If you think that enriches your town and your home where real people do real things, live and work together, then it’s a free country, but I still think Donald Judd ruined Marfa.


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