Sown into the rusted plains of the Chihuahua Desert lies a town caught between worlds. Located just ten miles from the Mexico/US border, Marfa occupies a threshold, and like so many settlements on the cusp, it is home to a unique community and a rich, layered history. Revitalised by the artist Donald Judd in the 1970s, Marfa is home to a thriving community of creatives and has served as the setting for a number of iconic films, including George Steven’s 1956 classic Giant and, more recently, No Country For Old Men. So, how did Marfa go from a crumbling frontier town to a cultural powerhouse favoured by everyone from Beyonce to Antony Bourdain? Let’s take a closer look.
Marfa has always been an oasis of one sort or another. These days it’s a hotbed of creativity in an otherwise depopulated area, but when it was founded in 1883, it was quite literally a watering hole. This railroad water stop was named – rather fittingly – after Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff. One wonders if the wife of the railroad executive who was reading the novel at the time was reminded, in some small way, of Verne’s haunting descriptions of the enormous, empty landscapes of Siberia – only with tall grass instead of snow.
As the 1920s rolled into the 1930s, Marfa’s community began to grow. At its peak, in 1930, the town had 3,909 residents. Then, with war raging in Europe, much of the town’s male population left to go and fight; many of them would never return. With the town emptied of life, the government constructed a prisoner of war camp nearby and stationed the Chemical Warfare Brigades in temporary barracks. The military left when the war ended, cutting off a vital economic artery. By the time James Dean travelled to the town to film Giant, Marfa must have seemed like a city populated only by ghosts, which is precisely what made it such a brilliant filming location. In the summer of 195, the entire cast and crew of Giant, including leads: James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson, marched into Marfa and made The Hotel Paisano their headquarters. Today, the hotel contains a room packed with Giant memorabilia. Arguably, though, the heart of that iconic 1955 work lies not within the walls of the Piasan but beyond the fringes of Marfa – on the sandy, unchanging plains.
When Judd arrived 15 years later, Marfa was falling apart. Luckily, so was Judd. Exhausted by the pressures and excesses of the New York art world, the artist relocated to Marfa after searching high and low for a place where he could live and work in peace. After securing funding from the Dia Art Foundation in New York, Judd purchased the bulk of the former prisoner of war camp. He transformed it into the Chinati Foundation, where, today, a selection of large-scale installations and sculptures by 13 different artists can be found dotted around the grounds, framed by the blue sky above and the sepia grasslands below. These works are evidence of the artistic manifesto Judd laid down in the Chinati Foundation catalogue: “Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again,” he wrote. “Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.”
Then, after Judd’s death in 1994, another change came to Marfa. With the promise of creative sanctuary, artists of all kinds started relocating to the town, setting up their studios in its many adobe-style houses and painting them in pastel shades. Around this time, the town saw a boom in commerce. A newly-arrived Hispanic community set up restaurants, food trucks, and bookstores – all of which bought a feeling of hipsterdom – of Brooklyn or Berlin – to this old frontier outpost. While it is far from what Judd had envisioned, this strange contradiction between consumer culture and Marfa’s unending landscapes make the town so wonderfully eerie. I mean, come on, where else can you find a faux Prada outlet set against a landscape plucked straight out of High Noon? But, as I said: Marfa is a town caught between worlds.