Alien lights, food trucks, and world-class art, Marfa, Texas might just be the most unique place in the art world today.

Like many of the places that we’ve written about in our ongoing series, Marfa is in the middle of nowhere. It occupies a lonely patch of land in the heart of West Texas, an area known as much for its staunch conservatism – some counties have not supported a democrat for president since 1948 – as for its ongoing battle with illegal immigration. In recent decades, however, Marfa has welcomed an ongoing wave of expats, not just families from Chihuahua and Sinaloa but also hipsters from Portland and Bushwick. The latter are drawn to Marfa’s arts-focused destinations, most notably those created and nurtured by Donald Judd.

Flavin - Adam Joseph Brochstein
 

Adam Joseph Brochstein
Judd, who died in 1994, began purchasing property in Marfa in the early 1970s. He came to Marfa to escape the overly commercialized art scenes in New York and Los Angeles. For Judd, Marfa was the antithesis of these places, and stood as a blank canvas for his idealized vision of an anti-museum: a place where artists could have their work on display in large, permanent installations. Nowhere is that more evident than on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation, which is a museum that Judd helped establish with assistance from the Dia Art Foundation. Chinati is built around an abandoned military base and permanently houses works by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlin, Carl Andre, Roni Horn, and more, not to mention monumental works by Judd himself. In addition to their impressive collection, Chinati’s outreach and education program often hosts unique artists and events. Most recently, they welcomed The XX for a free concert.

For a more personal look at Judd, you will have to book a tour with the Judd Foundation, which offers tours of his personal home, untouched studio, and other studios and buildings that Judd owned throughout the town.


Chinati - Alex Gerson
 

Alex Gerson
It’s difficult to say what Judd would think about Marfa’s current popularity, especially since he died before Marfa really took off as a tourist destination. Purists like to say that Marfa has turned into the kind of commercial sideshow that Judd fought against: an arts playground for the rich and famous who come to collect stories for dinner party banter, one which is increasingly blind to the socio-economic issues in the area. Others point to the incredible economic impact that art has had on an otherwise non-existent local economy. While it’s true that the popularity of Marfa has raised local tensions, one can’t deny the opportunity that it presents as a bastion for creativity far-removed from the traditional art world.


Downtown - Alex Gerson
 

Alex Gerson
The amazing art, and seemingly semimonthly mentions in publications like The New York Times, have attracted a very unique crowd to Marfa, and many of these people have been inspired to brush out their own niche in the dusty town. If the current trends continue, there’s no guessing just how big Marfa might become, although the remoteness and lack of a nearby hospital will probably keep things manageable for the time being.


GETTING THERE

West Texas is a desolate place and getting to Marfa typically involves lots of driving, albeit through some beautiful country. The nearest major airport is about three hours northwest in El Paso, and serves all the large US airlines.

If you’re coming in from New Mexico, do your best to stop by Carlsbad Caverns before plunging down through the Brokeoff and Guadalupe Mountains. From there, it’s about a three and a half hour drive to Marfa. On your way, you can’t miss Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa on U.S. Route 90 (watch out for the speed trap in Valentine!).

If you’re coming from Dallas, expect a serious day’s drive of around eight hours non-stop, with not too much to see along with way. For a truly unique experience, take Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train, which runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans, and stops in Alpine, Texas, which is only a thirty minute drive from Marfa.

Food Shark - Alex Gerson
 

Alex Gerson

TO EAT

You’d be hard pressed to find better food in such a desolate place. For starters, dive right into the culinary scene by visiting one of the members of the famous Food Shark empire, which includes the Food Shark food truck, serving “Mediterranean-by-way-of-West-Texas food”, Future Shark, a more traditional joint, or my personal favorite, the Food Shark Museum of Electronic Wonders and late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour. As the name suggests, this restaurant, which is only open from 9:30pm until around 1am on Fridays and Saturdays, serves customised grilled cheeses alongside an impressive collection of vintage, and mostly functional, televisions.

For food that would rank with the best in Manhattan, head over to Cochineal and for your pizza fix, stop by the Pizza Foundation.

 

TO STAY

If you want to experience the old west and a true classic, you must stay at the El Paisano Hotel which is still playing up its important role as James Dean’s home base while he starred in the film Giant.

Your other best bet is the Thunderbird Hotel, which offers a modern take on the motel, offering guests well-appointed rooms, bicycle rentals, and a great vinyl collection.

For the glamping-enthusiasts, book a stay at the El Cosmico campground. There you’ll find permanent tents and campervans, or empty plots for your own teepees.

 

TO DO

A trip to Marfa wouldn’t be complete without tours at both the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation. You should also allocate time to explore the local galleries like Ballroom Marfa and the Ayn Foundation.

If you want to have a drink, and catch the occasional minimalist techno set or thrash metal power ballad (obviously depends on the night), then head over to Padres.

If you believe in ghosts, then be sure to head over to the Marfa Lights once the sun goes down. Rumor has it that these seemingly unexplainable apparitions are paranormal in spirit.

Finally, as mentioned above, make sure you head out of town to visit the famous Prada Marfa by Elmgreen and Dragset. Currently mired down by bureaucratic infighting, there’s no guarantee that it will be up for much longer.

Words by Alex GersonFeature image by Matthew Firpo

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