Why is Marfa Texas famous

Artist village in the Texas desert"Everything would be smaller if it hadn't been for Donald Judd"

A freight train passes through the small town of Marfa, which is just 100 kilometers north of the Mexican border, once every hour. As if in a cliché, the endlessly long trains roll through Marfa, which was previously forgotten by the world, but is now a place of longing for many art lovers. The town of 2,000 souls is almost entirely white: there are only a few two-story houses, everything looks clean, simple, and clear. Marfa has only one set of traffic lights: this is where federal highways 67 and 90 intersect.

Marfa has only one traffic light: This is where federal highways 67 and 90 intersect. (Deutschlandradio / Michael Meyer)

Further out, around 14 km from the center, onlookers who want to see the famous "Marfa Lights" meet every evening: a green, shimmering natural spectacle, the secret of which has not been fully revealed. It may be a refraction of light, but it does not occur every night, which disappoints so many tourists. Turning once onto Bundesstraße 67, there is even a radio station right on the corner in a former gas station: "Marfa Public Radio" has its editorial office here.

Revitalization in the wasteland

The landscape around Marfa has to be imagined as in a western: Wherever you look flat land, the ground yellow-brown, only little grows in the inhospitable terrain, the summers are hot up to 35 degrees, and in the winter nights there is even frost here . And there is always a wind blowing dry plants, the so-called "tumbleweed", over the streets. Films like "No Country For Old Man" by the Coen brothers or, much earlier in the 1950s, "Giants" with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor were made here: The "Hotel Paisano", one of three in town, is inside plastered with black and white photos of the shooting.

If you take a stroll down the town's small main street, you will notice that everything is not the same as it is in any desert village: fashion and design shops, jewelry and art galleries are here like pearls on a string. Everything is white, bright, chic and expensive: shops that you would expect to find in big cities, and where a mug coaster can cost 30 dollars. Many tourists are currently not in town. A few women stroll down the main street, mostly dressed in black and obviously tourists. You're from Los Angeles. What brings you here, to the far-away Marfa?

"It's a lot quieter than we imagined, it's very difficult to make out what's art and what's not here, what's open to the public and what's not, it's very mysterious here. I think If you drive out here for so long, you will see a lot of desolate little towns here in West Texas, but it's different here, you can see how they have managed to revitalize them through art, in a very special way, that's really cool. I think it's also a statement about how difficult it is for artists to live in cities like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. As an artist you don't make a lot of money. It's very difficult there to survive, that was maybe what drove Donald Judd here. To see all these people come here and leave money here too, that's kind of ironic, isn't it? "

A suitable village for art

The man to whom Marfa owes the art boom is called Donald Judd. Judd was a sculptor, painter, architect and died unexpectedly in 1994 at the age of 65. He was considered one of the leading representatives of "minimalism", a term that he himself hated profoundly. Judd was already looking for a place for his art in the 1970s. He came from a small town in Missouri and discovered the barren landscape for himself while driving through West Texas. What he was looking for was a kind of symbiosis between the creation of art, a place to work and live as well as exhibition spaces that should permanently house his works, says Donald Judd's daughter, Rainer:

"He always wanted to be in the landscape, after all, he spent many years in New York as an artist and critic, those were unemployed years, it took him a long time to find out what kind of art he wanted to do. When he had his first success in In the sixties, his restlessness grew and he wanted to get out of the city. He was not only frustrated with the arrogant art world, but also with the New York City government, which was simply demolishing historic districts. And so his interest in the landscape. New York was a place of radical ideas and art back then, and he didn't just leave his radical ideas behind, but took them back here to West Texas. "

Donald Judd came, saw, and bought

In the early 1970s, Judd bought an old military site at the gates of Marfa, where the "Chinati Foundation" is now housed. During the Second World War, German prisoners of war were temporarily interned here. The foundation not only shows works by Donald Judd, but above all works by other artists. A series of light installations by Dan Flavin, for example, or two oversized copper circles by the artist Roni Horn. One of the most impressive works by Donald Judd is an ensemble of fifteen oversized, rectangular concrete cubes that stand in the landscape. The visitors can touch them, walk in, take photos. It's a fascinating experience - you find yourself interpreting every little thing as art. Is this manhole cover already art or just a manhole? Judd was fascinated by the rectangular figures, clear lines, light and shadow that his objects cast in the sunlight.

Judd also invested in new studio space with a large courtyard in the middle of Marfa, called "The Block", where he built an extensive library, among other things. Even if Judd was fascinated by the landscape, there aren't too many objects that were intended for outdoors, says daughter Rainer Judd:

"Donald Judd has created so many works, it wasn't just about the relationship between art and landscape, I would say he was inspired by nature and was also very committed to the preservation of the landscape. He also has a lot of land bought, he loved birds and also studied geology, that grounded him, and that was reflected in his art, how he used light, color and proportions.But all the works he created do not necessarily have to be in proportion to see the landscape in order to appreciate it. "

One day and one car

Nothing to buy: The Prada store in the desert is seen as an object that is critical of consumption and takes up the absurdity of the exaggerated brand culture. (deutschlandradio / Michael Meyer)

To see all the works of art in Marfa, visitors need at least one day, better two. And they need a car. For example, to visit the most photographed object in Marfa: the Prada store, a rectangular cube that houses a fictional Prada store and which is 50 kilometers west of Marfa. The windows are now quite dirty from the dust of the street - and yet: The enthusiasm of the visitors is not diminished:

"I'm pretty fascinated, we're standing in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly there are 1,000 dollars in shoes and handbags in front of me, I'm a bit perplexed ... I had no idea, my friend drove me here, and suddenly this one is here Prada store. But you can't buy anything. "

The Prada store in the desert is seen as an object that is critical of consumption and takes up the absurdity of the exaggerated brand culture. Whether and what the viewer makes of it is up to each and every one of them.

Insights among locals

In the two-hour lunch break between tours, art enthusiasts usually meet in one of the restaurants in the city center. But it is more interesting to mingle with the locals. The "Mando’s", a Mexican restaurant two kilometers outside the center, is down-to-earth.

The sophisticated art world is miles away here. You can hear a lot of Spanish and the waitresses greet the guests with "Sweetie" or "Sweetheart". A full lunch can be had for under ten dollars. Tina and Andrea are sitting at one of the tables. You were born in Marfa, Andrea now lives a few towns further. What do you think of the boom in tourists and those interested in art?

"Most of the time it's okay. It brings people here and we're even on the national news. I have no problem with that. However, prices have risen here, especially for land. When I was growing up here, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was nothing to do here and the young people moved away as soon as they graduated from school. I never dreamed that people would move here or buy their summer house. It makes me nostalgic, I think about my childhood and when you see the tourists here sees, taking photos of old brick houses, that's strange. "

Pros and cons of the tourist boom

However, the tourist boom is a double-edged sword, says the young artist Cody Barber, who prefers not to say anything into the microphone because of negative experiences with the press. He now has to pay more than $ 500 more rent for his studio because the city council has increased property taxes. But otherwise, of course, he benefits from the many art enthusiasts, says Barber.

Two streets away, Kathleen Shafer lives in a tiny house, who wrote a book about Marfa in 2017. It is called: "Marfa - The Transformation of a West Texas Town". Shafer is originally from Virginia and moved here a few years ago. There used to be only cattle breeding here, she says. This monoculture stressed the landscape and a drought in the 1950s gave it the rest. When a military base closed at the gates of the city, it was another blow to the local economy.

Donald Judd was already looking for a place for his art in the 1970s - and found it in Marfa. (deutschlandradio / Michael Meyer)

When Donald Judd then decided to move here in the 1970s, the art scene didn't come over the city like an avalanche, but it developed slowly, says Kathleen Shafer:

"The people in West Texas live very withdrawn. Everyone does their own thing here, so Judd was neither welcome, nor did people reject him, it was more like: Ok, this guy does weird things, I don't understand, but it doesn't bother me either. Judd also employed a lot of people and was therefore an employer. He said to himself: New York is so far away, I can do my own thing here. "

"Reality of Small Town Life"

Shafer emphasizes that the houses in Marfa used to have no fences at all, everything was freely accessible. But today more and more people are moving here who want to protect their privacy. Donald Judd did the same: The building complex "The Block", for example, where Donald Judd had his studio, is surrounded by a high brick wall.

Shafer certainly sees the positive sides of the tourist boom. Since Marfa is so far away from the nearest big city, the place will probably never grow significantly, says Kathleen Shafer:

"People come here and say: Hey, that's great, I want to live here. But the reality of small-town life sets in quickly, and not everyone is suitable for that. People come, but they also go again. Especially when people have children "Then they often don't want to send their children to one of the schools here. Up to 70 percent of Latinos live in this area. So I think there is coming and going here."

Hype in the art place

Looking back, after decades of Marfa as an art location, the question arises as to how positive the changes have been for the small desert town. Is the hype comparable to gentrification in big cities? With all its side effects? So did pioneer Donald Judd render a service to Marfa? Kathleen Shafer thinks for a long time and then says:

"I think the bottom line is. I think many people wouldn't have all the opportunities here if tourism didn't exist. Without the tourists, this would be a place where only the border police would drive around. Houses and land would be certainly more affordable, but there wouldn't be all the shops and restaurants, it would be more of a quiet, forgotten desert place ... everything would be smaller if it hadn't been for Donald Judd. "