Spotlight Marfa

Photo by James Evans, Courtesy of Ballroom Marfa

Artist epicenters, at least as they tend to be conjured in the popular imagination, rest somewhere on an axis between Keith Haring’sfrenetic, polyglot East Village and the bleeding edge bohemia of Palo Alto’s Perry Lane, as Tom Wolfe found it in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” A former railroad water stop in West Texas, 200 miles from El Paso—and about a million away from New York, LA, and every other recognized art capital—shouldn’t even register on that continuum. Yet Marfa, Texas (pop. 2,400) continues to capture more and more of the art world’s collective imagination, an improbably rich creative environment in the most unlikely of locations.

Marfa’s transformation from big sky backwater to art pilgrimage site begins, but certainly does not end, with Donald Judd. One of the major players in New York’s minimalist scene, Judd found respite in Marfa and began buying a considerable amount of local property, starting in the early 1970s, filling it with both his work and that of artists he admired. Following his death in 1994, the various real estate holdings fell under the administration of two foundations: Judd, which oversees the permanent living and working spaces of the late artist, and Chinati, which operates as a museum “based upon the ideas of its founder.”

That means that visitors to Marfa are greeted not only with Judd’s site-specific work (displayed in both converted artillery sheds and in the fields surrounding Chinati’s borders) but also with works by the likes of John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Richard Long, along with a limited exhibition schedule of contemporary artists and results from the Artist-in-Residence program. This potent mixture of modern giants existing alongside evolving talent has imbued Marfa with an anything-goes sensibility and the aesthetics to match, a combination remembered more often than actually found in most art enclaves today.

But for everything Marfa owes to Judd, it’s the current iteration of the town that holds the most promise of an art incubator beyond even the vision of its founder. Ballroom Marfa represents that next step: established in a converted 1927 dancehall, the multi-disciplinary space has a firm commitment to both artistic relationships and community involvement. “Ballroom’s role has been to bring in the contemporary [to Marfa],” says Erin Kimmel, associate curator at Ballroom Marfa. “Bringing in the most cutting-edge stuff that’s going on.” That includes film, music, and art, notably the 2005 “Prada Marfa” sculpture by Michael Elmgreen and IngarDragset, which saw the two artists create a full-sized, but non-functional, Prada boutique incongruously in the middle of Texas ranch country.

“It seems there are more people here every weekend,” observers Kimmel about Marfa’s rising profile, which with the constant transplant of new talent, visits from the art curious, and widening media spotlight, is sure to only increase. “When I got here, it was much more low-key. And now it feels like there are always people here.”

By: Michael Dougherty