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Art oasis

A vibrant center of minimalist and contemporary art thrives in the Texas desert. Paul Alexander takes a panoramic view of the landscape.
TL0905MAR01Buff Strickland / Travel + Leisure
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A vibrant center of minimalist and contemporary art thrives in the Texas desert. Paul Alexander takes a panoramic view of the landscape.

You sit here and the whole world comes to you," Lynn Goode Crowley says as she sits in a chair near the front window of the Marfa Book Company. In this speck of a town in far west Texas (population 2,100), some 180 miles southeast of El Paso and 57 miles north of the Mexican border, Crowley's incongruously urbane bookstore–coffee shop is the unlikely center of civic and social activity. And because Marfa has become one of the hippest art communities in the country, almost anyone might wander through the front door. "Tommy Lee Jones has a ranch nearby," Crowley says. "One day, Ian Schrager came in and bought Hip Hotels, a book that includes his properties, from me! Then there was the time Julia Roberts came in and bought a CD. People magazine called to find out what CD she bought. So I said, 'I'm not sure. I think it was something by Lyle Lovett.' I thought I was being funny, but the reporter didn't get the joke."

Crowley and her husband, Tim—at the time, a successful Houston-based attorney—are the driving force behind the "new" Marfa. "In 1997, we passed through on the way to somewhere else," she says. Not an easy thing to do, since Marfa is in the middle of nowhere: to be exact, on a highland plain in an upper corner of the vast Chihuahuan Desert. To get to Marfa, you have to fly to either El Paso or Midland, rent a car, and drive for three hours (unless you have a private jet and fly into Marfa's minus­cule municipal airport). "We were driving back to Houston," Crowley explains, "and we stopped in Marfa. It was four o'clock in the morning—and as we stood in front of this old, abandoned grain warehouse I knew we needed to buy that building and come here."

The Crowleys did buy the building, which they renovated and converted into a theater—one of the best performance spaces in far west Texas. Over the next few years they also bought and renovated a half-dozen or so other buildings on or near Main Street, among them the former hotel that became the bookstore. They were not alone: in recent years, area businessman Joe Duncan purchased and restored the landmark Hotel Paisano, and Austin hotelier Liz Lambert, whose family has ties to west Texas, acquired the dilapidated Thunderbird and Capri motels. The redesigned 24-room Thunderbird juxtaposes contemporary design with Western touches—handcrafted furniture in pecan wood, cowhides on polished concrete floors. It opened early this year and will eventually expand into the Capri, across the street.

Marfa has also been overrun by art galleries. Drive through town and you see them everywhere: the Eugene Bender Gallery, Galleri ­Urbane Contemporary Art, Marfa Studio of Arts, and Ballroom Marfa. The official opening in April 2004 of Ballroom, an art space founded by Fairfax Dorn and Virginia Lebermann, was the social event of the season. "We have a love for west Texas and the landscape," Dorn says. "We were visiting Marfa and felt there needed to be a place where you could combine art, music, and film. That's what Ballroom Marfa does—it breaks down boundaries."

Just why Marfa has become an art mecca can be summed up in one name: Donald Judd. One of the most important minimalist artists to come out of the New York art world in the 1960's, Judd, having grown tired of living and working in the confines of the city, moved to Marfa in 1973. (He had been to Van Horn, 74 miles north of Marfa, in 1946 as a serviceman on his way from Alabama to Los Angeles en route to Korea; years later, in 1971, he had passed through Marfa.) In the late seventies, with the financial support of the Dia Foundation, an arts organization funded by Schlumberger heiress Philippa de Menil, Judd began buying up property in and around town—principally a 340-acre former army base called Fort D. A. Russell. Judd renamed the base the Art Museum of the Pecos and set out to establish permanent facilities to display his own work, along with pieces by fellow sculptor John Chamberlain and fluorescent-light works by Dan Flavin.

In the town itself, Judd, with Dia, bought the vacant 24,000-square-foot Wool & Mohair building. Renovations were overseen by Judd, and 22 of Chamberlain's car-wreck sculptures, dating from 1972 to 1983, were permanently installed. The Dia-Judd partnership ended in 1986 after a falling-out that was resolved—only when Judd threatened legal action—by Dia transferring the ownership of all its property and art in Marfa over to Judd. Judd then changed the institution's name to the Chinati Foundation, for the nearby mountain.

Judd bought a separate house in Marfa for his own living space, fenced it off, and called it the Block. In the late 1980's, as the sales and value of his artworks boomed, he began to buy up more and more of the town—the old Marfa National Bank, a supermarket, a grocery store. Ultimately, he owned nine buildings in Marfa, plus 34,000 acres and three houses outside town. After Judd's death, in 1994, oversight of the Chinati Foundation was assumed by Marianne Stockebrand, his companion during the last five years of his life, and Rob Weiner, his art assistant.

In time, Chinati's collection would feature an outdoor sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; works by Roni Horn and Ilya Kabakov; a multipart installation, occupying six U-shaped former army barracks, of colored ­fluorescent-light sculptures by Flavin named Untitled (Marfa Project), the artist's final work; and Judd's masterpiece—100 shimmering boxes, 41 by 51 by 72 inches, made of mill aluminum and displayed in two former artillery sheds, cavernous buildings that have had their doors replaced with huge glass windows to let the sun spill in. A companion work by Judd featuring 15 concrete boxlike forms is displayed outside the artillery sheds in a field.

Because of Judd, Flavin, and others, Marfa today is a pilgrimage site on the international art landscape. When it was founded, in 1883, its only relation to high culture was its name. A railroad engineer's wife who read Russian novels (in Russian) baptized the town with the name of a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. "At first, Marfa was a watering stop on the railroad," says Cecilia Thompson, the local historian. "But it soon became a cattleman's town, with the huge herds that came west in the decades following the Civil War." Marfa was still very much a rancher's outpost in 1930, when the Hotel Paisano, its most famous building, opened its doors. Designed by noted Southwest architect Henry Trost, who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, the Spanish colonial–­revival structure was based on Trost's design for the Hotel Valverde in Socorro, New Mexico, and marked by "red-tile roof parapets, delicate ironwork balconies, and areas of plasteresque ornament," as described in a published account of the hotel.

The high point of the Paisano's history came in 1955, when the cast and crew of Giant occupied the hotel during the film's three-month shoot in and around Marfa. "It was the most exciting thing we've had in Marfa in all these years," says Lucy Garcia, a town native who was one of a half-dozen teenagers to hang out at the hotel during the shoot. "Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor were here, but they were a little too big for Marfa. They gave us autographs but wouldn't allow any pictures. James Dean let us take pictures of him at the hotel and showed us the lasso rope trick he was learning for the movie. He told jokes. He had such a pretty giggle."

A drought in the fifties coincided with a collapse of the cattle industry and weakened the town's economy. Consequently, Judd was able to buy a lot of property in the community in the eighties. But he didn't do much with the buildings when he bought them. "Judd wanted to put his art in the natural landscape where it belonged. He did little, if anything, to the town as he bought it up," Thompson says. "Judd never mingled. He actually didn't make an impact on the town—its façade, that is. That wouldn't happen until Judd died and civic leaders like the Crowleys moved in. They actually invested in the town. Take Main Street, for example. They're responsible for waking it up." Part of that revitalization involves the Hotel Paisano. It fell into disrepair in the eighties and nineties. In 2001, Joe Duncan bought the building for back taxes ($185,000) and restored it to its original splendor. James Dean's suite looks just as it did 50 years ago—and there are still no telephones in the rooms.

Marfa is a place full of traditions. Judd himself inaugurated one of them in 1987: the annual Open House (this year, October 8 and 9). The town plays host to a party that includes art exhibitions, readings, lectures, a street dance, and, for 2005, a concert by the rock band Yo La Tengo. Though Open House almost doubles the town's population, all events and meals are free.

But the tradition that has come to define the city most is not even explainable. Every September (this year, September 2–4), a festival celebrates the Marfa Mystery Lights. Just outside town, at a certain bend in Route 90, you can stand on the side of the road in the desert and, looking south toward Mexico, see fleeting visions of light that flash about in the sky. First recorded in 1881 by a young cowboy named Robert P. Ellison, who was tending a herd of cattle and thought he had spotted the campfires of Apache Indians, the lights—still unaccounted for by science—appear and disappear, and seem to divide and travel in the night sky. Near the viewing site where you can best see the Marfa Mystery Lights, a plaque explains why they cannot be physically located: The flickering lights are "an unusual phenomenon similar to a miracle where atmospheric conditions produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air blend together so it can be seen from afar but not up close. The mystery of the lights will remain unsolved."

PAUL ALEXANDER is the author of six books and two plays. He writes often about politics for Rolling Stone.