Minimal, marvelous Marfa: avant-garde art, deep in Texas

March 6, 2012 9:38 am
  • Welcome to Marfa, a "mecca for cultural enlightenment."
    Welcome to Marfa, a "mecca for cultural enlightenment."
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MARFA, Texas -- On the road to Marfa, groves of pecan trees give way to border patrol stops and the buttercream plains of west Texas. Artist Donald Judd infected this high desert cattle town with East Coast sensibilities in the 1970s. Now it's an amazing outpost of the avant-garde.

Wanting to escape his pretentious patrons, Mr. Judd left the New York art scene and found his sanctuary on an old military base. He bought more than 300 acres of former Fort D.A. Russell, which was named for a Union officer killed during the Civil War and used first as a cavalry outpost in the early 1900s. During World War II, the fort was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Germans captured from Rommel's elite African Corps were sent there because, according to the Geneva Convention, prisoners should be held in a similar environment to where they were captured -- in this case, desert to desert.

Mr. Judd fitted two old artillery sheds with huge windows and an installation of aluminum cubes, each with the same dimensions but each one different. In a field beyond, he planted massive open concrete squares. Visitors are free to wander among and inside them.

If you go

Getting to Marfa is easy:

• Fly into El Paso or Midland/Odessa airports, rent a car and drive.

• If you fly into El Paso, be sure to stop at the various outlets for cowboy boots and Southwestern wear and jewelry along Interstate 10. Give yourself plenty of time; the pickin's are good.

Get a taste of the scenery in the Marfa area in a PG slideshow.

Though the artist was trying to escape, lovers of modern design followed him to Marfa, establishing the town as a kind of minimal mecca for cultural enlightenment. Art galleries and restaurants fit for those sophisticated palates sprung up.

Flying along U.S. Route 90, you know you are getting close when you spot a standalone Prada store on the right. Hit the brakes and back up because this sculpture of sorts constructed by artists Elmgreen and Dragset is worth a walk around. It's so incongruous surrounded by nothing but the occasional dirt devil and dry grass of the high Chihuahuan Desert that you are compelled to take pictures.

This is one of the oddities of the desert that can be explained. One that can't is known as the Marfa Mystery Lights. First noticed by pioneers, the phenomenon is just part of the desert panorama to the locals.

Patricia Sheridan: or 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at
First Published 2012-03-05 23:04:23

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