Home of big skies and tumbleweeds, Marfa was built as a railroad stop in the 1880’s. With a population of 2,000 and a single stoplight, it has become an unlikely art destination. Today, high art and cowboy culture mix in this dusty little town, where blue chip art galleries sit next to honky-tonk bars.
Closer investigation reveals a 1927 dance hall converted into a contemporary art gallery at Ballroom Marfa, a small but burgeoning culinary scene, great shopping, and the sleek new minimalist Hotel Saint George atop the site of the original hotel built in 1886.
Marfa’s remote location, nestled between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park makes the trip a true art pilgrimage. It’s both the journey and the destination that make Marfa a great road trip. As you drive through the West Texas desert, surreal landscapes and endless skies draw you in. At once, you understand why artists flock here.
Marfa was transformed by the well-known minimalist artist Donald Judd in the 1970’s when he left the NYC art scene and set off in search of open spaces for his large-scale installations. The vastness of the West Texas landscape set the perfect backdrop for his work, so he purchased an old army base and settled in Marfa.
To truly understand Judd’s impact on this quirky center for minimalist art, start with visits to the the Judd and Chinati foundations. Experiencing both spaces in their entirety takes a commitment. Each offers full day tours which open up a window into Judd’s artistic perspective. Shorter tours are available that feature Judd’s work and life.
Next, visit the Chinati Foundation, a 3400 acre-museum, built by Judd with help from the renowned Dia Foundation. A 5-hour tour will give you access to the entire collection of minimalist greats- Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, Robert Irwin, and Dan Flavin. Self-guided tours are available for some of the collection. Judd’s 15 untitled works in concrete, stationed along a kilometer path on the grounds, can be viewed for free.
As you leave Marfa, little interrupts the landscape besides the unexpected site of what looks like a spaceship, but is actually a surveillance blimp tethered to apparent nothingness. Suddenly, you come upon an empty Prada store, sitting isolated on the side of an endless road. This is Prada Marfa, an instillation by Berlin-based artists Elmgreen and Dragset, a short drive away in Valentine. Coined by the artists as a “pop architectural land art project”, Prada Marfa has become a cultural landmark, epitomized by Beyoncé’s 2012 photo of her jumping in the road in front of the store, and copied by countless visitors since.
The mix of old and new are what make Marfa so appealing. It’s the perfect getaway for a long weekend. Or, you can explore the region with side treks to Big Bend or the McDonald Observatory. The best times to visit are in fall and spring when the weather is most temperate. Like any desert climate, days can be hot and sunny while nights might call for a sweater. Most of all, remember to bring your camera!