[PART TWO] Marfa: A History Lesson

Here in Marfa, Texas with Those Desert Eyes: THO


by Luke B. Goebel 

Marfa was established first as a water stop for trains heading to Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio. It was named after a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, by a wife of a railroad executive who was reading the novel when she encountered the town.

The Marfa population used to be many times larger than it is today. In 1930 the town had 3,909 residents and in the 1940’s the US stationed its Chemical Warfare Brigades in Marfa. During World War II there was an Air Force training base, and also a prisoner camp. The artillery sheds that now house Judd’s famous boxes, which are beautiful polished steel objects that optically fascinate and trick the eyes of the viewer, once held Nazis—200 Nazi German prisoners writing, “God, get us out of here” into the walls, where Judd’s 100 cubes now live. Their Nazi handwriting still etched into the walls… One box for every two Nazis.

Donald Judd was born in Missouri. After the war, he went to College of William and Mary and then transferred to Columbia where he studied philosophy. He began his artistic practice as a painter, later shifting to sculpture, furniture, and medium-large scale installation works. In 1968 Judd, already well established as an artist associated with minimalism, bought a five story cast-iron building on Spring Street in Manhattan, which he made his residence and study. He renovated each floor and installed his own art and the art of others he admired.

By the early seventies, Judd began making trips to Baja California and was drawn once again to the clean, empty desert landscape. By 1971 he had rented a house in Marfa, and later bought a 60,000-acre piece of land.

In 1979, with help from the Dia Art Foundation (which he later sued), Judd acquired a roughly 340-acre plot of desert near Marfa, Texas including abandoned buildings of the former U.S. Army Fort D. A. Russell. Those Nazis Tho! The Chinati Foundation, owned by Judd, opened on the site in 1986 as a non-profit art foundation, dedicated to Judd and his contemporaries. This land still holds a permanent collection of large-scale works by Judd, sculptor John Chamberlain, and annoying light sculptor Dan Flavin. Judd's work in Marfa is housed in those two anal-retentively restored artillery sheds. His office downtown is kept just as he left it, with his will and estate being planned so that not even his pencil can be moved.

"...Truly it is a stumbling upon a Disneyland, save for Walt having said Disneyland is never to be finished and is always evolving, another secret to discover, another phase of techno-capitalism always in store and being effectuated, Marfa remains sealed against the sands of time, in the desert, windswept..."

All this information kills the dream. We go to Marfa to see the wide wide streets, the long arms of the railroad gates, the giant masonic white painted brick and raw brick buildings, the old marquis of the Stardust Motel, the gleaming sweeping minimalism, the Spanish style church, the old courthouse, and all the curated effects of parks alongside the railroad tracks, the Crowley theater, old homes and the vast white block of the Donald Judd Foundation Building with reflecting gold glass windows that when you stare into them on a sunny hot summer desert day make you feel like you could be the mirage.

Without knowing that the town’s effects are controlled by the planning of the Chinati Foundation, we think we have stumbled upon something new—a ruggedly beautiful landscape and a minimalist town, sparse, pristinely arranged buildings and dirt streets, all featuring gems of restaurants, food trucks, hotels, little ravaged deserted foundations of homes, squatters, train hoppers, galleries!

Maybe we go to feel nostalgic—maybe we go to see an aesthetic of minimalism and intentional interaction with the environment—maybe we go because they voted out the police and there’s dirt streets and art.

Did you hear they voted out the cops in Marfa, yadda yadda, yucca, desert beach roses in bloom. Maybe what Marfa really is is a time capsule. The nostalgia that is Marfa, where we go to exalt conceptual art and minimalism, where we feel there is NO 2015, where a nostalgia not only of aesthetic of town but of high art as it once was, is no accident. It is purposeful and planned worship, veneration, ache. This was a planned space Judd spent much of his life creating and setting into perpetuity.

While the art and hipster chic world flocks to Marfa to see something they think, feel, sense is at the final frontier of the West, yearning for something outside, forever WEST, out of reach, out of now, some creative spell, some great flocking, truly it is a stumbling upon a Disneyland, save for Walt having said Disneyland is never to be finished and is always evolving, another secret to discover, another phase of techno-capitalism always in store and being effectuated, Marfa remains sealed against the sands of time, in the desert, windswept, save for the galleries continuing to feature bigger names, the housing costs rising, the popularity increasing, and the streets opening to new hotels, new galleries, new arrivals from NYC and LA buying second and third homes in Marfa. 


Fiction writer Luke B. Goebel is armed with wit and dangerous. He also carries a colt 45 pistol but that's the least of your worries. With an insatiable appetite for the dark, mystical phenomena of the American West, Goebel's writing has found him living for stretches in Marfa, Texas; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and many more landscapes that nourish his writing. Last year Goebel published his first novel, entitled Fourteen Stories: None of Them Are Yours, which won the Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction.