The Republic of Marfa

by Sean Wilsey

 

Isolation.

In the middle of what’s known as Far West Texas, there is Marfa: a hardscrabble ranching community in the upper Chihuahuan desert, sixty miles north of the Mexican border, that inhabits some of the most beautiful and intransigent countryside imaginable: inexhaustible sky over a high desert formed in the Permian period and left more or less alone since. It’s situated in one of the least populated sections of the contiguous United States, known locally as el despoblado (the uninhabited place), a twelve-hour car-and-plane trip from the east coast, and seven from the west. It is nowhere near any interstates, major cities, or significant non-military airfields; it hosts an active population of dangerous animals and insects (a gas station clerk died of a spider bite the summer I first visited); and its 2,424 inhabitants represent the densest concentration of people in a county that covers over 6,000 square miles—an area larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The isolation is such that if you laid out the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, and the deep ocean channels that separate them, on the road between Marfa and the East Texas of strip shopping and George Bush Jr., you’d still have 100 miles of blank highway stretching away in front of you.

         I’ve been in regular contact with the place since the summer of 1996—when my girlfriend, Daphne, was a reporter for the local weekly, The Big Bend Sentinel—visiting as often as possible, and witnessing some of the often volatile ways the town’s 2,424 people come together; having coalesced, through strange endeavor and coincidence, into a sort of city-state of cattlemen, artists, writers, fugitives, smugglers, free-thinkers, environmentalists, soldiers and secessionists—making Marfa home to what must be the most uncompromised contemporary art museum in the world; and, nineteen months ago, when a local teenager tending goats on a bluff above the nearby Rio Grande was shot by a Marine patrol, the site of the first civilian killing by American military personnel since Kent State.

 

 

Marfa is the name of the family servant in The Brothers Karamazov, the book a railway overseer’s wife was reading when an unnamed water stop became a town in 1881. This frontierswoman was reading the book a year after its initial publication in Russian, the same year Billy the Kid was shot dead in nearby New Mexico, and during the extended period of border uneasiness that followed the Mexican-American war. But such circumstances are typically Marfan. The town attracts the bizarre: Some of the first documentation of the area comes from Indian and pioneer accounts, in the 1800s, of flashing, mobile, seemingly animate luminescences on the horizon—the Marfa Mystery Lights, unexplained optical phenomena that are still observed from a pull-off on the outskirts of town, where a crowd seems to appear every night to socialize. And until the mid-70s the lights were the main attraction. Then the minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa, exiling himself from what he termed the “glib and harsh” New York art scene, in order to live in a sort of high plains laboratory devoted to building, sculpture, furniture design, museology, conservation, and a dash of ranching, until his death in 1994.

         Last April the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum Judd founded in the late ’70s, and named after a nearby mountain range, invited architects and artists to come to Marfa and discuss the future of collaboration between the two disciplines. Billed as a symposium, it was more like a conflagration. Among the participants were Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum had recently opened in Bilbao, Spain (architect Philip Johnson has since declared it “the greatest building of our time”); the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, engaged in a massive and controversial expansion of the Tate Gallery in London; the light and space artist Robert Irwin, who had just taken an unexpected creative detour and designed the garden for the Getty Center in Los Angeles; Roni Horn, a wily New York conceptualist who sculpts with words (she’s plastic-cast adjectives that describe both emotions and weather and embedded them in the structure of a German meteorological bureau); and the pop artist (and deadpan comedian) Claes Oldenburg. This group spent two days in el despoblado showing slides and talking about their work, while two art historians—James Ackerman from Harvard, a hoary emeritus type, and Michael Benedikt from the University of Texas, a searing and somewhat humorless postmodernist—weighed in in a critical capacity, paid homage to Donald Judd, and attempted to shut everyone up. Daphne (her last name is Beal) had assignments to write about it for a couple of architecture magazines, and I went along. They were expecting 600 people, and I was curious to observe what a 25 percent increase in Marfa’s population might produce—the equivalent of 2 million ranchers suddenly arriving for a weekend in Manhattan.

 

 

Marfa sits in what seems like ground zero of an ancient impact site—a wide plain with mountain ranges surrounding it at an equidistant remove of about 30 miles. To the west lie the Sierra Vieja, to the north the Davis. The Glass, Del Norte, and Santiago (as well as an extinct volcano) are to the east, the Chinati to the south. These mountains run down to the high desert of cacti and yellow grassland around Marfa, framing an oceanic West Texas sky, with virtually nothing in the way of buildings or tall trees to interrupt it. The result is a big basin full of light and dry heat, where every object takes on a peculiar definition; shapes clarified and detailed, shadows standing out in perfect relief.

         The town itself is a rectangle 16 blocks high by 20 wide, with Mexican and Anglo cemeteries (separated by a fence) on the west end, a golf course (highest elevation in Texas) on the east, and satellite neighborhoods protruding to the south and northeast like radar arrays. It contains unexpected delfs and shadows, grand old homes behind tree-shaded lawns, century-old structures whose adobe disintegrates at any elemental provocation, and disused industrial buildings with aluminum siding that ticks in the heat. It operates in a state of oblivion to all the high-concept art that is made and displayed there. The two restaurants, Mike’s and Carmen’s, are full of ranchers, workmen and border patrol. The two bars do decent business—there’s no open-container law in Texas, and both have takeout windows. The streets are wide and for the most part empty.

         In order to get to Marfa you fly into either El Paso or Midland/Odessa. Of course, there’s almost never a direct flight, so after landing in Dallas or Houston you get on a small twin-prop plane. When Daphne flew down to work at the Sentinel the editors met her in Midland. After shaking hands she ran into the bathroom and vomited. When I went down to visit I couldn’t wait till landing and had to throw up on the plane.

 

 

Unforced Excommunication,

Forced Communication.

Donald Judd, a cantankerous Scotsblood Midwesterner with a fondness for kilts, had all the fame, respect and financial recompense a visual artist could hope for when he relegated his five-story cast-iron residence in SoHo to the status of a pied-à-terre and abandoned New York for Marfa in 1976.

         This was a man with a hankering for space—not to say empire. A book devoted exclusively to Judd’s many homes and buildings, Donald Judd Spaces, runs to more than 100 pages and contains fifteen different beds (less than half the total). Judd held that a bed should always be convenient to a place people might even passingly abide. When he arrived in Marfa he set up residence in two WWI aircraft hangers and proceeded to buy the bank, a 300-acre former cavalry base (now the Chinati Foundation), three ranches (with a total acreage of 38,000), a mohair warehouse, the Safeway, the Marfa Hotel, a handful of light-manufacturing and commercial buildings, six homes from around the turn of the century, and the Marfa hot springs. By the early ’90s he was planning on bottling Marfa water (which is said to contain traces of natural lithium), shipping it to New York, and selling it at Dean and Deluca.

         Judd’s philosophy was both ascetic and profligate—a paradoxical combination of simplicity and mass consumption. He bought everything he could lay his hands on with money from art he’d made with his own two hands. He had an almost feudal arrangement with Marfa, employing a workforce that for a time outnumbered the municipal payroll (and over which I’ve always unfairly—I have no evidence of such a thing—imagined him exercising some kind of droit du seigneur, what with all those beds). Because of the controlled surroundings he created by purchasing whole buildings and stretches of land, his art in Marfa ingeniously extends its own boundaries to include entire rooms, structures and vistas.

 

 

The Brothers Karamazov is a novel about a murder and a family’s convoluted relations, played out in a small town. The transposition from the novel’s unnamed Russian village to present day Marfa is an easy one to make. The way the brothers talk to each other—in grandiloquent outbursts of “excitement” or grave silences full of “strain”—reminds me of how Marfans communicate. Much of the town’s emotion, as expressed in the Sentinel’s letters column, is reminiscent of that in the book. One man, writing about Marfa’s segregated Anglo/Mexican cemetery, declared it “a slap in the face to humanity.” A woman, dissecting an exploitative nuclear waste agreement Texas signed with some eastern states, concluded “We could have made this same compact with a dog.”

         Marfa’s mood is Dostoyevsky’s. The book and the town contain the same sort of devotion, and the same sort of outrage.

 

 

In Marfa, the people are restrained, disinclined to conversation, courteous, fractious, and, when they wish to be, extremely generous. There is also a good deal of public eccentricity. A woman roams the streets, roads, and surrounding desert with all her possessions tied to the back of a pack animal. Sometimes she’s way out on the blacktop between Marfa and the mountains. Other times she’s ambling through town, taking a short cut across the concrete apron of the Texaco station. She sleeps out in the open, wherever she happens to be when the sun sets, and bears more than a passing resemblance to another character from The Brothers Karamazov, Stinking Lisaveta, who wandered Dostoyevsky’s small town back alleys, sleeping “on the ground and in the mud.” Marfans call her the “Burro Lady.” And she’s one of many descriptions and details in the novel that apply almost word-for-word to Marfa. (Although, according to legend, the Burro Lady, unlike Stinking Lisaveta, does have a companion of sorts. A rogue steer drifts through the countryside—the symbol of an unpunished frontier crime. It’s supposed to be immortal, and, as a sort of harbinger, it only shows itself to cursed souls: a brand burned into its entire flank, from shoulder to rump, reads “MURDER.”)

         The town is also a place where mundane interactions unexpectedly take turns for the surreal. Daphne and I once got our car fixed by a gas station attendant who, when I told him I smelled something weird when the car got hot, simply said, “Let’s take a look at that sum-bitchie,” popped the hood, rooted around for awhile, ripped something that looked like a dead snake out of the engine with a flourish (it turned out to be the a/c belt), threw it over his shoulder, and chuckled “re-paired.” In a travelogue by Scottish novelist Duncan McLean, something distinctly Marfan happens when the author checks out of the El Paisano, the only hotel in town:

 

I stubbed my toe against some clunky bit of litter lying on the sidewalk. It went skittering away in front of me and stopped a metre ahead, long glinting barrel pointing straight at me: A GUN. Next thing I knew I was back at the Paisano’s desk, banging on the bell and babbling away to the clerk… “it’s out there, a pistol, come on, come on”…

      The clerk ducked through a hatch in the counter and walked out of the lobby....

      “There,” I said. “See it?”…

      He held up a hand for me to stay, took a step forward, and peeped over my shoulder-bag.

      “Ha!” He exhaled.

      “What is it?”

      He leant over, snatched up the pistol, and turned back towards me.

      “You call this a gun?” he said, and laughed.

      “Eh… yeah.”

      He flicked some kind of catch, then pushed the revolving magazine out sideways.

      “This ain’t no real gun,” he said.

      “What then? An imitation?”

      He tilted up the pistol so a shower of little silver bullets fell out and on to his palm.

      “This here’s a lady’s gun,” he said… “Couldn’t kill shit.”

 

         When Daphne first arrived, and was living at Chinati, a cowboy gave her a lift into town in his truck. He was a craggy guy in his late 50s who broke horses and raised livestock. When the conversation turned to why he’d settled in Marfa 20 years before, he said it was because the town had a “genius loci.” It was an expression neither of us had ever heard before, and when we looked it up we found it strangely faithful to the peculiarity that animates the town. In Latin, it means “genius of the place.” “Genius,” (says the OED) when applied to a locale, indicates “a presiding deity or spirit.”

         It’s true—something about the landscape, the strange goings-on, the balance between population and depopulation, lends credence to the belief that Marfa didn’t just happen this way—that some unseen force presides.

 

 

Renegade Tendencies.

The Big Bend Sentinel arrives in New York a couple weeks after it’s printed in Pecos (100 miles to the north, the nearest town with a printer). The core of its news is crime and the border, with a lot of art, armed forces (jet training for the German and U.S. air forces occurs in county airspace), sports, agriculture, and animal husbandry thrown in. the Sentinel covers all of these subjects with curiosity and seriousness, and after a few years of reading it, I’m starting to think it’s possible to learn more about the state of the world from a carefully reported small paper than from any other source.

         Here are some of the stranger, more significant recent stories:

         In 1996, people with multiple chemical sensitivity, a disease whose sufferers take ill when exposed to synthetic materials, began living in the hills near Marfa and building an all-natural commune—until the members of a yearly Bible retreat (one of the oldest of its kind) arrived upwind and began their annual spraying of Malathion, a DDT-style pesticide that caused the Chemical Sensitives to become violently ill, and engage with the religious group in a small war of ideology and incommunication.  Compassion for the sick was ultimately rejected, because it was inconvenient to pray with the mosquitoes.

         On a spring night in 1997 a band of Marines on a drug interdiction sortie (part of what locals call the “militarization” of the U.S.-Mexico border) spent twenty minutes tracking Esequiel Hernandez Jr., a young goatherd who carried a vintage WWI rifle to keep coyotes away from his flock. For some reason Hernandez raised the rifle, in what evidence shows to have been the opposite direction from the marines, one of whom then shot him “in self-defense.” The boy bled to death for 20 minutes before the soldiers summoned help. When a deputy sheriff arrived the Marines said that Hernandez hurt himself “falling into a well.” Unfortunately, soldiers have been a constant presence in the county since the Reagan administration circumvented a law prohibiting military involvement in domestic law-enforcement, and this event, though it enraged the populous, has had little long-term impact on the situation. Last fall the defense department, which still denies any wrongdoing, paid the Hernandez family more than $1 million and washed its hands.

         Over the last four years the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority has attempted to push through legislation for a nuclear dump less than two-hundred miles west of Marfa, on a site that, aside from being both a geological fault line and a watershed for the Rio Grande, is inhabited by an impoverished, not particularly educated populace, key members of which proved amenable to various forms of bribery. The dump looked like a neatly done deal, until an unlikely group of zealous activists (one of them Gary Oliver, the Sentinel’s excellent—and legally blind—cartoonist) galvanized the entire six-county area of Far West Texas, as well as a large delegation from the Mexican government, and the measure was defeated. It seemed like a miracle.

         A few months ago a local man survived a gas explosion which blew off his roof and knocked down the walls of his house—a story I followed from mystery occurrence, to medical emergency, to amazing recovery, to possible criminal prosecution (he was trying to gas himself, which made the property damage negligent), and, lately, into the real estate column.

         About every other week there’s a 400-pound bale of marijuana found on the roadside, an ad taken out by the county informing someone they are “Hereby Commanded” to appear in court, or a violent fugitive on the lam. (Fugitives are another Dostoyevskian touch. In The Brothers Karamazov, there is “a horrible convict who had just escaped from the provincial prison, and was secretly living in our town.”) The bank in Van Horn, about 100 miles to the west, went through a period in 1996 when it was robbed every few weeks. Former Marfa Sheriff Rick Thompson is serving a life sentence for smuggling more than a ton of cocaine out of Mexico—he’s referred to as “the cocaine sheriff.” The Unabomber, whose brother owns property in the area, carried on a lengthy and passionate correspondence with a Mexican campesino just over the border.

         The Sentinel also contains an outspoken, thoughtful, varied, occasionally bombastic opinion section, with letters from the likes of “Crazy Bear,” George “Pepper” Brown (who for some reason is the honorary mayor of Wellfleet, Mass., though he lives near Marfa, and his letters to Robert Halpern, the Sentinel’s editor, all begin “Roberto, amigo”), and many members of the large Mexican-American community—names like Lujan and Cabezuela are characteristic—published side-by-side with a sort of rustic philosophical observation cum-chitchat-column called “Wool Gathering,” by Mary Katherine Metcalfe Earney. “Wool Gathering” is filed from the retirement home, and can take some strange turns. One meandering edition about a pleasant visit to Delaware and Philadelphia, seeing lapsed Marfans, ended like this, “On the return to Dallas and in between planes, I was stabbed in the hand by an angry woman…”

         On the back page there’s a section for classified ads and public notices. There’s a column for mobile homes, a column for garage sales, a column of miscellany (“about 20 goats, all sizes”), and a half page of real estate. Daphne and I often check to see what houses are going for (usually around $60,000 for a few acres and a couple bedrooms). We imagine moving down to Marfa, becoming some sort of ranch hands, reporting for the Sentinel or the daily paper in San Angelo, a town of 100,000 about 200 miles to the northeast, which used to pick up her stories, and living in the “Judd way,” which we’ve convinced ourselves involves a pure ascetic harmony with the surroundings.

         In fact, Donald Judd, for all his land-grabbing, became something of a holy man. His masterpiece in Marfa is an installation of 100 milled aluminum boxes—each of the exact same volume (about that of a restaurant stove), but with wildly different interiors, full of sloping metal planes and odd angles. The boxes fill two former artillery sheds that he opened up to the Texas plains with huge windows along their sides, and capped with Quonset roofs. During the day the sheds fill with sun and the boxes warp and change and reflect the landscape. At night they turn liquid in the moonlight. In the distance, between the sheds and the far-off silhouette of the Chinati mountains, Judd placed 15 rectangular boxes, each about 10 feet tall, which further link the site to the landscape. This was the artist’s favorite (Karamazovian) story about the piece: After a tour, a Jesuit priest turned to him and said, “You and I are in the same business.”

         And Chinati, just outside town, also seems pulled from The Brothers Karamazov, resembling the “neighboring monastery“ that “crowds of pilgrims … from thousands of miles, come flocking to see” with Judd—or the spirit of Judd—the presiding elder, called Zosima in the book, responsible for the “great glory” that has come to the place.

         By the time he died, Judd had changed from a sculptor into an almost monastic figure. He was living in deep seclusion, on the remotest of his ranches in the high desert, without electricity, close to the border, surrounded by books on art, philosophy, history and local ecology. “My first and largest interest is in my relation to the natural world,” he wrote during this period. “All of it, all the way out. This interest includes my existence … the existence of everything and the space and time that is created by the existing things.”

 

Desert Picnics.

Approaching Marfa the temperamentality in the local landscape quickly becomes apparent. There’s an old cowboy poem about a “place where mountains float it the air,” which may be a reference to the mirages that the dry Marfan climate is known to produce. A local man recalls seeing “the entire [nearby] town of Valentine appearing in the morning sky.” Another claims to have seen “the apparition of a Mexican village in the still-light sky just after sunset.” It rarely rains, but when it does the sky is transformed, going from its usual big serene blue to the purple-black of a deep bruise—and letting loose so much precipitation that water suddenly runs in rivers through the streets. You can see it all coming a hundred miles off, like a train down a straight line of track. At night there’s a great heaping feast of stars, and meteor showers—“like confetti” is how Daphne puts it—are a regular event.

         Sometimes the sun is so bright that you can’t see. I first noticed this while driving back from Balmorhea, a town with a vast spring-fed swimming pool (and ranch-hand brothels) over the mountains about 50 miles north of Marfa. It’s typical in Far West Texas to drive 100 miles just to have something to do, the way the rest of the country goes to the movies, and in Balmorhea Daphne and I’d run into some other people from Marfa and spent the day talking in the shade. Coming back, Daphne drove and I stared out the window. As we started coming out of the flatland, up through the Davis Mountains, where the two-lane road twists through a canyon and the desert terrain gives way a bit, I noticed a tree, a salt cedar or something—the first green I’d seen since leaving the pool—standing out with a sort of fluorescent brightness against the canyon’s brown rock and scrub. When I pulled off my sunglasses the color disappeared. With a naked eye the tree looked pale, burnt and exhausted—almost translucent. The sunlight was so strong that it was shining right through it. But when I put the sunglasses back on the light receded and the tree reappeared—standing out like it was on fire.

         Besides the sparse trees, which are more common in town, the terrain supports myriad cacti: yucca and cholla in abundance, but also the odd horse crippler (a nasty, horizontally-inclined weed that looks like an unsprung bear trap); nopolito, a cactus with flat pads that are de-spined and sold in fruit bins outside the gas stations; ocotillo, a subaquatic-looking plant with wavy tentacles and sharp thorns that suggests an octopus crossed with a blowfish; and lots of juniper and mesquite. The cholla, or prickly pear, is a thicker, less primordial variant on the ocotillo, with leaves like a pineapple’s, and the yucca is a bush with aloe-like spines, each about two feet long. When yucca bloom, a seven-foot rod shoots out of the center and bursts into a brilliant yellow flower that stands out brightly, like a flare in the landscape, sunglasses or no.

 

 

There are four roads out of Marfa. One leads to Valentine, a comatose place with a post office that receives bags of mail in early February from all over the country, to be reposted before the 14th. A second leads to Shafter, a ghost town waiting for either the governor’s order to abolish it or the price of silver to hit $6 an ounce (it’s now at $5.30), so as to make it worthwhile for an interested mining concern to tap a vein that was abandoned during World War II. The third road leads to the area’s only theater, in Alpine, and the campus of Sul Ross State University, which offers degrees in Range Animal Science, and is the birthplace of intercollegiate rodeo. The last leads to Fort Davis, a boutique town with an observatory dedicated to the spectroscopic analysis of light.

         Technically, there’s a fifth road, through Pinto Canyon, which leads out of Marfa to the southwest, in the direction of Judd’s main ranch, and winds up on the border in a town called Ruidosa (though “town” is an exaggeration, as there isn’t a single amenity in Ruidosa, besides the road, it’s more like an encampment). Leaving Marfa down Pinto Canyon, you see a sign that reads, “Pavement ends 32 miles.” My one experience driving the length of this road was unnerving in the extreme. About an hour out, halfway between Marfa and the Rio Grande, having seen no other cars, we decided to stop where the road crossed a dry creek-bed. This was long after the pavement had ended. The scenery looked a lot like the ocean floor. The temperature was in the nineties. We’d packed a picnic of avocado sandwiches, Lone Star beer, and some local cheese called osadero; we spied some tired-looking bushes—the only non-cactus shade in sight—and figured to have lunch under them. After shutting the car off we trudged about 400 feet down the dry creek bed (I was thinking flash-flood, which is something the area’s known for). Away from the road—which was only a spit through the wilderness at this point—we set down our cooler and got out our food. We started to eat without saying much of anything—the silence was so immense it suppressed any conversational impulse.

         The picnic was scuttled 15 minutes later when we heard the sound of someone trying to hotwire our car. The starter whined, but the engine wouldn’t catch. We looked at each other for an instant, and then jumped up and started tearing back up the creek bed, afraid of being stuck out there more than whatever we might find. I got there first, in a gasping, adrenaline choked rush, and found the car sitting where we’d left it, and with no one in sight. Daphne ran back, packed up our stuff, and we got the hell out of there fast. Whoever was out in that desert on foot, crossing into the US, had to want a car with Texas plates—bad. All we could think was that they gave up trying when they heard us crashing down the creek, thinking to avoid a confrontation: even if the motor caught, the car was headed towards Mexico, and with the road disintegrating into sharp rubble and cacti a foot to either side, there was no obvious way to turn it around.

 

 

For the symposium, we came in from the south, via Shafter, and after checking into the Thunderbird Motel, we dragged some chairs outside and watched the motor court fill up with rental cars. Since the Thunderbird’s amenities include a plentiful ice machine, we filled a cooler we’d brought and sat out on a concrete walk beneath an overhang for half an hour. Then we went to check out the town. Rob Weiner, Judd’s old assistant, who used to spend his every waking hour with Judd and has stayed on in Marfa, stopped his car to say hello. He knew Daphne well when she lived there, and we became friends after I first visited. His causticity and sense of amusement about most things Marfan is combined with a huge knowledge and passion for the place, and if Marfa turns into an art community, he’ll have a lot to do with it. He told us that we might be able to stay in a foundation building later that weekend.

         At an ad-hoc Chinati Foundation store, which was selling books on all the lecturers in the symposium as well as on the work of artists Judd admired and permanently installed in Marfa (Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Richard Long, Ilya Kabakov and John Chamberlain), we fell into conversation with our first non-Marfan, a half-American-Indian reporter from the Houston Press named Shaila. She had driven from Houston and was camping out in the Marfa trailer park.

         “Gehry is God,” she told us.

         Not in Marfa, I thought. God’s Judd.

         After that we went by the paper to see Robert Halpern and his wife Rosario, who were busy with an issue but invited us to dinner with the newspaper staff, their kids, and Rusty Taylor, the former chief of police, all of whom had recently been involved in a characteristically unusual chapter in Marfa history.

         In July 1996, a photograph in the Sentinel showed a tall, lean, rangy-looking man with a circle of white hair wearing a T-shirt that said “Ask Me about The Republic of Texas.” This was Richard McLaren, described by his neighbors as “capable of tremendous violence,” a man who, arguing a legal technicality in an 1845 annexation document, considered himself chief ambassador, consul general, and sovereign of the independent nation of Texas. McLaren had become a bullying presence in the hills north of Marfa, given to threats and harassment, filing false liens against property, passing bogus scrip, and accumulating weapons. That day he and his followers were having a picnic in celebration of “captive nations week,” a propaganda occasion established under Eisenhower in the late ’50s to foster dissent under communist dictatorships. In the background could be seen two police cruisers: Rusty Taylor, a couple dozen Texas rangers and other lawmen were keeping an eye on the situation.

         Less than a year later, in the spring of 1997, three R.O.T. conscripts, dressed in camouflage and carrying assault weapons, stalked through the mountains from McLaren’s trailer home to the house of his nearest neighbors, Joe Rowe—former president of the local neighborhood association—and his wife Margaret Ann. When they arrived in the yard they opened fire on the house, sending shrapnel into Mr. Rowe’s shoulder, then burst through the door and struck him with a rifle butt, breaking his arm. With the Rowes subdued, the intruders made some long-distance calls, took all the food they could carry (leaving $40 as compensation) and brought their hostages back to McLaren’s trailer, from which the group issued a communique describing the action as reprisal for the arrest earlier that morning of another Republic of Texas member, Robert Scheidt, on charges of carrying illegal weapons. McLaren declared war on the United States, and named the Rowes as his first prisoners. Showing considerable restraint, police in Marfa agreed to release Scheidt in exchange for the Rowes, and a trade was made that left the group isolated in their trailer, several miles up a dirt road, surrounded by SWAT teams and Texas rangers.

         McLaren had prepared for such an occasion by digging a series of bunkers and stockpiling more than 60 pipe bombs, a dozen or so gasoline cans, 10 long rifles, several pistols, and 500 to 700 rounds of ammunition. He swore to fight to the end, and issued a grandiloquent statement evoking the diary of William B. Travis, commander at the Alamo in 1836: “Everyone has chosen to stay and hold the sovereign soil of the Republic and its foreign missions. I pray reinforcements arrive before they overrun the embassy.” He would wage an Alamo-style fight to the death. He would kill as many officers as possible. As police reinforcements continued to arrive, McLaren got on the shortwave radio and broadcast: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Hostiles are invading the Republic of Texas embassy. We have hostiles in the woods.’’

         After a few days, though, McLaren began to soften. He conceded that he could surrender if the rules of war were applied and the U.S. agreed to treat him under the rules of the Geneva Convention, allowing an appeal to the United Nations. This eventually led to his signing a “Texas-wide cease-fire document,” essentially an unconditional surrender, with a proviso that the embassy be respected, which he understood to mean that the Republic flag, a lone yellow star on a blue field, would continue to fly—it was lowered and replaced by the Texas flag, in what a local fireman described as an “Iwo Jima-style ceremony.” McLaren and four others lay down their weapons (though, arriving in Marfa, one of them shouted, “I was captured, not surrendered, and I’m ashamed I didn’t die”). Two other members went renegade and retreated into the hills with rifles and small arms. They were pursued by hounds, all of which they shot. Helicopters then tracked the pair into more remote terrain, and when they were fired upon, police snipers shot back and killed one man. The other, Richard Keyes III, who had quit a job at a Kansas bathroom-equipment manufacturer just weeks before these events, managed to escape. He basically evanesced. Come summer he was still at large. One newspaper called him “a West Texas version of D. B. Cooper,” a hijacker in the early ’70s who parachuted out of a 727 with $200,000 in ransom money and was never heard from again.

         But a reporter for Mother Jones magazine did hear from Keyes, or a man claiming (quite credibly) to be Keyes. He defended the kidnapping of the Rowes, and noted that after the attack they’d subsequently called a doctor, who’d refused to help, because “he was concerned about a house full of armed fruitcakes.” Touching on the fact that the assailants had left the Rowes payment for food and phone calls, the man declared “They were fully compensated for what happened, except for the fact that they had a rather bad day.” He also said that he was safely outside the United States, which turned out to mean that he was still in Texas. After five months on the run, Keyes was captured in Houston.

         As for McLaren, before the surrender he made sure that his international cease-fire agreement also included a conjugal visit with a woman he’d “married” a short time before, in a service binding only under the laws of the Republic of Texas. She was also under arrest for her involvement in the siege, so following arraignment by the Marfa Justice of the Peace, Cinderella Gonzalez, the two were put in the same cell.

         In the lonely days that followed, while awaiting trial, McLaren took to writing florid letters to the Sentinel, calling his “challenge to gain national independence … the best-executed legal presentation that has ever been accomplished in the 20th century.” He also described his predicament in Marfa as that of a “prisoner of war” being held in the “king’s jails.” More than a few locals have expressed disappointment that he was not killed during the siege.

         As Daphne and I left the Sentinel and stepped onto Highland Avenue, the main street in town, we could see the old courthouse, with its cupola, coffered ceiling, and yard of sprawling almond trees. It’s crowned by a statue of justice, which, legend has it, lost her scales sometime in the ’20s, after a hungover cowboy, fresh out of jail and reunited with his six-guns, shot them out of her hands, yelling, “Thar ain’t no justice in this goddamn county.”

 

Conflagrations.

The next morning, 600 artists, art historians, architects, critics, journalists, and a few townspeople assembled under the corrugated tin roof of a former ice plant in a neighborhood called Salsipuedes (“get out if you can”). The place was so full that they’d dragged in extra chairs from the local veterans society with phrases like “AMVETS Salutes USO Post 65 with Pride” stenciled on their backs. Opening the proceedings, James Ackerman, the art historian from Harvard, tried to temper the Judd idolatry by describing the artist as a man “at war” with architecture, given less to collaboration than to “fulminations against architecture in our time.”

         A big man was seated across the aisle from me. It was Frank Gehry, looking a lot like somebody’s Palm Springs grandfather. He was wearing old loafers that needed a shine, a white button-down shirt, gray suit pants and a sport jacket. When the architect Jacques Herzog—thin, hip, dressed with a Swiss meticulousness, completely in black, Gehry’s aesthetic opposite—got up to give a detailed lecture, I watched Gehry. Herzog explained the process of “tattooing” photographs to concrete in order to give his buildings variegated surfaces. He’d been talking for half an hour when an El Paso-bound train came by and drowned him out for a minute. I glanced over at Gehry. He seemed aggravated. When Herzog resumed lecturing and began a long series of slides on the expansion of the Tate Gallery, Gehry, brow furrowed, started fidgeting with a pencil. The next time I looked, he was up and gone. Herzog continued lecturing for a few minutes until the director of Chinati suddenly cut him off. It seemed like Gehry had heard enough from his competition and put an end to it.

         That afternoon, an ornery vibe intensified, and some Judd-style “fulminating” commenced when the artists took the stage. Robert Irwin, opening his lecture with a sustained tangent about art history, endeavored to make it clear that he didn’t believe in anything beyond modernism. “Postmodernism: If that isn’t a red herring I’ll kiss your ass,” he hollered. He then proceeded to slam Richard Meier, the principal architect on the Getty Center project, saying, “I chewed him up and left him for dead… Though you’d never define a collaboration in that way.”

         It was around this time that I heard a groan. It wasn’t Gehry, but Shaila, from the Houston Press, who had fainted from the slowly intensifying heat. Daphne had to help her outside. When Shaila filed her piece she would blame the incident on side effects associated with her stay in the Marfa trailer park, and its limited culinary options: “the smell of my own road fare farts.” But at the time we were happily unaware of her condition.

         And during all this commotion Irwin didn’t ever slow down. Animated with a sort of giddy, profane enthusiasm, the artist reveled in some of the stranger details of his work. He described his relations with his horticultural consultants on the Getty Center garden as “spending a lot of time going to nurseries and hugging each other.” As evidence of his attention to minutiae he said that he’d made certain that benches in the garden would “feel good on your ass.” He then explained that he’d fashioned the stream that runs through the garden with heavy stonework because “I didn’t want it to look like some gay bathroom.” With this a disapproving rumble came over the ice plant. (Later, when questioned about the gay bathroom comment, Irwin was both apologetic and cagey. “I don’t get out much. I’m an artist,” he explained.)

         The next speaker, Michael Benedikt, the postmodernist, riveted Irwin through his spectacles and said “Modernism is male and macho. And that’s the problem with it.”

         After castigating Irwin, Benedikt called the work of making art a “religious project,” and delivered a lecture that delved into the Old Testament. In Benedikt’s mind, the burning bush that Moses encountered in the desert was, like successful art, “burning with its own authenticity.” Then we were released for dinner at Chinati.

 

 

 

Standing in line for food, a man was saying, “We need to maximize returns for the whole Marfa concept.” This was Judd’s old lawyer, John Jerome. Dinner was brisket and Shiner Bock beer in the Arena, a former army gymnasium that Judd rehabilitated. It’s difficult to say what exactly the “Marfa concept” might be. For Judd it meant control: of his surroundings, of his art, of the company he kept. As the Russian installation artist Ilya Kabakov noted, “When I first came to Marfa, my biggest impression was the unbelievable combination of estrangement, similar to a holy place, and at the same time of unbelievable attention to the life of the works there. For me it was like some sort of Tibetan monastery; there were no material things at all, none of the hubbub of our everyday lives. It was… a world for art.” (Although I don’t think that’s what Jerome meant.)

         But Kabakov’s presence in Marfa alters the concept significantly. Kabakov, whose installation is completely different from all the other major pieces in Marfa, was an underground artist in the Soviet Union who began to exhibit in the West only in the late ’80s. In the early ’90s Judd invited him to come to Marfa and do a piece. Kabakov was “astounded.” The haunting result is “School No. 6,” a replica of an entire communist-era Russian grade school—desks, display cases, lesson plans, Cyrillic text books, musical instruments—installed in a Chinati barracks, exposed to the elements, and encouraged to decay. “Of course there was nothing more awful than the Soviet school, with all of its discipline, abomination and militarization,” he has said of the work. “But now that that system has collapsed and left behind only ruins, it evokes the same kind of nostalgic feelings as a ruined temple.” It also has its serene, even spiritual overtones. As he describes it: “The entire space of the school is flooded with sunshine and quiet. Sunny squares lie on the school floor. The blue sky is visible in the empty apertures. From all of this, the neglect reigning all around does not seem so cheerless and depressing.” The installation plays the trick of turning Marfa into Russia. And Kabakov’s description of its mood is akin to one in The Brothers Karamazov wherein the youngest brother repeatedly recalls his mother’s face, but always in “the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all).”

         In discussing another one of his installations Kabakov’s has said that “everything that we see around us, everything that we discover in our past, or which could possibly comprise the future—all of this is a limitless world of projects.” Though he seems to mean it somewhat ironically, the statement pairs nicely with Judd’s writing about his interest in the natural world, “all of it, all the way out.” A radically different interpretation of the same artistic impulse.

         So Kabakov is also part of the “Marfa concept.”

         And the concept—no matter which of the seminal events or legends in the town’s history one follows—always has to do with light.

         Light, in fact, is Marfa’s last name. Marfa Ignatievna—meaning daughter of Ignatius, which, according to a dictionary of names, is derived from the Latin word ignis, meaning fire. Ignatievna can be broken down to mean “daughter of fire.” According to Dostoyevsky, the character is “not a stupid woman,” and early in The Brothers Karamazov she gives rise to “a strange, unexpected and original occurrence”—the birth of a boy that her superstitious husband fears, calls a “dragon”—fire-breathing, presumably—and refuses to care for. When the baby dies, Marfa takes it stoically. Aside from not being stupid, she’s a stoical lady—two desirable qualities in a frontierswoman. And since the woman who named the town after this character must have been reading the book in the original Russian—the first translation, into German, wasn’t until 1884, and the English version didn’t appear until 1912—she could not have been unaware of the name’s significance.

         After going through the food line, Daphne and I sat down with some of the staff and artists in residence at Chinati, who were talking about how the Lannan Foundation was almost finished renovating two homes it had bought to house writers who receive its literary awards. An English poet would be arriving in a month. (He’s there now, putting aside the poetry, evidently, to write a book called Marfan.) The other major piece of art news was the receipt of Chinati’s first NEA grant, towards the renovation of six old U-shaped army barracks, to house a piece that light artist Dan Flavin planned with Judd and completed designing after Judd’s death, when Flavin was on his own deathbed, in 1996. There was also talk about Robert Irwin maybe taking a spare building and making a piece from light-capturing scrim veils.

         After dinner the evening migrated to Lucy’s Bar, where, as the sun went down in Marfa’s austere big-sky setting, the gathering’s most imposing participant, Frank Gehry, was given a wide, somewhat awestruck berth. Ray, the owner, even allowed him to stand in an off-limits-to-customers spot beside the bartender (blocking the sink). Eventually he left for the dilapidated old El Paisano Hotel, where he was the most famous guest since James Dean spent a week during the shooting of the film Giant. As Lucy’s started to break up, people either headed home or out to see the Marfa Lights.

 

 

The Marfa Lights, not unlike Frank Gehry, are a fairly aloof phenomenon—mostly appearing at a hard-to-quantify distance from a roadside pull-off, near the site of an old military airfield. To most observers they look like a distant swarm of fireflies, constantly changing direction and flashing on and off in random patterns. But there are wild exceptions to this aloofness. In various accounts the lights are animate and even intelligent. They metastasize, hide behind one another, change color, bounce across the desert “like basketballs,” line up for aircraft “like runway lights,” and pursue lone motorists between Marfa and Alpine. (Robert Halpern told me about a guy who was descended upon and pursued by a pair of Marfa lights, blazing incandescently, all the way to the town limits, after which he swore that he would never leave Marfa again, and hasn’t.) Though the most reliable place to see them is the viewing site, overlooking a vast swath of desert between Marfa and Alpine—where a weather-beaten historical marker details various explanations (“campfires, phosphorescent minerals, swamp gas, static electricity, St. Elmo’s fire, and ’ghost lights’”)—the lights have been known to stray as far away as the Dead Horse Mountains, 60 miles to the east, the hills near Ruidosa, an equal distance to the southwest, and the Davis Mountains, the location of McDonald Observatory, one of the country’s most sophisticated stargazing facilities, 30 miles due north. According to Marfan Lee Bennett, author of some of the boosterish material promoting the annual Lights Festival (an excuse for yearly outdoor concerts), even the observatory is mystified by the lights phenomenon: “One night they trained one of their telescopes on the viewing site until they spied some of the glowing lights. Everyone working that night saw them. They pinpointed the location. The next day, they traveled to that exact spot, certain they would find the source. What did they find? Grass, rocks, dirt. That’s it. Nothing else.”

         Though this history may be a little loose with the facts, more than a few serious science teams have visited the site over the years, eventually arriving at one or more of the hazy explanations engraved on the historical marker. Folktales stretching back to the 19th century explain them as everything from restless Indian spirits to the campfires of perished settlers. Most often close-up observers compare the lights to combustion. “It was a ball of fire,” said a motorist of the light that kept pace with her car for 10 miles on the way to Alpine. “I saw three big balls of fire lined up” reported a woman of lights she witnessed hovering by the side of the road outside town. A former Alpine resident once stopped at the viewing site on a spring night and saw thirteen lights “coming through the field like little fireballs … and rolling out onto the road.” Hallie Stillwell, an Alpine rancherwoman and justice of the peace, spotted some on her property and saw them “die down and then come up again, brighter. They looked like flames.” Less credible information comes from a recluse living off in the hills around Shafter, who calls them “agents of Satan” and claims that “they walk up the side of the mountain” near his house; and a bit of hearsay in which the lights are supposed to have incinerated a truck belonging to a pair of investigating scientists, rendering the men, in the words of a Sul Ross University English professor, “idiots from that day on.”

         Lee Bennett also contributes this story to the Lights Festival material:

 

         I’m the local historian. So when someone in town dies, the families usually give me pieces of history that may have been collected by that person. Well, a special lady on a ranch west of town had kept a little tiny notebook of writings about the local flora and fauna and the general environment out here. But one entry especially caught my attention. She wrote in her own handwriting about driving down an old canyon road—a good 20 miles from the usual viewing site—many years ago. She was rather new to the area, and when she looked to her right she saw Chianti Mountain. “Isn’t that a pretty big mountain?” she asked. Her friend replied that it was one of the highest around. “And there’s a road coming down it?” she asked, amazed. Her friend looked at her strangely and answered, “There’s no road coming down off Chianti.” “Then why do I see lights coming quickly down that mountain?” The entry went on to describe several lights that shot down the side of the mountain, directly toward them. They danced in the canyon and moved right up to the hood of the car. In her own words she wrote, “I felt so special. We were never afraid. In fact, we had sort of a warm feeling.”

 

         There have also been a good many lights posses—debunkers who go out to “get them” and always return humiliated. In the ’70s a corporation that figured the site for a uranium cache funded various futile investigations. In the ’80s a science professor from Sul Ross University gathered a large party of students and volunteers to converge on the lights, with walkie-talkies and spotter planes to coordinate their maneuvers. But whenever a group got close the lights would wink out or move rapidly out of range. A geologist from Fort Worth named Pat Keeney visited Marfa on business and became fascinated with the lights. Hoping to find their source, he conducted a series of experiments in order to rule out car headlights and other man-made luminosity, and then managed to triangulate the area of the remaining unexplained lights. He then returned with another geologist, Elwood Wright, and together the two drove out on a small ranch road where they encountered a pair of lights moving nearby. Keeney published this account of what happened next:

 

They looked like they were moving at about a hundred-fifty to two-hundred miles per hour, but of course I had no way of measuring that. The lights spooked some horses, almost ran into them. Those horses started kicking and running through a cactus patch, trying to get away. The lights came to the edge of this road and stopped. Several times I had seen lights around this old hangar they had on the airbase. Well, one of these lights took off for that hangar, but the other one stayed there by the side of the road. It kept moving around a bush, kind of like it knew we were trying to get near it. It seemed to possess intelligence—it was like that thing was smarter than we were. It was making us feel pretty stupid. It was perfectly round, about the size of a cantaloupe, and it moved through that bush like it was looking for something. When the light stopped moving, it would get dimmer, but as it moved, it got brighter. Finally, it pulled out in the middle of the road about twenty yards from us and just hovered there. I had left the engine running, and Elwood said, “Put it in gear and floorboard it. We’ll run over it.” All of a sudden it got real bright and took off like a rocket.

 

         Marfa mayor Fritz Kahl dismisses most accounts of up-close encounters as “asinine stories” (though he has a certain deference for Keeney). Many years prior to his mayoralty Kahl was a military flight instructor at Marfa Field, and he took after the lights one night in a World War II fighter trainer. Unable to ever get close, he banished them from his thoughts (like most saner Marfans have). “The best way to see the lights is with a six-pack of beer and a good looking woman,” he says today.

         Still, the lights are out there, and on most weekends (as on the first night of the symposium) people assemble by the roadside while the sun goes down, and stay on into the evening. Only after midnight does the crowd thin out and return the road to the circumstances under which most reports of close encounters have occurred.

 

      Some say that the place was bewitched...during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered … Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people … They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air … stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country.

 

         This is not a description of Marfa, but in every detail it could be. It is how Washington Irving describes Westchester, New York, the environs where the Headless Horseman prowled. And for the late-night driver traveling between Marfa and Alpine, there is always a certain identification with Ichabod Crane’s hoping to make it through Sleepy Hollow, with Paisano Pass, where the lights tend to disappear, subbing in for the church bridge where the Horseman “vanished in a flash of fire.”

 

 

On the last day of the symposium, the big boys, Gehry and Oldenburg, spoke. And the odd, inflammatory statements continued. “I’m for an art that doesn’t sit on its ass in a museum,” Oldenburg declared. He and his wife and collaborator Coosje van Bruggen took turns at the lectern, one talking while the other hit the button for the slide projector. Van Bruggen described the typical architect’s ideas about the position sculpture takes in relation to architecture as “nothing more than a turd on the sidewalk.” Like Irwin the day before, they seemed all fired up. Among their slides was a proposed sculpture of two giant copper toilet floats to be installed on the Thames, near the location of Jacques Herzog’s Tate Gallery (for which they soon expressed unequivocal disdain). By the time Gehry took the stage there was tension in the air.

         “Don Judd hated my work,” said Gehry, who seemed to find perverse pleasure in the fact. It may have been the spare setting that provoked him, but he made a point of defending the Guggenheim from the charge of upstaging the art it displays (the antithesis of anything that can be said of the unadorned spaces and clean vistas of Judd’s Marfa installations), insisting that “artists want their work in an important place.” (Again, not exactly the “Marfa concept.”) Gehry then talked about his other recent work, like a seafood restaurant topped with a fish that he’d deliberately turned to face the windows of a neighboring five-star hotel. “The owner told me he didn’t want ’em looking up the asshole of a fish,” Gehry explained. Future projects included the Condé Nast cafeteria in New York (a sketch conveying Gehry’s idea of a Condé Nast employee showed a leggy woman in a short skirt and shades, blowing a kiss), and a massive gateway for the city of Modena, Italy. Modena’s mayor originally offered a design budget of $1 million for the project, “but you get a few people back and forth and that won’t hardly cover airfare,” said Gehry. “And I ain’t gonna stay in no El Paisano Hotel in Modena.”

 

 

At the end of the lectures the participants gathered together around a long Donald Judd table to discuss each other’s work and riff on the theme. It didn’t take long for the ideological lines to clarify. Irwin fired a final salvo at critics who engage in “ass-kissing.” Coosje van Bruggen lit into Jacques Herzog for his Tate Gallery expansion, calling the whole thing “a pity.” Pissed off, Herzog glared out at the audience and said, “It’s not bullshit.” But before he could go on, he was interrupted by the artist Roni Horn, who stole the moment by remarking, “All this architecture is really about sex.” The audience banged its steel chairs, and a beaming Gehry raised his fists above his head like a prize fighter.

         “And on that note,” Horn said, “I’m going back to New York.” Everyone applauded as Gehry and Irwin strode off stage with her, trailed by Herzog (waving a dismissive hand at van Bruggen). The remaining artists soon followed. “The panel has defected,” said the moderator. The only ones left on stage were the academics, who were still talking to each other into the microphones.

         That afternoon, once everyone had left town, Daphne went running and I went back to Lucy’s Bar. I heard a local guy tell the bartender he’d “never seen so many people in black.” The bartender told him, “We had the most famous architect in the world in here!” I ordered a Lone Star and heard the bartender tell another customer, “We thought we’d sell a lot of Mexican beer—but all they wanted was Lone Star.”

         Something in Marfa had riled up a lot of architects, artists and academics. Six hundred of us had been treated to tongue-lashings, dressing downs, fully-amplified upbraiding, storming, and railing—not what anyone had expected out of a symposium. In this vexed atmosphere rumors were circulating about an old feud between an art photographer and the Judd estate breaking into a full-blown multi-million dollar lawsuit (broken in the Sentinel the next week).

         On the surface, of course, Marfa had hosted celebrated artists and architects. But the way it struck me was that they had hosted Marfa. Marfa had got into them. And they had behaved… accordingly: cantankerously, radically, wonderfully, badly, generously, absurdly; in extremis. Like Marfans.

 

         Some other notable people who’ve come through Marfa:

 

                                    Katherine Anne Porter

                                    John Waters

                                    Denis Johnson

                                    Dennis Quaid

                                    Martha Stewart

                                    David Kaczynski

                                    W.S. Merwin

                                    Neil Armstrong

                                    Gwyneth Paltrow

                                    Holly Brubach

                                    James Caan

                                    Selena

                                    Elvis.

 

         I wish I could say that the place nourishes artists. It may. But I think it does something stranger. The relationship seems less friendly—more volatile. (I can imagine it destroying some.) Katherine Anne Porter, who lived there as a girl (Judd’s son, Flavin, now lives in her house), loathed it. Elvis played a dance nearby and never came back. A cave in the wilderness near the town of Terlingua was a refuge for David Kaczynski, the Unabomber’s brother. And W.S. Merwin, who is fascinated with the lights, would rather no one else know about it.

         It seems that the best places for artists are places that are themselves; have a certain innate self-confidence—burn with that authenticity that Benedikt was talking about. And Marfa is what it is. Less Kabakov’s “world for art,” perhaps, than a provocative place for all kinds of impulses: creative, destructive, uncharted—by all means authentic.

         And it’s got better things to do than become aware of its unself-consciousness. Within the next year there may be a hundred-man crew of silver miners in nearby Shafter, drilling on a 10-to-15-year timetable, and eating at Carmen’s next to the likes of Seamus Heaney, A.R. Ammons, or William Trevor—all three men are on the small list of Lannan grantees eligible for Marfa residencies. The Entrada al Pacifico, a trade corridor opened up by NAFTA, is altering the regional economy, with border crossings in the county up 100 percent in the last year. Hydroponic tomatoes are being cultivated in massive greenhouses just outside the city limits, turning Marfa into a desert town that exports water, just as Judd wanted. (It’s a bizarre sight: huge glass and steel superstructures, sucking away at the aquifer. Though there’s undeniably something Marfan about it.) The border patrol, for better or worse, is bolstering its forces in Marfa. Newcomers have bought back the hot springs, and a handful of other buildings from the Judd estate, restoring the former to public use. An ATM was installed this January (the one Marfa had a few years ago was decommissioned, because it never caught on—but this one may). Things are happening. By no means moribund, Marfa is a viable town on its own terms. As Robert Halpern told me by e-mail the other day, “Pretty much most of the folks who are moving here as well as us locals are reading from the same sheet of music: A town has to change and grow or it dies. Marfa will survive in spite of us all.”

         And, of course, “mystery lights” is not a bad description of these people who continually pass through Marfa. People like Irwin, Kabakov, Judd, and Peter Reading, the inaugural Lannan grantee, an oft-inebriated everyman’s skeptic, with a tab at Lucy’s, who likes to kick around Chinati muttering about how much all the damn boxes cost; or, in characteristic Marfan style, provoke his benefactors by bragging of his residency, “I am required to do nothing. This suits me.” But many others also seem to find their way to Marfa. A few weeks after the symposium, a conjunto accordionist, Santiago Jimenez Jr., who, along with his brother Flaco, is one of the more revered traditionalists on the Tex-Mex scene, paid a visit. He walked around town playing for old folks, the community center, veterans, whoever wanted to listen. Fantastic pictures of him doing sessions with local musicians kept appearing in the paper. I don’t know how long he was around, but he seemed to just stay and stay and stay—through about four issues of the Sentinel, becoming a part of the town. And then he winked out and was gone.

 

 

For our last night, Rob Weiner at the Chinati Foundation said we could move out of the Thunderbird Motel and into a foundation building. Fortunately, part of Donald Judd’s philosophy about beds also pertains to having one in most every gallery. We wound up in the John Chamberlain Building, a 30,000-square foot former mohair warehouse full of sculptures made out of crushed cars. “You’ll find it interesting,” Rob said. At 2 a.m., I awoke with a start. The windows were shaking, the air vibrating, and roars and whistles seemed to be coming straight from the bathroom. It got louder and louder until I was sure something was going to come crashing through the door. “Get up!” I shouted. “It’s the ghost of Donald Judd!” And the El Paso-bound train shot by.