Hours away from any major city, in the middle of the West Texas desert, there is a mecca for adventurous seekers on the quest for something transcendental. Our intrepid traveler Jonathan Spindel unveils the magic of Marfa
Hang out at a local café and you’re bound hear chatter about art shows in New York and L.A. Then step out into the bright morning, and you might see a tumbleweed rasping along the road, past a Prius and a rusty pickup truck, and into the expansive desert whence it came. Marfa; a town whose name is on the lips of art collectors around the world, whose population hovers near 2,000 and has just one traffic light. Some call it a paradox; others call it paradise. See for yourself.
The sculptor Donald Judd arrived in 1971, laying the foundation of the region’s fabled contemporary art scene. Since then, this desert rose has blossomed into an artistic community with globally recognized appeal. Yet even before Judd, Marfa has been a center of forward-thinking culture for the jet set in the know. Before Beyoncé took her selfie in front of the (mock) Prada Marfa store, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor inspired whispers of gossip during their stay at the Hotel El Paisano while filming Giant in 1955, as you saw recently in this magazine.
Some visitors live for the fervor of the art festivals; others seek the solitude of the desert and its expansive starlit skies. In any case, let us introduce you to Marfa with our essential guide to the cultural oasis in the desert
The Chinati Foundation is Marfa’s fundamental art museum, based upon the ideas of its founder, Donald Judd. The foundation hosts Chinati Weekend, the ultimate occasion to see and be seen. The annual weekend festival (this year, October 9-11) draws thousands of cool-seekers for three days of art shows, parties, dining and shopping. It’s the most exciting time to discover Marfa.
In its current form, The Chinati Foundation is a monumental chronicle of Donald Judd’s artistic experiment with permanent installations in 1970s. Enter the former military hangars, which have been converted to permanent galleries. Wander through the rows of seemingly identical aluminum boxes. Don’t just look at the boxes, look through them. See the way the light streams through the hangar windows and reflects on the metal surfaces. Can you see your own reflection? Look out the window at the giant concrete shapes that punctuate the landscape. Go outside and walk among them, see the way the rectangles frame a picture of the desert: stoic cacti and a one-lane highway, the infinite blue sky stretching toward the horizon. Stand inside the monuments and hear the echoes of your breath, your thoughts. Touch the cold, smooth concrete. Watch out for spiny cacti, scorpions and rattlesnakes. Savor the juxtaposition of the stark, industrial forms with the rough, indifferent natural terrain. The art is inextricable from its landscape. This is Judd’s achievement: art and landscape are a harmonious singularity. This principle applies to the phenomenon of Marfa, in general. Learn more at Chinati.org.
Marfa boasts enough art spaces to feast your eyes for days, but don’t miss these other essential galleries: The Judd Foundation, where you can learn about the namesake artist’s life and work, resides in the building where the artist once lived. JuddFoundation.org. The Ayn Foundation Marfa, a branch of the New York Ayn Foundation gallery, features large scale paintings by Andy Warhol and Maria Zerres. AynFoundation.com. The Ballroom Marfa is one of Marfa’s most innovative art centers, featuring visual art, music, performances, and educational programs. Don’t miss their exciting celebrations during Chinati Weekend. BallroomMarfa.org.
STAY IN STYLE
El Paisano is the quintessential Texas hotel, with luxurious details and style in spades. In the style of a Spanish villa, this hotel’s beautiful courtyards and classic Texas-style interiors will make you feel like a silver screen legend. In fact, this is the hotel where Dean, Taylor, and Hudson stayed during the filming of Giant, the cinematic homage to the West Texas oil boom tycoons. Stay here and you’ll be in good company.
From the creative hotelier Liz Lambert who brought us Hotel San Jose in Austin and Hotel Havana in San Antonio, El Cosmico is the among the most unique hotel experiences you’ll ever find. You may never have considered a vintage trailer luxurious, but these glamping-style Airstreams – with names like “Imperial Mansion” and “Spartan Manor” – will make you think differently.
You can’t go wrong with the Thunderbird Hotel, a classic style Texan motel with special attention to every detail. You’ll feel like a true Texas traveler, and you’ll have all the essential amenities you’ll need. At ThundbirdMarfa.com
Start your day at Buns and Roses for breakfast, pastries and coffee. After you fill up on local news and Marfa vibes, you will be ready to head out and begin your artistic adventure.
If you need a quick and cool option for a mid-day meal, try Food Shark, a popular food truck and restaurant with healthy, wholesome and hip cuisine. This eating establishment is a local mainstay, popular with locals and visitors alike. A crossroads for all types, Food Shark has something for everyone, all in an art-infused atmosphere.
For a special dining experience, don’t miss Cochineal, Marfa’s epitome of elevated epicures. Sip a craft cocktail in the outdoor courtyard, then enjoy a menu of refined cuisine inspired by seasonal ingredients and local traditions. Make your reservation early and prepare to be surprised with something special and delicious. For the see and be seen hot spot, Maiya’s is the place to be with its revolving wine list and gourmet fare perfect for any palate.
Seek Tienda M, as much an art gallery as a shop, with the perfect vibe for a chic boutique. The open, sunlit showroom showcases clothing, home décor and accessories. The store is exudes style in beautiful shades of indigo and cream; with leather, artisan ceramics and accessories displayed next to rustic linens and décor – totally contemporary chic. At Highland Ave. & San Antonio St.
Looking for a bold fashion piece? Cobra Rock Boot Company makes custom boots inspired by western style and crafted with utmost attention to detail. The result is a chic and polished boot that looks as good strutting into an art gallery as it does in a rustic Texas barbecue. At CobraRock.com
Moonlight Gemstones has a bohemian vibe and crystals galore. Specializing in local stones, like turquoise the color of the broad Texas sky, and minerals in vivid shades of blue, green and orange from as far as Morocco. A great place to pick up memorable souvenirs, or splurge on an extravagant piece for yourself. At MoonlightGemstones.com
If you are looking for something to tickle the intellect, Marfa Book Company is the place for you. The bookstore doubles as an art gallery, which hosts events from time to time. This is a great, current version of a general store to bump into a localebrity while sipping a cold beer and reading poetry. Lose yourself in the stacks of books, a well-curated cross section of literary culture. At MarfaBookCo.com
Chinati Hot Springs, the oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert, offers a therapeutic retreat from the hustle and bustle. You can book a private cabin in the area, with views of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico and the Chinati mountains of Texas. Before you embark on this intrepid retreat, you should know that this area has no cell phone service, no internet access, and none of the other things that complicate life. In fact, that applies to most of the Marfa region. So for those who seek true seclusion in a strikingly beautiful location, this is the spot for you. At ChinatiHotSprings.net
If you seek a bit of healthful harmony, visit The Well. This holistic wellness center in the heart of Marfa offers an airy, peaceful place of respite filled with natural light and quiet serenity. Therapeutic massage, yoga classes, haircuts, and meditation sessions are just a few of the experiences you can enjoy at The Well. The gift shop, Naluna, features fine wines, exotic imports from the Far East, and locally made herbal body care products. At TheWellMarfa.com
For a polished take on rustic traditions, Cibolo Creek Ranch remains one of the finest Texas ranch resorts in West Texas, offering a peaceful and remote vacation getaway. Admire the local wildlife, marvel at the Native American rock art, or go on a hunt. In the evening, indulge in exquisite Texan cuisine, relax and marvel at the sparkling night sky.
Tucked into the landscape of the high Trans-Pecos desert, Marfa can feel like another planet. And it’s not without its out-of-this-world activities. Any visitor to Marfa will hear about the Marfa Lights, a mysterious phenomenon you can experience from a special viewing platform. Ask a local for more information.
The McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, a short drive from Marfa, offers a more scientific – yet no less stunning – approach to the dazzling desert sky. Visit the observatory for a “Star Party,” where you can view far-off planets and nebulae through high-power telescopes. Even with the naked eye, you can see the Milky Way and shooting stars like you’ve never witnessed them before. At McDonaldObservatory.org
Looking for a refreshing break from the artsy activities? A short drive away from Marfa, the springs at Balmorhea State Park are a great place to jump in and cool off. You’ll love lazing about the park that surrounds the beautiful spring-fed pool with a natural bottom. You can even book a SCUBA training lesson if you’re so inclined. If you’ve never tried SCUBA, it’s an experience not-to-be-missed, but that’s another story. Learn more at Texas Parks & Wildlife, tpwd.texas.gov
Of course, in addition to everything we recommend, Marfa is the kind of place where restaurants, events and boutiques pop up like flowers on a dewy desert morning. Take a casual stroll down the town streets; you may just find a little treasure where you least expect it. Surprises like this are worth seeking out, and the seeking is precisely part of Marfa’s charm. Take an adventure down the road less traveled; you never know what kind of wonders you may discover and you’ll never regret the time spent experiencing this dynamic outpost.