Monday, July 13, 2009
Marfa, TX - A Cross between Hudson, the Hamptons and Greenwich Village ... in the desert
I sat at the Food Shark this afternoon, a truck that rolls into town every lunchtime, eating my hummous, greek salad with balsamic vinagrette, and toasted pita chips. Beside me a woman fed on roasted egglant and fresh mozzarella cibatta with arugala, and saffron infused olive oil, her designer child climbing on the table, the swing band playing in the background, and save for the intense midday desert sun, I could have been in the Hamptons. The twenty-somethings slowly arrived up for their designer lunch, the guys in cut off chinos, the women in tank tops, sunglasses on their heads, Kate Spade wallets in hand, I could have been in the village.
The bookstore on the main street (no one in Marfa seems to know the names of any of the streets) is wonderful, stocking the New Yorker, Harpers, the New York Review of Books, and everything from Jodi Picoult to the Barnett Newman Catalogue Raisonné. Other hot spots around town that we frequented, included a restaurant with a Michelin Star chef, Frama’s, a coffee shop to rival Joe’s on Waverly at 6th Av, the Ballroom, a non-profit arts organization with NEA funded projects. And then, of course, there’s the Judd Foundation, the Chinati Foundation, and though not Marfa’s main drawcard, the Pizza Foundation, a tongue in cheek play on its highly reputed siblings. In this isolated community on the Mexican border, a former Army outpost, the alien art world has set up base. It’s a strange, incomprensible phenomenon that sees the art cognoscenti “belonging” to the 2000 odd inhabitants of Marfa. I hesitate to call them colonials because the colonization only extends along two streets of Marfa, albeit the crossroads at its center. Nevertheless, the prominence of white educated bourgeois urban Americans in Marfa is both charming and unsettling at the same time. Venturing from Paris France to prostate before Donald Judd’s estate, I could hardly be more than a tourist. We stayed at the Paisano — the hotel that accommodated the likes of James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Giant — ate at chic restaurants, dutifully paid homage to Donald Judd, gave the bookstore our business, parlayed with galleries owners, in short, we had “the” Marfa experience. I couldn’t help thinking there was another side to this town that we didn’t even glimpse. We were picked up by the Texas Highway Patrol for exceeding the speed limit by 8 miles, an event that made us wonder: don’t the locals get fed up with the high falutin’ art types that traipse through their city as though it is indeed, a cross between the Hamptons, Hudson and Greenwich Village?
Everyone we met was extremely friendly and welcoming. To be sure, striking up a conversation was very easy, to the point where it was sometimes difficult to get away, because the people were so friendly and open. After the abruptness of the Houstonians, and the “ma’am” this and “ma’am” that of central Texas, it was refreshing to find people ready to welcome outsiders with open arms. But that’s the problem, we weren’t outsiders
Marfa reminded me of a planet in a science fiction movie where the rational (in this case intellectual) world has discovered a land they must own, understand, dominate. Like an alien community in a sci-fi film, the alien life is not to be meddled with; they are left alone for fear of their difference. Apparently two thirds of Marfa’s population is of Mexican descent, the US border police also share this land, as do the farmers who have been there for generations. But the Mexicans weren’t eating at the Food Shark or the Pizza Foundation, we didn’t see the border guards lazing back in the courtyard of the Paisano, and neither were the farmers visiting art galleries or attending performances at the local bookstore or the Ballroom. Neither did we see Mexicans running the art galleries, even working in the hotels, or the kitchens of Michelin star restaurants in Marfa. I might be mistaken, but through my tourist glasses, the Marfa on the art traveler’s map is an island on an island in the middle of the desert, and it’s an island this group of locals seem to want to remain that way. For whatever takes place in their private lives, in their public identity, Marfans are proud of their outsider status on the inside.