The small town of Marfa, Texas, where James Dean starred in Giant, is now an improbable modern art mecca where the desert wears Prada.

By Jo Stewart.

The art of Marfa, Texas

Elmgreen & Dragset’s 'Prada Marfa'.

Reportedly named after a character from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marfa is a resilient town near the unforgiving borderlands seven hours west of Austin, Texas. This is the Chihuahuan Desert plateau, where the light is bright and the air crisp and the blood-red sunsets as violent as the early Cormac McCarthy novels set here.

To reach Marfa you first have to get through the unrelenting sprawl of urban America, as desolate as the desert, but far less beautiful. Driving from Austin, there’s miles and miles of strip malls, fast-food joints, and billboards advertising everything from all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets to ambulance-chasing attorneys with impossibly white teeth. As the sprawl gives way to the austere plains, cowboy churches, saloons and gun shops start popping up. This is the Wild West.

The closer you get to Marfa, the more western clichés you see. A large tumbleweed slowly blows across the road. Men in white cowboy hats fill up monster pick-up trucks at gas stations. The car radio seems capable of transmitting only country music or the fire-and-brimstone rants of evangelical preachers about the eternal damnation that awaits us all.

Amid this almost cartoonish environment lies Marfa – a small town home to both well-preserved historic buildings and modern, minimalist art installations. With a long history built on ranching, the town has experienced a renaissance in the past few decades thanks to the New York artist Donald Judd. Besotted with Marfa, Judd invested in the town in the 1970s, buying up aircraft hangars, shops, hotels and residential buildings to set up galleries. By the time of his death in 1994, with his reclaimed gallery spaces and large-scale works occupying open fields, he had morphed it from a tiny town doomed to fade out like its neighbours into a modern art mecca visited by everyone from the celebrity jet set to curious road trippers.

But art isn’t the only thing that has put Marfa on the map. Once the temporary home of James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Dennis Hopper and Rock Hudson – who all lived in Marfa’s Hotel Paisano while filming Giant 60 years ago – the town has had many brushes with fame over the years. The hotel still welcomes guests today and the gift shop is happy to trade on its connection with Hollywood royalty by offering souvenir celebrity room keys, James Dean T-shirts and Elizabeth Taylor mugs.

While Vanity Fair and The New York Times have both reported on the hip community of artistic city folk who have moved in and injected flair into the town, they’ve been less interested in the grim reality that the population of Marfa is overall in decline, like many other towns in West Texas. With most low-income earning locals, many of them Mexican-Americans, forced out because of rising property prices and unaffordable living costs, Marfa now has a population of about 1800. Locals can roughly be split into two camps: the artists who moved to Marfa from the city, and the bemused locals who were born here and don’t quite know what to make of it all. 

Visiting on a sunny weekday, the main street resembles an abandoned film set. After trying to find a place to eat, we ditch our sense of shame and settle on a near-empty Dairy Queen fast-food outlet. This isn’t exactly the hip, quirky Marfa put forward by design magazines, but the reality is we want to eat and it’s one of the only places open at 2.30pm on a weekday.

Marfa’s accommodation options range from rundown roadside motels with old-school neon signage to the upmarket Thunderbird Hotel, a boutique property furnished with mid-century decor, record players and vintage typewriters. Then there’s El Cosmico, an outdoor trailer park packed with enough tepees, yurts and renovated vintage trailers to fill Instagram with a post a day for a year.

Despite the cool hotels and galleries, Prada Marfa remains the major drawcard. A permanent art installation, Prada Marfa is a 40-kilometre drive along the road to Valentine, Texas, a decaying burg with a handful of residents who seem set to ride out its slow decline into a bona fide ghost town. A near-exact replica of a luxury Prada fashion store, Prada Marfa was built back in 2005 by Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset and has withstood a fair few acts of vandalism since its inception. 

From experimental biospheres in Arizona to a house constructed from beer cans in Houston, America’s roadside oddities and attractions serve many purposes. They break up long road trips and give small, out-of-the-way towns a chance to nab some tourist dollars from travellers. These sometimes hokey, often gaudy monuments, museums and installations are typically the creation of a passionate, eccentric individual. Prada Marfa is a bit of an exception, in that it’s an art installation created with funds granted to the artists via philanthropy.

Regardless of its genesis, Prada Marfa is a genuinely interesting and infinitely photogenic roadside attraction. There’s just no missing it. On a long stretch of road where there is absolutely nothing but roadkill, cacti, old power lines and a set of railroad tracks, seeing a faux Prada store, stocked with shiny handbags and high heels from the 2005 Fall/Winter collection, is both surreal and satisfying. 

A pair of brown men’s dress shoes and an empty bottle of cheap wine lie discarded on the dusty ground out the front of the store’s permanently sealed door. Out the back, a few padlocks have been chained to a rusty gate: the twee love-lock phenomenon that has swamped bridges from Paris to Melbourne has even made its way here.

Leaving Marfa, I’m unsure what to think about it. It’s a complex place that throws up lots of questions. Which you might expect of a town with no traffic lights but more than 15 art galleries and an impenetrable exhibit of an upscale European fashion house on a dusty, desert highway.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Marfan landscape".

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Jo Stewart
is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.