Yep. Marfa. Texas.
I honestly never thought I’d find myself back in Texas once I visited Austin. But in late June, there I was – in a literal one-traffic-light town, 3 hours south of El Paso, with my two big kids.
And I had the BEST time.
I’ll begin at the beginning.
Four years ago I took my parents on a tour of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Our wonderful guide was talking about a large Donald Judd sculpture at the entrance to the house, and mentioned that one could tour Judd’s Soho home as well (you can read about these visits in a post I wrote about artists’ homes).
A few months later Chelsea and I did just that – we spent a wonderful morning touring the floors of Judd’s Spring Street home, where we also learned about Marfa, Texas – and how Judd established a second home and burgeoning art community there in the 70’s. I was intrigued, but didn’t give it much thought after that day.
And then TWO years ago I saw a trailer for the mini-series “I Love Dick”, based on the book of the same name. It starred some of my very favorites (Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Hahn, Griffin Dunne, Phoebe Robinson), so I watched. And guess where it took place?
And while I loved the show, I became obsessed with Marfa. I really REALLY wanted to go to there, but how? And with who?
The “who” was easy. Conor would be graduating from college the following year, and I thought a fun, out-of-the-ordinary trip with him and his sister (possibly the last time I’d be able to do a “just the 3 of us”) would be the perfect way to celebrate.
As for the “how”, it was not simple, but totally doable. Getting to Marfa from New York requires two plane trips (transferring in Dallas), followed by a 3-hour drive from El Paso. If we left early enough we could arrive in time for dinner that night.
The kids were all in, and a plan was hatched.
There are many wonderful articles about Marfa – and Donald Judd’s connection to the town – so I won’t go into that here (scroll to the bottom for all the links!). I WILL share with you how we spent our time, where we stayed, and what we ate (duh). And if, at the end, the idea of going to Marfa even remotely appeals to you? GO.
As planned, we arrived late Thursday afternoon and checked in to our first hotel – El Cosmico.
The minute I read about this place I knew we’d be spending at least one night there. El Cosmico is a 21-acre “nomadic hotel” and campground, whose accommodations include renovated vintage trailers, safari and scout tents, Sioux-style tepees, a Mongolian yurt, and tent campsites. As you can probably guess, we opted for one of the trailers (I’m not much for roughing it).
Our trailer – “The Imperial Mansion”
Based on my research I was prepared for “hours of operation” to be loose at best (and non-existent at worst), so we were not surprised to learn that most eateries were closed that day. We wound up at the uber-cool Capri (part of the 1950’s renovated Thunderbird motel) and had a quick bite. We spent the rest of the evening on the deck attached to our trailer, relaxing and watching one of Marfa’s unreal sunsets.
Ramona Tejada has turned her home into a casual cafe (only open for breakfast and lunch), and offers just a handful of items on her menu. Everything – including the tortillas – is homemade, the burritos are enormous, and you will be thinking about your delicious meal long after you’ve finished.
Even a casual search quickly reveals that Marfa is all about Donald Judd – his life and his art. As I am always interested in the work and living spaces of creatives I booked two of the smaller (and shorter) tours for our time there. The first was La Mansana de Chinati, informally known as The Block (click the link for pictures), and is the site of some of Judd’s first large scale architectural projects. The tour provides access to Judd’s three main studios (which are permanently installed with his early work), and his personal library, which houses his collection of over 13,000 books.
Judd was as exacting and controlling about his live/work spaces as he was about his art, so everything from the architecture to the furniture to the grounds – along with all of the ephemera on display in the various buildings – was beyond thrilling for this design geek to see up close. Our tour guide was fantastic and the 90-minute length was perfect. As there is no photography allowed on any of the tours – and since Judd’s work is never sent out for exhibit – this was an exceptional opportunity to see art that you would never otherwise get to experience.
After the tour we checked in to our second hotel – the Hotel St. George. The original Hotel St. George was built in the 1880’s and burned down (and was rebuilt) in the 1920’s. The current hotel (opened in 2016) incorporates the site’s structure, keeping the frame within its original columns. There are also original concrete floors, salvaged brick walls, reclaimed marble surfaces and steel doors and counters. It’s a stunner.
We had a light bite at the hotel restaurant (I swear we were all still stuffed from those burritos), and drove up to the Chinati Foundation.
Opened in 1986, Chinati is located on 340 acres of land on the site of the former Fort D.A. Russell. It includes hundreds of Judd’s concrete and aluminum works along with the work of Judd’s friends and fellow artists – including Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain.
We had not planned to go to Chinati on our trip, but as luck would have it, Friday was June 21st – summer solstice – and the only night of the year that the museum stays open till sunset. We were encouraged to attend, and it did seem like much of the town was gathered there (including, both wonderfully and bizarrely, DIANE KEATON!!!!). The highlight of the evening was watching the sun set through the openings of Robert Irwin’s “Untitled (Dawn to Dusk)”.
The U-shaped building is divided into two halves, one light and one dark. Translucent white and black walls run the length of each long arm of the U, capturing and refracting the light that enters through the windows. In the short connecting arm of the U, rows of white and black walls create a transition zone between the light and dark corridors. This creates an ever changing experience of light throughout the day, and it was truly magical to be there at sunset.
On Saturday morning we headed straight to Do Your Thing – a small, casual eatery whipping up the best damn toasts I’ve ever had. And I can say this with some authority because over 2 days we ordered and ate almost everything on the menu. They not only make their own (AMAZING) sourdough bread, but every single ingredient used is the very best they can either get their hands on or make themselves. So something as simple as honey butter toast? Next. Level. As was the blueberry jam, tahini avocado, and everything cream cheese.
We spent the latter part of the morning at our hotel pool (Marfa in June is HOT), and then attended our second tour – The Studios. This tour provides access to several of Judd’s downtown spaces, including the Architecture Studio, Art Studio, the Cobb House and Whyte Building (click the links for pictures). These spaces contain furniture by Judd, his early paintings from the 1950’s and 60’s, an extensive collection of modernist and period furniture, and works by other prominent twentieth-century artists and designers. It was just fantastic – a highlight of our trip, for sure.
After the tour we stopped in at Frama – a coffee/ice cream shop attached to a laundromat (natch). Be sure to pick up some of the delicious local coffee to bring home.
After some more walking around (every inch of this town is photogenic), we finished the day in the courtyard of The Hotel Paisano. A gorgeous 1930’s Spanish Revival building, the landmarked hotel is famous for being the home of Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean while they filmed the movie “Giant”. It was the perfect spot for a cocktail and some people watching.
We grabbed our last dinner at Bad Hombres, a quirky joint serving up low-key barbecue, tacos and burgers.
Photo credit: Douglas Friedman
On Sunday morning we had more toasts (of course we did) and headed out of Marfa, stopping on the way at the VERY Instagrammed Prada Marfa (though it’s technically in nearby Valentine).
Prada Marfa is not an actual store (though Miuccia Prada donated the shoes and accessories on display), but a “site-specific, permanent land art project by artists Elmgreen & Dragset constructed in 2005. Modeled after a Prada boutique, the inaccessible interior of the structure includes luxury goods from Prada’s fall collection from that year. The door does not open, ensuring that the sculpture will never function as a place of commerce. Art Production Fund and Ballroom Marfa co-produced the project.” Read more here.
Though we were ready to leave Marfa by Sunday, it felt too soon to head home after such a relatively short time (and such a long trip). So before we left New York I booked a hotel in El Paso – near the airport – and after we checked in we took a 90-minute drive north, to White Sands National Monument, which is right over the border in New Mexico.
White Sands is a 275 square-mile desert, containing the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. Though it looks similar to the sand you’d find at the beach, gypsum doesn’t absorb the sun’s heat – so it is cool to the touch, even on the 90-degree day we visited. And – as the name implies – it is pure white.
The park is navigated by car via a 16-mile round-trip loop called Dunes Drive. There are several spots to pull off the drive, park and explore the dunes, and we did just that (if you are interested in hiking the park there are four options, ranging from an easy 1/2-mile path, to a much more rigorous 5-mile trail).
There’s no way to adequately describe this place in more-than-cliches (magical! other wordly!), or pictures that do it justice. We timed our visit to be there for sunset, and I highly recommend either doing that or getting there for sunrise.
We headed home on Monday.
This was definitely not a run-of-the-mill trip, but for me it was a trip that completely exceeded my expectations. Have you ever had a trip like that? Have you been to Marfa????
Obsessed with these two humans.
Here are a few more tips – and links!!!
* Try to avoid being in Marfa from Sunday through Thursday, as most places are closed. And even then, be prepared for “flexible” hours of operation at many stores and restaurants. There was one store that – from the looks of the window displays – appeared to be selling very expensive clothing, and yet was never open once over the three days we were there (with no sign indicating why).
* Advance reservations for any tours are a must, as they are limited and kept small.
* White Sands is adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, where missile tests are conducted regularly. During those times the park is closed, so check the web site to make sure testing is not happening on the day you’re planning to visit.