As of last week, there have been over a dozen cases of condemnation proceedings against local landowners in Western Texas in the interest of Energy Transfer Partner’s private contractors beginning work on the 143 mile Trans Pecos natural gas pipeline. The three companies in the ETP (two helmed by billionaire businessmen) argue that the pipeline will bring tax revenue and jobs, as well as purported environmental benefits. Opposition believes these jobs will be short-lived and and leave the pristine desert landscape destroyed. There are concerns about the transparency of both the ETP and government. It’s a complicated argument. I wanted to ask two very different sometime residents to talk about their personal history of creative production in Marfa in particular.
The undisturbed land has a rich cultural context. It’s not valuable because of any one legacy. “Marfa’s become self-aware, and that is a bit of a problem,” Flavin Judd tells me. “It’s Marfa’s price to pay for not becoming a ghost town, which was the other alternative. Don didn’t like the idea of an artist’s community and thought it was ridiculous, so that was not his intention or interest. His interest was finding a beautiful place to learn, think, and work.” Judd is the son of the late artist Donald Judd, known for his minimalist works, the subject of a MoMa retrospective next year. It was Donald Judd who put Marfa on the proverbial cultural map, establishing his studio, residence, library there surrounded by site specific works that maximize the landscape’s space and light.
Eileen Myles bought a house in Marfa just last year. I emailed her to ask how she feels Judd’s presence around her there. “Marfa is so inflected by him,” she says. “You take the tour… I was never so interested in NY. Minimalism was what I walked into when I came to NY so I thought of it as very 70s and Soho and then there it was writ large. You kind of get infected. I want a big long table like that. I want that wall. Half the town looks like Judd. He makes more sense there with the scale and the surrounding land. He got something right.”
All this said, Flavin’s brief account of his father’s beloved Marfa is moving in this context. We spoke earlier this week in New York. He was visiting from Los Angeles, where he currently resides. Every six weeks he returns to Marfa.
“For Don, it was all about the landscape Marfa just happened to be in the landscape. As soon as we got there, he rented some land below town just to camp out while we stayed in the town. The idea, the goal, was to be out in the landscape.
Don was from the Midwest, he lived in Dallas; Omaha; he lived in Kansas City. He moved to New York because that’s where the art world was, that’s where you had to be. As soon as he had some money, he bought a land rover and we started driving down to Baja California. We’d drive out to LA, go to Baja, and drive back, but for reasons that had nothing to do with culture or landscape he couldn’t establish a house in Mexico. It was too complicated. So, he looked on this side of the border, and found Marfa—specifically the landscape around Marfa.
I remember driving into Marfa the first time. He’d said ‘Oh, I rented a house.’ I kept pointing at houses saying “Is that it? Is that it?” In 76, he bought the first ranch and that was the finalizing of the reason to be there and after that we were going to the ranch every weekend. The thing about the land is that it doesn’t change. The ranch looks exactly as it did in 1977.
It was the realest real thing.There’s absolutely nothing else more present, for him. It was the most powerful thing there was, the reality of the land and, the landscape of the Southwest and that area where you don’t have [Laughs] basically a lot of trees blocking your view. Which, for him, made it the most beautiful and present thing. He was always grumpy in New York. [Laughs] It was very clear.
In the early 90s, there was an attempt to establish a nuclear waste dump near Marfa and we fought that in a multi-year process. It was us versus a couple of big companies and I think the state of Texas.
The rationale is that you have pristine land in one of the few remaining pristine places in the country, you don’t mess it up because someone can’t figure out what to do with their nuclear waste. The same reasoning goes here (for the pipleline): you have a pristine landscape that has remained that way for millions of years, you don’t mess that up because a billionaire from Mexico is trying to sell gas. It’s short-sighted and clearly not for the benefit of the people there. If you have to steal other people’s property to make your money, you are doing it the wrong way.
The gas is to be sold. Let’s be completely clear. It’s not hooking up to any local anything without millions and millions of dollars, you could spend half of that and set up a solar array and have the problem solved. There’s no even financial way it makes sense.
Marfa was founded in 1886 the other towns the same and they haven’t grown, they’ve shrunk since the height of their populations. There’s been no development at all that’s why people go there. If you want a pipeline you should run it through Houston. The pipeline it’s not an investment for the future; its an investment for a dying industry of the past.”
Later, I ask Myles how rural Texas compares to her beloved East Village New York. “There’s something similar. I was just looking at Stranger than Paradise and thinking how at its most rotting, the east village had a similar beauty and you really can still see it there with the graffiti and a motley-ness that whatever crummy money coming in and development can’t entire slander. People wise there’s the fact of how bi-racial the town is too that is unchanging. The graveyard still has a fence. And the Mexican side is full of flowers and visitors and the white Texan side is just kind of grim. But yes it’s ranching land, and ranching families and oil money, so what supports the art world is local maybe in a way that’s not familiar to me. But interesting and even has an impact on the pressing environmental issue of the day ie the pipeline.”
Here, her account of the land and pipeline struggle:
“I went to Marfa on a Lannan residency in March of 2015 & fell in love with the place. I had been hearing about Marfa forever and grumpily thinking why can’t I get invited there though most of my friends who had been there are visual artists but I wanted in. I think I even told the Lannan people about my deep frustration as I was accepting the invitation. Everyone loves Marfa though some people love to laugh at it because it’s the most delightful combination of rough and twee. Things are falling down but there’s always someone there to catch it for a year and put a sign on it and make it cool. It sees itself and yet the land is always hovering.
I like the southwest a lot, the big sky, the open blueness that is so not east coast. The mountains surround you too. It’s really not my land and so it was a really great place to write since I have no sentimental associations whatsoever. And that’s the great thing about Marfa’s sense of style. It sits in this enormous cavern of nature that’s bigger than any momentary design.
And friends of mine had bought houses. I had just unloaded a house in San Diego from when I taught there so swiftly I moved my small bag of money over to this place. I was at a party one night and this little house next door with a big yard was empty and for sale. And the next day I looked at it and decided I could do it. Will is a funny thing. I usually have none and then I have one.
I drive from Marfa to Alpine, the real Texan city next door. The train stops there. You could take a train to LA or New York or Tucson from Alpine. But the train is one of the biggest facts of the plane. It passes through Marfa several times a day (but does not stop) but the whistle really fades. It’s so west. It’s like the church bells of the town. But driving that stretch which is bordered by mountains is my real vista. I like to listen to music and drive along that road and sometimes the train passes. That’s heaven to me.
My opposition to the pipeline is utter. It will disrupt so many species, tear open the earth and introduce fracking to the region and probably poison an aquifer that nobody actually knows the depth of. We’re moving towards a water crisis in this part of the world and we’re blithely spewing chemicals into the ground and using vast water supplies to suck methane out of the ground, not “natural gas”, no. Methane. That’s the correct word. Oil is the original motivation and supposedly the second richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, wanted to do this, build a pipeline from Mexico into the US and the government agency that approves these things has approved it. Texas has never not exercised eminent domain when it comes to tearing the ground up for fossil fuels. Even the ranchers are getting screwed, being offered one amount at the beginning of the planning for this project and later on when it became clear that the ranchers would have no way to stop it, being offered a lot less. I met an oil man in Marfa and we talked about this a little bit, and he explained it was the family business. That’s all. Owning the earth, I guess. So this is what’s wrong with Marfa or heartbreaking about the region and this violation is getting absolutely no publicity. It’s a huge quiet rape.
And it’s the last and the biggest piece of untouched land in the states. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s Texas.”
Stephanie LaCava is an author and journalist living in New York City. Her writing has appeared online and in magazines such as Interview and the Los Angeles Review of Books.