Culture

THE MAKING OF MARFA

Monday, May 2, 2016
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photographed by Douglas Friedman
hair and makeup by Andee Radu Friedrich


There are two ways to get to Marfa, the mythical and increasingly chic outpost for contemporary art in the far stretches of West Texas.


If you have a Cessna at your disposal, you can glide into a little airfield to the north of town. But for the proper experience, to fully appreciate Marfa’s splendid isolation, you have to go by car. Pick one up in Austin and drive due west, as the landscape gives way to the high, parched plains of the Chihuahuan Desert. Keep driving, for seven hours. Just when you can’t take it anymore, just when you think the road will stretch forever, you’ll hit a single traffic light, which always blinks yellow. The great appeal of Marfa, Texas, is that it isn’t close to anything and getting there, slowly, will prepare you for its unique appeal.


“Marfa is a place that also exists in your mind,” says Fairfax Dorn, the cofounder and artistic director of the nonprofit arts foundation Ballroom Marfa, when we meet in New York on a decidedly undesert-like winter morning. In the thirteen years since its foundation, Ballroom Marfa has not only brought contemporary art of international scope to rural Texas; it’s also created exhibitions and permanent installations that have ricocheted out of the desert and across the world. (One early project, Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa, has almost become shorthand for the new energy in the tiny town.) Thoughtful, dynamic, yet precise with her own words, Dorn has become both the advocate and the standard-bearer for a 21st-century Marfa. And while she is now one of the most visible and effective figures on New York’s art scene, she still has one foot firmly planted in the small town in the desert with a big profile.


Dorn started her career as a painter, and never set out to become a director of an arts institution. Nor did she plan to set down roots in Marfa, a town forever linked with the artist Donald Judd, whose Chinati Foundation, devoted largely to minimalist sculpture, is as holy a site for art world types as Lourdes is for Catholic pilgrims. “What they do they do very well,” Dorn insists. “But I thought we could be a counterpart to Chinati. We could show mostly living artists, and you could have an experience similar to how you experience art at Chinati, but ever changing.” More than a decade on, that protean sensibility has not only had an impact on the world of contemporary art, it’s also made Marfa into a more experimental and more vigorous town, with repercussions as far as
New York City.


Fairfax Dorn is a born-and-bred Texas girl. Born in San Antonio, the scion of two ranching families, she moved with her family to Corpus Christi until her teenage years—her father’s management of an oil and gas business necessitated frequent moves. Then came Denver, but Dorn missed the Lone Star State so much that she enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied studio art. She was following in the footsteps of one beloved family member: her grandmother Nancy Negley. Negley, who made collages and painted still lifes, was an early benefactor of the San Antonio Museum of Art; later she joined the boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Dia Art Foundation, as well as the American Academy in Rome.


“Early in my life, because my family was involved in the arts, I always resisted it,” Dorn says. She might have escaped were it not for a role model at the University of Texas: the painter Peter Saul, known for his churning, cartoonish, politically trenchant canvases in Day-Glo colors. “He was my mentor. I studied with him for three years. I see him everywhere now, but he was a tough teacher, and focused on the work.” (Much later, in 2013, Dorn curated the show “Comic Future” at Ballroom Marfa, for which her former professor flew out to the desert to present his work alongside that of Carroll Dunham, Sigmar Polke, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.)


After college Dorn came to New York to live with her sister in SoHo, with vague intentions to make it as a painter. She knew few people in town, and although she bagged herself a day job at the Whitney she felt that the city wasn’t for her. A studio in Tribeca gave her space to work and think, but after September 11, 2001, downtown New York suddenly seemed like a much less peaceful place. “9/11 was what actually changed my direction. I don’t know whether I had an early crisis, at 25 or 26, but I started questioning my life. This wasn’t a way to live, I thought. Everyone was so frightened, and I just wanted to get away.”


So Dorn left New York: not for one of the larger Texas cities, but for a speck on the map even smaller and more remote than one-horse Marfa. The ghost town of Terlingua, Texas—not even a town, actually, but merely a “census-designated place” with a population of 58—lies just a few miles from Big Bend National Park, and not much farther from the Rio Grande river that forms the border between the United States and Mexico. Abandoned stone houses lie amid scrub brush and exposed earth. The air is choked with dust, and the sun beats down mercilessly. “You’re on the edge of the world. For some people it looks like a bomb went off, but for others”—and Dorn counts herself among them—“it’s the most beautiful place in the world.” She’d been to Terlingua before in her childhood, but this was no homecoming. This was an escape, and the first step in her West Texas artistic reawakening.


She painted, hiked through the parks, readjusted her internal clock to the much slower rhythms of the desert. It was a reclusive time, though she had company: her friend Virginia Lebermann had also made the Texas-to-New-York-to-Texas round trip, and was living in Terlingua part-time. “We would always say, wouldn’t it be amazing to bring artists into the desert? To present films on the side of the canyons? Wouldn’t that be amazing? We were so removed from everything, we thought we had to bring the artists to us.” One day in 2002, Dorn and Lebermann made the two-hour drive to relatively populous Marfa in a busted Chevy (“I wanted a pickup truck, but I had a Suburban”), where the Lannan Foundation had just begun a residency program for writers, and at a reading she and a few dozen other listeners set rapt in the shadow of the Chihuahua Mountains. And something clicked: this small town, so long associated with a single artist, had room for new art, and new institutions.


Dorn had first made the pilgrimage to Marfa in 1999, and like everyone who visits, she came away with a transformed understanding of the art of Donald Judd. The foremost of American minimalist sculptors, Judd rethought what a work of art could be by using industrial materials such as steel, aluminum and concrete, often produced with manufacturing methods and displayed on the floor. For Judd, the experience of an artwork in a specific site was as important as the artwork itself, and in the early 1970s he began acquiring land and property in West Texas with a view to displaying art in perpetuity. The Chinati Foundation, which opened in 1986, shows Judd’s art alongside that of Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Carl Andre and Roni Horn in placidly renovated army barracks and artillery sheds. (Dorn has gone on to join the board of the Judd Foundation, while Lebermann joined Chinati’s council.)


For decades after, Marfa was synonymous with Judd: an off-the-grid temple to minimalism that offered perfect viewing conditions, but that didn’t change over time. By the turn of the millennium, though, little Marfa was becoming big news. The opening of Dia:Beacon, in New York’s Dutchess County, had electrified interest in Judd and his fellow experimenters of the late 1960s, and Marfa was attracting a new generation of Americans looking to escape from the big city. Tim and Lynn Crowley, Marfa muckety-mucks who had opened the excellent Marfa Book Company, were looking to sell their house, and for Dorn it was love at first sight. And the very same week, Lebermann saw a for sale sign on a building next to a gas station: a crumbling old dance hall, built in 1927, going cheap. “Real estate is destiny,” Dorn avers.


Over a long weekend, the two young women conceived a mission and a model for Ballroom Marfa: a nonprofit institution devoted not only to contemporary art, but also to music, film and all other aspects of our culture. (The New York dealer Alexander Gray became an informal consultant, and organized one of their early shows.) They ran Ballroom Marfa on a shoestring, with a budget of little more than $100,000, with a little seed money from Lebermann’s family to keep the doors open and get a few exhibitions off the ground. María José Arjona, a Colombian performance artist, presented Ballroom’s first show—scrawling across the walls and the floor with charcoal—before they even had a lock on the door. “We had no registrar, no shipping team, no PR.


We would just get people in Marfa that we knew to handle artworks, or call people in from Austin. We just dove in—and I don’t know how we did it, to be honest.”


“As we were renovating the ballroom, Virginia and I were sitting at the Pizza Foundation. We were brainstorming, and one of us blurted out that maybe we should open a tapas bar. Someone must have been eavesdropping—you know, small town—and they must have heard us say topless bar. They got so upset! They thought we were a bunch of drug-addict lesbians turning the ballroom
into a strip club, and they called the local newspaper!” Happily, the Big Bend Sentinel is a responsible journalistic institution; they got the story straight.


What Ballroom brought to Marfa was not only a new place to see art. Ballroom brought a new energy to the small Texas town, and showed that Marfa was not only a temple to the late Donald Judd but a vital, experimental site for new artistic creation. In 2005, in
collaboration with New York’s Art Production Fund, Ballroom invited the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset to Marfa, where the impish Norwegian-Danish duo envisioned an ingenious commentary on the congruence of art, fashion and gentrification. Prada Marfa, Elmgreen & Dragset’s sly masterpiece off US Highway 90, is a counterfeit luxury emporium, with the same pistachio paint job as Miuccia’s many boutiques, where the door is always locked and dust gathers on the floor. (It’s a biting joke, too, about how the fashion world has glommed on to traditions of minimal sculpture: Prada Marfa’s squat concrete box riffs on Judd’s giant cubes in the West Texas sagebrush.) Less than a week after the work was unveiled, vandals tagged the side of Prada Marfa with the graffito “Dumb,” and stole half a dozen handbags.


“It’s only about fifteen feet wide, but in that landscape it appears monumental. It’s now one of the most viewed works of public art in Texas. Every truck driver who heads down the highway would stop, look at it, wonder what it is. So many people thought it was a real Prada store, and it takes a while to figure out that it’s a public sculpture. People have shot at it, covered it in graffiti: it’s taken a hit over the past decade. They either love it or they hate it.” Among those who love it: Beyoncé Knowles herself, who trekked from her native Houston to the desert to visit the ersatz Prada boutique, and duly Instagrammed it.


Ballroom Marfa has gone on to present the art of such acclaimed artists as Rashid Johnson, Antony Gormley and Matthew Day Jackson, alongside a slew of younger figures seduced by the Texan landscape and its possibilities. It’s not only artists who are attracted to this tiny town, Allison Sarofim, Philip Graf zu Solms, Anne-Cecilie Speyer and Abdullah  Al-Turki are just a few of the names on a very lofty list of patrons. Admission is free, and pulls more than 10,000 visitors a year to a town with a population a fraction of that size. Museum groups, national and international, come often now, and much younger artists are spending time in Marfa instead of heading straight to New York or Los Angeles. They’ve also begun an impressive talks program, Marfa Dialogues, which brings together artists with journalists, scientists and political thinkers to discuss the environment, civic engagement and cross-border issues. That talks program has given Ballroom a means to transcend its hometown, and to pop up in Houston, St. Louis, and even New York. In March, Dorn invited Andres Santo Domingo’s record label, Mexican Summer, and created a curated weekend of music and art called Marfa Myths. It’s just another way that Dorn is thinking of creatively of spreading Ballroom’s mission.


For New York is Dorn’s home once again: the woman who once escaped to a ghost town with 58 inhabitants has returned to the city of eight million. She lives in Gramercy with her husband, Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery. (The pair had “an abbreviated version” of a Vedic wedding, officiated by the couple’s meditation teacher on Dorn’s family’s ranch.) She has handed on day-to-day responsibilities for Ballroom Marfa to Susan Sutton, a sharp young curator most recently at the sublime Menil Collection in Houston. Dorn is now artistic director, planning Ballroom’s long-term programming and helping to shore up the finances of an art space that is definitely no longer a shoestring operation. Ballroom Marfa raised $600,000 at its first New York gala, and has plans for a major event this October, probably to be held at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, with a certain film director the honoree.


“I had to remain connected to New York while I was in Marfa,” she says. “A lot of our board is from New York City. What I miss the most is the horizon: seeing that horizon every day. The peacefulness. The light.” These days she heads back to West Texas every six weeks or so. Yet even in the big city, Fairfax Dorn is never fully away from the small town in the desert that Donald Judd put on the map, and which she reenergized and reoriented. “Judd created this connection between New York and Marfa a long time ago,” Dorn explains. “We have this magnetic synergy between the two places, and I think we can be that outside, alternative place for a major city. Marfa is the absolute opposite of New York City. There may be limited places to eat, limited places to sleep, but the quality is extraordinary, and you don’t lower your ambitions.”





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