Sunday, February 9, 2020

MARFA: MINIMALISM


Thomas Van Stein: Marfa Lights Beneath Full Moon




A rooster awakens me at sunrise and the dude who just opened Marfa Book & Wine is sitting outside when I arrive for coffee.  

“Youre not here to use the Internet, are you?” he says.

"Nope.”

“Cos its down.”

“Course it is.  Who cares?” 

Van Stein trudges in.  “Catch anything?” I ask.

The artist had been up most of the night watching for mystery lights and painting,

“Even the fake lights got snuffed.  Just me and the moon.”

We cruise Marfa’s residential streets, built on a grid.  
The locals are big on trailers and mobile homes, especially shiny vintage Airstreams.  

And Godbold mill—a damn sight more interesting than Donald Judds crates or boxes or cubes or whatever the hell theyre supposed to be.  Also, it has function:  It once (maybe still does) processed something useful to people.  


Van Stein


Old Godbold represents the difference between natives and New Marfans.  

The natives are naturally minimalist; the new crowd contrive minimalism, desperate to install themselves—install being the hip keyword.  

Design an art installation, around which to de-install themselves from New York (substitute any big city) and install themselves (at least for posturing purposes) in a small west Texas town. 

“Ya, see, anyone who’s paying attentionI really am a minimalist!  Im installed!”

Who cares? 

Native Marfans dont. 

Theyre just grateful to unload decrepit houses for a hundred grand—houses they used to board up and abandon.

We pass Marfa Ballroom, which, like most of the other fifteen galleries/installations in town, are painted off-white with little or no markings; one strains to see only a minimal amount of artwork inside.  They seem closed off from the public, as if secret cults are breeding communal children inside.  

The doors are locked.  

When you knock, nobody answers.  

Why not?  

Because the minimalist owners are here only a minimal amount of time; they are really in New York (substitute any big city).  

Or maybe its just a tax dodge:  Build an installation to yourself and write it off as a business expense.   

Or:  Is insurance cheaper for expensive art if you house it in Marfa?  (One gallery—behind behind minimal lock and key—houses a pricey collection of Andy Warhols Last Supper series.)

Donald Judd actually lived in Marfa, in a house now called The Block.  

His emulators only pretend a presence.

We weave through the Big Bend Mountains, to Alpine, where Marfans go for supplies:  A True Value with a Radio Shack.  Alpine isnt good for much else.

Back in Marfa, Van Stein heads out to paint Godbold.  

I amble to Marfa Wine & Book, spend an hour poking around, perusing bookshelves.  

Clearly, the Crowleys spend more on electricity to light their large shop than they receive in gross income from books and coffee and wine.  

So, what is this really about—a big-fish-in-a-small-pond deal?  Or having everything in place when the hordes arrive? 

Build a bookstore, with espresso and wine, and they will come. 

A coffee table book on Airstreams catches my eye, and my imagination.  

Maybe thats the answer.  A mobile home.  

Not just any mobile home, a shiny silver rounded classic.  About as Who-charismatic as it gets, given one has in-take and out-put and the need for a safe place to sleep.

Van Stein and I re-group at five-thirty, the horseshoe bar at Jetts, a dirty dry martini apiece. 

“You know,” I say, “these folks, the locals, are the real minimalists.  Its a Texan thing.  They like it straight, do it straight.  Straight roads, straight talk.  Did you see the police station?  The stencilling on their window says Police.  Simple words, as few as possible.  Isnt that the essence of minimalism?  Stripping everything down until it lacks expression?”

Van Stein studies me with one eye closed.  “Howd you suddenly smarten up on minimalism?”

“The bookstore this afternoon.  This town, on the surface, is being reinvented by big city minimalists, but the genuine minimalists have always been here.  Marfa isnt inspired by Judd.  This is where Judd found inspiration to be a minimalist.  His cubes come from these buildings around us.  You know, even James Dean was a minimalist.”

“Yeah?”

“Only three movies.  Thats what happens when youre touched by Marfa.”

“I know you dont think much of Judds boxes," says Van Stein.  "But the point is, we dont know whats inside his boxes.”

“Theres nothing inside his boxes.”

“You dont know that.  Thats the mystery.   Its all about whats inside.  With minimalists, its about what you dont see.”

“Okay," I say. "I dont see the point.  Theyve already got minimalism down to an art and a science here in Marfa.  Why do they need a bunch of big city minimalists?”

“Easy,” says Van Stein. “Money.”

“So thats whats in Judds boxes?”

“Maybe.  He sure as hell couldnt spend it around here.  He was happily boxed in.  Anything outside Marfa is outside the box.  All we see is the outer form.  Its the mystery.  His bare cubes are an infinite abstraction, like a blank canvas." He pauses to catch up with his blather.  "I got it.  Judd comes along to Marfa and sees three kinds of nuts:  Obsessive Giant-slash-James Dean fans, mystery light-seekers and the locals.  Nuts-cubed.  So he creates three-dimensional squares.  Right?”

“All I know is,” I say, “not only does my cell phone and Internet not work, but my wristwatch stopped ticking, too, and when I tried to make a call on the courtesy phone my credit card didnt work either.”

We drain our martinis, saunter up the road to Maiyas. 


Photo: Van Stein


“Reservation?” asks the maitre d’.

In a half-horse town?  Give us a break!

He gives us the best table, near a picture window looking onto Hopper-esque Highland Avenue upon which shadows from the setting sun crawl up brownstone buildings.

And he was not kidding about reservations:  By the time a bottle of Fess Parker chardonnay arrives, Maiyas is almost full.

The menu could have been devised in Napa Valley:  Chicken satay with peanut sauce, roast Atlantic salmon, and for dessert, free form flaky tart “served hot”—with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to cool it down.

A highly inspired Van Stein dashes for his paints: I ease myself to the bar for a chat with a Mexican barmaid who says shes from Chihuahua—and I love the way she says Chihuahua.  Shes a nippy thing, even looks like a Chihuahua.   

It is dark now.  I take a walk through quiet Marfa streets, ending up, about 9:40, at bar called Beer. 

“Youre my first customer all night,” says the barmaid.

Now thats minimal.

True to their minimalist name, they serve only beer.  I order a bottle of Bud, no glass (my contribution to the minimalist experience). 

“So, what the deal with this place?” I ask the barmaid.

“Ricks?”  (Beer belongs to Rick.)

“No, Marfa.”

She explains that Marfa was dying in the early 1980s; was going the same way as nearby Valentine.  

“Donald Judd and the artists saved Marfa," she concludes.

“But they just install themselves here and boast about it back in the big city.” I say.

“No.”  She shakes her head. “They really live here, they participate.  They buy houses, change a few little things, pretty them up—but they dont rebuild or enlarge or change the character.” 

She tells me that Rick, her boss, was getting ready to shut his place down... until Marfa Ballroom (an installation) brought a rock band to town, and loaned it to Rick.  

“This place filled up so full, you couldnt move.  We got another band coming in next week.  Rick is expanding.  Hes taking the back wall out to create more space.”

Another example of Marfa minimalism:  You need to expand?  Push the wall out.  No bureaucrats around to inspect, consider, disapprove, order changes, re-inspect…

I sit, sucking beer from a bottle, thinking it through:  I had perceived the artists as snobby interlopers, taking over a town, making it their own cult of minimalism without regard for the locals or their heritage.  Now Im learning that without the artists the town would by now be dead wood. The artists are the true saviors, bringing commerce—absent of commercialism—to Marfa.

We thought we were coming to Marfa to see a) nuts attracted to a metaphysical phenomenon (or maybe the metaphysical phenomenon itself) and b) nuts obsessed with dead celebrities. 

What we found was something much different and more exciting:  The power of art.


Next morning, a setting grapefruit moon sees us off while a just-rising sun casts its pink glow over desert and mountains.

Mystery lights or no, there is something metaphysical about Marfa.   

The lights are just the lure.  They reel you in, as if you’re a fish swimming toward shimmering light and, once snagged, you’re hooked by Who-carism.

Now just the thought of Marfa relaxes me more than five milligrams of Xanax washed down with a dirty dry martini.

No more falling sky.


Back home, I contact the spooky people in Washington DC and learn that Marfa Prada is actually a snare—code-named Tract 33—a four-dimensional portal engineered by aliens from a distant solar system to collect human specimens for their zoo and lab experiments, part of a secret accord with the US government—hatched by the CIA, NSA, and NASA—to preclude an out-an-out invasion and enslavement of everyone.
           
"So why didnt they nab us?” demands Van Stein.

"Are you nuts?” I roll my eyes. “Yeah, you are. They wouldn't want us. Theyre looking for normal specimens.”