Two places in the desert of West Texas represent a major modern art phenomenon. Marfa and Valentine are 30 minutes apart on US 90, originated as railroad and cattle ranch towns, and now house famous works of art. Valentine has only 134 people and is practically a ghost town, but outside of town, heading north on the highway, you’ll encounter a most unusual sight. On the side of the road is an unexpected, fascinating sculpture.
What Is Prada Marfa?
In 2005, arts organization Ballroom Marfa commissioned the Prada Marfa sculpture that would sit on the side of the road and be available for people to see day or night on any day of the year. It is a scale replica of a Prada retail boutique storefront. It has authentic Prada merchandise — shoes and handbags — displayed on shelves inside as you would expect to see in a store. You can look through the large retail windows, but you cannot go inside. The front of the building features black awnings and the name of the store in the iconic Prada font.
There is no parking lot or any other structure near the sculpture. You pull off onto a graded shoulder area on one of the two US 90 lanes, across from the sculpture. It is a wide enough area to accommodate several cars and even RVs at the same time. A narrower paved shoulder is available on the same side of the road as the sculpture.
The obvious question to ask is why did Ballroom Marfa commission this piece? There is a commemorative plaque that stands next to the “land art project” but gives no explanation for its existence. The juxtaposition of this sculpture, touting an international luxury brand in the West Texas desert in a tiny town, is part of the critical statement of the art. Originally, the building was going to be left to disintegrate into the desert as a further statement of the art. But the night it opened, the structure was vandalized and the goods stolen by critics of the project. The benefactors repaired the damage and decided to keep the sculpture intact. It has suffered at least one other attack of vandalism, but today, it stands as it was originally constructed.
People Love Prada Marfa
The appeal of this piece of land art is its complete disassociation with the land on which it sits. A high-end store that one would find on 5th Avenue in New York City sits on a dusty roadside without any fanfare. There are no signs, no “you are here” markers, no souvenir stands. People want to see it for themselves. I was there on a weekday morning and a dozen people pulled in and out while I was there. People are fascinated by the presence of this object that is out of sync with the rest of its surroundings.
Most people I talked to saw it as an oddity to “see” or wanted to experience it as the ultimate selfie location. Even though I had seen pictures, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like because the concept was too jarring. It has an entry in Atlas Obscura, the directory of curious places worldwide. It’s a worthy entry.
People have made the site their own in a symbolic way. Hundreds of locks have been put on a wire fence that flanks the property. People leave a symbolic emblem of their visit and become part of the place; and there doesn’t seem to be an effort to stop the participation.
Marfa Is Art
Marfa is the headquarters for arts in West Texas. There are numerous galleries, art stores, and homages to the craft and legacy of its resident artists. There are several festivals throughout the year, so plan your visit accordingly.
Donald Judd was a well-known modern artist who still has an enduring presence in Marfa with his home, studio, gallery, and other art spaces. He died in 1994, but his footprint in the town is enormous, literally and figuratively. He was an internationally known modern artist who was categorized as a minimalist. His later artworks are very large in scale, with some filling entire rooms. His Chinati Foundation provides tours of his legacy gallery and other spaces.
The other dominant arts voice in town is Ballroom Marfa. They support resident artists, multi-modal art installations, and might best be described as art with a social edge. They commissioned the Prada Boutique. Their current exhibit is called Kite Symphony and is a collaborative project between a musician and graphic artist who have been in residence at Ballroom Marfa for the last 6 months. The result of their work is presented in three separate modes — a video with music, an outdoor sound exhibit with a sculpture, and a projection of fast-moving graphic images with techno music. The intention of the project is to capture the sounds of the high desert prairie and to graphically showcase them with images. It is highly conceptual yet has a tangible element. The artists built kites to capture the sounds of the wind, videotaped the flying kites, and dubbed over it with techno music that is inspired by the sounds of nature. The outdoor kite flyers are wearing spacesuits and inside you can sit on silver mylar floor pillows with what looks like fire retardant silver sheets beneath them. This is Marfa.
There are galleries in town that cater to less eclectic art. I came across a display of watercolors in The Hotel Paisano that captured a sequence of images of the desert and the surrounding mountains. Another series was an abstract depiction of the trains coming through town in bright colors. There is something for everyone to enjoy in Marfa’s art scene. Marfa is proud of its art. Visit Marfa provides a complete rundown of galleries, exhibits, festivals, and organizations that are promoting art of all types.
Seeing the art in town gave me an appreciation for the Prada sculpture. Marfa is as incongruous as the Prada Boutique in Valentine. No one would expect this ranch and railroad town to be an artistic center and yet it is. Maybe it’s the desert colors or the brilliant sunsets that attract the artists. They’re here and are celebrated by locals and tourists alike.
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