What Is Art?

Can a bunny in the desert tell us?
Playboy Marfa at sunset.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

It was mid-April when Judge Paul Hunt’s office received the first call. The judge was at his desk inside the Presidio County courthouse, a pink stucco building with a mansard roof and cupola that sits at the end of Marfa’s Highland Avenue. His assistant answered the phone. On the line was a young woman from New York, who inquired politely about West Texas’s idiosyncratic building laws. What were the lighting regulations in the area? How might she get approval for new electrical service? Two days later, another New Yorker, just as polite, began ringing with similar questions. She and the first caller, she explained, were working on behalf of someone interested in installing something along U.S. 90. When she was reluctant to offer specifics over the phone, the assistant suggested she present the blueprints in person.

Three weeks later, the two women arrived in Marfa. Pretty and smartly dressed, “they had that eager intern vibe,” the judge recalled later. “And they had done their homework.” By now they had read up on the local Dark Skies Initiative limiting light pollution, and they had filled out the certificate of compliance required for new electrical service near the border. They’d also brought an artist’s rendering of their project; one mile outside town, on 6,500 square feet of land leased from longtime kindergarten teacher Sheri Eppenauer and her husband, Bob, they planned to build an art installation.

The judge was hardly surprised. After sculptor Donald Judd startled the art world in the seventies by leaving Manhattan for this faraway corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, Marfa had become a kind of pilgrimage site. On a former Army base at the edge of town, Judd established the Chinati Foundation, a museum dedicated to large-scale, permanent installations, such as his own concrete and aluminum boxes, which drew visitors from around the world. Over time, locals had grown used to German art critics descending on the Dairy Queen or black-clad L.A. architects raving about the light. In the past decade, more and more of the pilgrims had started moving to town for good. Wealthy Texans from the big cities now kept second (or third) homes there; Tim Crowley, a lawyer from Houston, and his wife, Lynn Goode, had bought and restored more than a dozen buildings in town, encouraging posh friends such as renowned defense attorney Dick DeGuerin to do the same. Walking up Highland Avenue these days, past the neon sign of one of the smallest NPR affiliates in America, past the plate-glass windows of the Marfa Book Company, past the vintage-television display at Future Shark Cafeteria, a Marfan might encounter any number of painters, sculptors, musicians, and poets. He might bump into writer Deborah Eisenberg, on a fellowship with the Lannan Foundation, at the Hotel Paisano, or Jake Gyllenhaal, in town for a Railroad Revival Tour concert, tossing a football on the street. Even Beyoncé had visited, staying in one of the restored trailers at the campground and hotel El Cosmico.

The location of the project that the women were proposing—west of town on U.S. 90—immediately reminded Hunt of Prada Marfa. Back in 2005, the Scandinavian art duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had caused a flap by displaying six Prada bags and twenty Prada shoes (rights only) in a glass-front adobe located about thirty miles farther down the highway, near Valentine. Though the artists intended their piece as a critique of consumer culture, many in Marfa decried it as plop art, arguing that it exploited the town’s reputation and marred the landscape. The piece was supposed to naturally decay, but two days after it went up, someone sprayed “Dum Dum” across the front and stole all the purses and fourteen of the shoes. Others riddled the installation with bullets. While the merchandise was restocked and the windows replaced with Plexiglas, eight years later graffiti still covered the back and cigarette burns perforated the awnings.

So the judge was curious to see the women’s plans. They showed him the rendering, which portrayed a 1972 Dodge Charger, painted matte black, on top of a concrete box—just like one of Judd’s—that was tilted forward, as if the Southern Pacific train that runs through Marfa had snaked off its tracks and rammed into it. Just behind the concrete plinth and car, a twenty-foot rabbit head outlined in neon light stood atop a tall pole, like a novelty lollipop. Except it wasn’t just any rabbit. It wore a bow tie and was distinctly recognizable. It was the Playboy bunny.

The work was by artist Richard Phillips, the women explained. He was a hot commodity: he had recently exhibited video portraits of Lindsay Lohan and adult film star Sasha Grey at the Gagosian Gallery, in New York. The judge studied the rendering. To his eye, there were at least three jokes in it. In addition to the play on the Judd box, the Charger seemed to be an allusion to John Chamberlain, an artist whose signature material was old cars; an entire building of the Chinati Foundation was dedicated to his crumpled forms. And the bunny’s lighting evoked Dan Flavin, a close friend of Judd’s who worked with fluorescent tubes and whose most ambitious effort with them was housed at the Chinati as well.

“So what do you think?” the women asked eagerly.

Hunt leaned back in his leather chair and took a long sigh. “This will be a target of vandalism,” he said.

The next day, when the judge read the signatures on the certificate of compliance and realized who the owner of the piece was—Playboy Enterprises—he understood that the installation would be a target of much more than that.

If you know much about Marfa these days, chances are you read about it in the Wall Street Journal or Vanity Fair, or heard about it on NPR, or saw it featured on CNN. In the past decade, the town of two thousand has been showered with breathless press. The New York Times wrote about it at least

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