US Route 90 can seem to stretch on forever as it rolls through the Chihuahuan Desert in the parched western stretches of Texas. But for sojourning cultural tourists en route through the barren landscape, a new, giant work of art—if “art” is the right word—outside the town of Marfa now disrupts the monotonous highway. Sitting along Route 90 is a 1972 Dodge Charger, painted jet black and mounted on a banked cement platform, alongside a neon sign in the shape of the Playboy bunny. At night the bunny, which stands forty feet in the air, glows white in the darkness. It’s the only sign visible for miles.
Marfa, Texas—a town with a single traffic light that has become, over the last two decades, one of the country’s most hallowed sites for contemporary art—has been attracting more attention from the moneyed classes lately, but it has never before had to contend with such a crassly commercial intervention. The new work outside Marfa is by the artist Richard Phillips, and it was paid for by … well, by Playboy, the troubled, “aspirational lifestyle brand” that is trying to seduce a younger audience.
By dint of sexual orientation I have not had much occasion to pay attention to the travails of the bunny brand, so I’ll leave it to others to say whether Hugh Hefner’s pose as a border-state Medici will impress a generation with instant access to more pornography than Playboy has ever published. But Playboy Marfa—what a phrase—does say something about the art world today: There is nowhere immune from the market and from the marketers, not even the middle of the desert. The guiding spirits of Marfa may be rolling in their minimal graves, but in today’s art world there was no preventing such a corporate invasion. And at least Phillips has invaded with a modicum of finesse.
Marfa, until recently, was the holy site of minimalism, a refuge from the pressures of the commercial world rather than a stage for it. The little town (pop. 1,966) first came to the art world’s attention when Donald Judd, best known for his machine-precise sculptures that repeat simple rectilinear forms in metal or wood, moved there from New York in the early 1970s. By 1986, having acquired 400 acres of land and numerous buildings, Judd opened the Chinati Foundation to showcase large-scale sculpture—his own work as well as art by Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Carl Andre, and Roni Horn. (The Chinati Foundation has nothing to do with Playboy Marfa.)
Judd, who died in 1994, never made much of an effort to attract visitors to Marfa, and when he passed away the Chinati Foundation had a piddling $250 in its endowment. But as contemporary art has grown in popularity and in price, Marfa has been transformed—there is now an organic food truck, of course, and the restaurant Cochineal does a mean salad niçoise—and so have the kind of people who make the trek there.1 In 2005, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Drasget, the Danish-Norwegian duo best known for their Berlin memorial to gay victims of the Holocaust, underscored the transformation of minimalist art into a luxury good by installing a counterfeit Prada store just off Route 90. (Beyoncé visited Prada Marfa last year, where she performed an impressive star jump.) The doors are always locked, and now the fake store has been infested with bugs.
It’s one thing, though, for artists like Elmgreen and Dragset, with their evidently ersatz shoe emporium, to mock the larger art world’s absorption by the commercial domain. It’s quite another for a corporation itself to get in on the act, underwriting branded material that’s intended not as a critique of commercialization but as a simple PR opportunity. Enter, then, Richard Phillips—an artist who has made his name through a deft imbrication of high art and the commercial sphere. If you’re familiar with the name, it’s probably thanks to a TMZ-friendly exhibition he mounted at one of Gagosian’s many New York spaces last year: a series of giant paintings of Lindsay Lohan, not photorealist so much as just really, really big. He also won a spate of press coverage for a film he made of Lohan, posing à la Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.
Yet Phillips, a not unsophisticated student of media culture, has long been interested in escaping the confines of the gallery. There was a Richard Phillips purse at one point, a collaboration with Jimmy Choo (you could get one for free at Art Basel Miami Beach if you crashed the launch party). There was a Richard Phillips collection from MAC cosmetics (“His bold and beautiful portraits,” the company wheezed, “are highly technical, a refinement of precise, academic painting, so relevant to everything MAC artistry is all about”). He has collaborated with Cartier, Mont Blanc, and the worshipped Paris department store Colette. “You need celebrity endorsement and luxury sponsorship” if you want to make it in the art world today, Phillips told The New York Times, and unlike many other artists who’d agree with that statement sotto voce, he is not ashamed of it at all. What other artist has nabbed a cameo on “Gossip Girl”?2
So Playboy knew what it was doing when it commissioned Phillips for its biggest push yet into the art world. No one else has his easy mastery of art’s unstoppable commercialization, and no one else could make what is evidently a PR put-up job, complete with Playboy bunnies posing on the desert highway, into something that almost feels like art. Other recent attempts to glom onto the art world and its money—like a party Playboy threw last year at (where else?) Art Basel Miami Beach—have seemed more desperate. Playboy Marfa is much more cunning: Not only does it make Playboy’s very desperation for cultural legitimacy into the stuff of art, it also short-circuits the disgust or exhaustion of critics like me by playing its hand in the open.3
There’s no space for criticism, since everything you could hate about Playboy Marfa, from its theft of Judd’s legacy to its glorification of a brand that objectifies women, has already been accounted for. If you complain, you mark yourself as someone who just doesn’t know how the game is played—and Phillips doesn’t just play the game, he’s mastered it. Playboy apparently did not require Phillips to incorporate the bunny logo into his work. He went for it anyway, and made it glow in the night, all the better to foreground the mutual transactions among artists, entertainers, corporations, and indeed pornographers. If this feels uncomfortable to you—and Playboy Marfa has come in for a drubbing in the press already—it’s worth recalling that art throughout history has reflected the values and the principles that a society holds in highest regard. So if the art produced today functions primarily as corporate marketing materials or high-yielding assets for a tax-shy 1 percent, it’s a bit naïve to be surprised.
In decades past, Playboy, keen to demonstrate its cultural bona fides, turned to artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring in the hope that the legitimacy of art would rub off on its own softcore output. But Phillips, depressingly but with a welcome honesty, takes the vacuity of contemporary art as a given and jumps off from there. The PR is the art and vice versa: a relief, since it saves all of us a trip through the desert. In an interview with Bullett magazine Phillips notes that although he hopes to travel there one day, he’s never actually been to Marfa; he worked with maquettes in his studio but the final work was installed without his participation. Just as well: the launch party was here in New York, attended by some models, some artists, and the Playmate of the Year, all of them eager to fête something—an artwork or an ad campaign, who knows which—that most of them will never see.
Jason Farago is a writer and critic living in New York. Follow @jsf.
A fair number of whom, it’s worth mentioning, don’t drive there via Route 90; the little Marfa airport, just three miles out of town, is the perfect size for your Cessna.
Another, earlier Gossip Girl episode features a Richard Phillips painting on the staircase of Serena van der Woodsen’s aerie on the Upper East Side—as well as a Prada Marfa relic. (One whiny character refers to the artists not as Elmgreen and Dragset but “Elm and Drag,” which is not a nickname I have ever heard used in the real world.) Serena is only dimly impressed with the new Phillips hanging on the wall, telling her mother, “Your art consultant has exquisite taste.”
“In this case,” if you ask Phillips, “the brand steps forward and the brand becomes the palette. The project of a relaunch becomes a verifiable subject.”