At first, we drove right past it. Planted off the Interstate 40, Cadillac Ranch has the ring of a retro roadside attraction like Amarillo’s other notable landmark, The Big Texan Steak Ranch. Famous for promising that if a customer can eat a 72-ounce steak within an hour, she doesn’t have to pay for it, The Big Texan is the kind of institution that we, two Europeans in the American West, had come to associate with the Texas Panhandle, alongside meat-packing facilities (about one-quarter of the United States’ beef is processed in the area) and the nuclear-weapon-disarmament plant that earned Amarillo the nickname ‘Bomb City’. Spotting the tilted row of capsized Cadillacs in the distance, like matchboxes casting lengthy shadows alongside grazing cattle, we turned back to factcheck our assumptions.
Cadillac Ranch is an installation of ten models of the classic American car half-buried nose-first into a wheat field (it was later moved), showcasing the evolution of its signature tailfins between 1949 and 1964. Created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels of San Francisco art collective Ant Farm, it has since gained the kind of pop-culture status that can encompass an eponymous Bruce Springsteen song and a cameo in Pixar’s Cars (2006). A critique of consumer culture built on planned obsolescence, it was, according to Marquez, ‘a goof on Texas too, [on] the mythical Texas oilman who dumps his Cadillac when the ashtray gets full.’ Ant Farm found their own Texas oilman in the figure of Stanley Marsh 3 (who eschewed the Roman numeral because he deemed it pretentious), the vocationally eccentric Amarillo millionaire who hated museums and felt art had to be ‘surprising and hidden … The audience I’m designing for are people who will come across it unexpectedly and not know it’s there.’ Marsh, who paid for Cadillac Ranch to be built on his own land, was known at the time as a charming prankster, as much a part of the local scenery as the zany works he sponsored and sometimes made – from a Claes Oldenburg-inspired giant necktie that he tied around a chimney to road signs scattered around Amarillo with cryptic messages like ‘Road Does Not End’, ‘Thrills, Cheap’, ‘We Know So Little About the Causes We Actually Serve.’
We parked in front of the farm gate where other cars had gathered, wondering if their drivers were also there by chance or had elected to spend Christmas Day on a cow pasture looking at a Pop Art provocation. There was no plaque explaining why the vehicles were presented in this way, nothing prescriptive of how visitors interact with them. But interact they did: most visitors, predominantly families with children and dogs, had come prepared with spray paint canisters and were busy adding their own marks to the lurid, rusting frames.
Consistent with Texas’s general affinity for conflating art (and politics) with entertainment – some of the most significant modern and contemporary works in the state are to be found in shopping centres and football stadiums – Cadillac Ranch is revealing of the local culture of art and consumption. It also bears the scars of disputes over art’s relationship to money and its makers. In September the oldest Cadillac was set on fire. While it inflicted limited damage, the suspected arson attack is believed to have been in response to sexual abuse indictments against Marsh in 2013, who passed away the following year. While a local group has called for the destruction of the installation along with other works he sponsored, it sheds little light on why so many identify Cadillac Ranch with its patron rather than its artists.
On the day we were there, we watched a couple spray their initials followed by ‘X-mas 2019’ on the 1964 model; a young boy writing BOOM in large orange letters. Against the sharp contrast of the field’s expansive flatness with the sky, there was something monumental, almost fossil-like about the motley, hollow structures as their shadows lengthened under the setting sun. We wrote a faint note in pen on the burnt Cadillac, imagining what the legacy of its exuberance and slow decay would look like. As we walked back to the car, we saw a boy spraying over it.
Online exclusive published on 12 February 2020