January 12, 2020

Cadillac Ranch a ‘potent image’ out in the Texas plains

Driving through Amarillo, Texas, on Interstate 40 recently, I fully intended to stop by the Cadillac Ranch I’d visited years ago. But we took one exit east to get a bite to eat and took the surface road west and got back on the interstate one entrance west and missed it. By the time I got to the point I could head back east, I kept driving west.
            From recent photos, I knew it didn’t look like it did back in the ’80s when I’d climbed into a pickup truck with two friends and headed out across the north Texas plains and stopped to check out the unique artwork of 10 old Cadillacs buried front end in the ground at a slight angle as if they had had an emergency landing in formation with the tail fins sticking up in the air, inspired by Amarillo entrepreneur Stanley Marsh back in the 1970s. Through the years, it’s been vandalized, cars have been burned, and they’ve painted with graffiti. But the tail fins of the 10 Cadillacs still highlight the horizon.
            While I didn’t see Cadillac Ranch this time, the image and the day have stuck in my mind. And I remembered juxtaposing the image I have of it with the Picasso sculpture at Daley Plaza in Chicago and knew it was time to remember what I saw a few miles west of Amarillo on that hot Texas day years ago.
            I was vaguely aware back then that our destination was Amarillo and beyond. What we were going to do was more vague, though. I was just along for the ride. And for most of the 50-odd-mile ride, I stared out the window at the rolling grasslands scattered with cattle spread out from near the highway to tiny dots far away in the distance.
            The Amarillo skyline flashed by, and we were headed west on Interstate 40 when I heard one of the guys say, “That’s surely not it.”
            I glanced off in the direction the other two were looking. I didn’t know what “surely wasn’t it.” But what I saw was something that looked like several surface-to-surface air missile bunkers, missiles poised and ready to send off a volley to the east. 
            “That’s about where it should be,” the guy said. “At least that’s where it says it is on the atlas.”
            “What is it we’re looking for?” I asked.
            “Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch,” the driver said, laughing.
            I vague recalled hearing about that on some TV show or from some feature article somewhere. I later learned I’d heard a song about the place, too.
            But there wasn’t any clear image of it in my mind then. I could imagine several things, none of them resembling the mock missile site back up the road. 
            We pulled off at the next exit and stopped at a small market and gas station to ask for directions. The two middle-aged women exchanged glances as if to say, “Here’s more of ’em,” but answered the question.
            “You just go down this road right here—not the interstate,” one of the women said. “Five or six miles and you’ll see it. Can’t miss it—it’s just a bunch of cars buried in the ground with the back ends sticking up.”
            It was the missile bunker, I thought. And we drove east on the frontage road until we saw the cars. I counted 10 of them as we pulled off the road and stopped before an opening in the fence. A narrow, well-worn dirt path between the rows of maize led nearly a hundred yards to the cars, buried nose down in the ground, up to each windshield, and all standing semi-proudly in a neat row. 
            They spread out at 4- or 5-foot intervals for 20-25 yards in an area about 10 or 15 yards deep. Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch isn’t otherwise identified or explained. People took pictures from several angles, smiling and laughing as they looked at the old cars buried in the dirt.
            “It’s not quite what I thought it’d be,” I heard somebody say. 
            I didn’t know what I’d expected and wasn’t sure what I was seeing. It seemed to be saying something about the bygone era of the big Cadillac. Whatever it was and for whatever reason it was there, though, it made me feel good that somebody had done it.
            While others took photographs, I walked around the buried cars and read the graffiti and looked inside some of them. They had evidently been painted red to cover up past graffiti, but more graffiti quickly took its place. One girl from Ft. Worth plastered her name and address in several places, always saying this was her second visit to the place and to look her up in Ft. Worth.
            “The Boss” was written on the top of one old Cadillac; “Springsteen” was written on another, both evidently because of the song called “Cadillac Ranch” he’d written a few years earlier.
            Before I walked back down the dirt path to the road, a young guy climbed to the top of one of the protruding rear bumpers, stood up and provided a moon shot of his rear end to add his contribution to the statement being made. 
            When I got home, I called information—this was before much Internet access was available—for Stanley Marsh and caught him entertaining, unavailable for my questions.
            The next day I called for him at Marsh Enterprise, a media company. Marsh was unavailable for comment, but would be later.
            All I really wanted to know was what was on his mind when he had the place created, how much it had cost him and a profound quotation or two about the meaning of life from him. The secretary did refer me to Doug Michels, one of the three creators of the Cadillac Ranch. He was available.
            “He was looking for a great piece of art,” Michels, then a Washington, D.C., architect, told me about Marsh’s commission to the Ant Farm, a California-based architectural and design firm between 1969-1978.
            Marsh was familiar with the work of Michels and his two partners, Chip Lord and Hudson Marquez, through houses they’d designed in Texas and other artwork they’d done, Michels said.
            “It was pretty open-ended,” Michels said about the job and how he and his partners went about completing it. 
            When he, Lord (an architect then at the University of California-San Diego) and Marquez (then working in the Hollywood film industry) visited the site to decide what to create, the wheat was moving in the wind like waves in the ocean. 
            “What we did was inspired by dolphins,” Michels said. “Their tail fins show above the water as they swim. The wheat field reminded me of the ocean, and we reached the decision on the spot.”
            Completed in 1974, the 10 Cadillacs represent each styling change from 1949-1963, Michels said. People interpret the creation in their own ways, but Michels said they had a definite meaning in mind when they created the piece.
            “It’s a monument to the rise and fall of the Cadillac tail fin from ’49 to ’63,” Michels said. “Some people see it as the end of the gas-guzzling automobile, but that’s not what the artists had in mind.”
            Springsteen’s lyrics are just as open to interpreters. He wrote that the Cadillac “rides just like a little ball of heaven here on earth” and “when I die throw my body in the back/and drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac. …” 
            I’d still like to know what Marsh wanted when he approached the Ant Farm and why he wanted anything on the place at all and whether he was satisfied with what he got.
            That’ll have to wait for another day, if at all. The completed work was most of what was sticking in my mind. 
            “It’s a potent image,” Michels said, saying something like what I’d been thinking since I first saw the Cadillac Ranch—“The American Stonehenge.”