Another predawn expedition on our recent trip took me to the outskirts of Amarillo. I’d been curious about the Cadillac Ranch for years. This was the place where they buried some cars in a cornfield so I wanted to have a look. Back in 1974 the project was the brainstorm of a local iconoclast (who prefers to be called Stanley Marsh 3). He was assisted by an unusual group of friends known as the Ant Farm.
I was never sure what I’d think of the Ranch, and now that I was in Amarillo I wasn’t even sure where it was. My atlas indicated that the ten Cadillacs were located somewhere west of the city on the south side of I 40. This also happens to be the former path of Route 66, and so it was undoubtedly considered a perfect place for the half-burials.
I drove out there and couldn’t find them. It seemed I needed coffee.
There was a Starbucks on Soncy Road at the previous exit. I returned, wondering if my family was still asleep at our nearby motel. Inside the coffee shop, the two employees who took my order debated the best way to send me to the Cadillacs. I thanked them and headed back, this time with plenty of caffeine and several sets of directions.
I found the Ranch right away. It was right off of the Interstate in a field just like the one in my imagination.
As you can see from my photograph, the cars have been spray-painted over the years. The interesting thing is that Marsh and the Ant Farm have encouraged everyone to do this. Purists argue that the original Caddys were far lovelier with their peeling factory paint and without all the annoying graffiti. Now that I’ve seen the cars in person I completely disagree. I’ll elaborate on that in a moment.
In the meantime, empty cans of paint littered the ground in open defiance of Texas law.
Being a photographer, I noted that the sun was about to peer over the horizon, so I got to work. The impulse is to stand back from the cars in order to take a group portrait. I have to admit they look good from back there (something like a GM version of Stonehenge). But I also felt I was taking pictures of a Little League team. I took a few anyway and they looked like all the other ones I’d Googled back home.
I decided to go in closer. What I discovered, is that when appoaches the cars they inspire a palpable sense of reverence. I sidled up to one. The fins were high above my head and looked especially wonderful in the first rays of daylight. I was feeling something like one of the apes in Kubrick’s 2001 and so I placed two fingers on a wheel. I was surprised that it spun freely.
Of the pictures I took after that, the one I liked the best was the one at the top of my post. Truthfully, it’s not easy photographing someone else’s artwork.
The problem is, whose artwork is it exactly?
These handsome vehicles were first penciled up by a creative team of designers back at General Motors. That was a long time ago, so I don’t know if anyone has properly celebrated their achievements. Years later, ten Cadillacs were dragged from their various junkyards to be partially interred here in a cornfield. This was not an easy task and involved the use of a crane and other massive equipment. Like it or not, Marsh and his friends made an auspicious attempt to clarify the meaning of the cars. They also remade a landscape. Since then, anyone who has sprayed any paint here has tweaked the project slightly, and those who of us who come here and take the pictures have taken it somewhere else.
Everyone’s involved at Cadillac Ranch. It keeps going. That appears to be the point.
Did I spray paint something?
Yes. I picked up a couple of spent cans and shook them until I found some paint. Carefully aiming, I hissed out a tribute on a wheel strut. I did this for Joe Strummer, the former frontman for The Clash who would’ve thought the Ant Farm rocked.
It was red paint, of course.