Just west of Amarillo, Texas
Directions: South side of I-40. Take Exit 60 for Arnot Road.
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Directions: South side of I-40. Take Exit 60 for Arnot Road.
Fun Places to Visit
By Phil Dotree — January 6, 2011
When viewing the Cadillac Ranch for the first time, it’s common to be a little bit confused. The Cadillac Ranch seems to be nothing more than a line of Cadillacs buried halfway in the ground, and that’s really exactly what it is—ten Cadillacs in a whole lot of dirt. Nevertheless, the Cadillac Ranch has become a popular attraction in Amarillo, Texas (it’s in a wheat field situated just west of town), and astute visitors will undoubtedly note that there’s more to the Cadillac Ranch than meets the eye.
The attraction was built in 1974 by a group of artists known as the Ant Farm. Ant Farm’s mission was to create what they called “underground architecture,” creative sculpture and public art with an approach that was innovative at the time. New art installations were to reflect ideas important to the group, including conservation and cultural introspection.
The Ant Farm’s members, Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, had some serious help with the Cadillac Ranch. It was funded by Stanley Marsh III, noted helium tycoon, who wanted an art installation for the public that would confuse as much as it entertained. The Ant Farm was game to answer such a request, and proposed buying ten Cadillacs which could be buried in the dirt at an angle roughly equivalent to sides of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Marsh loved the idea and agreed to fund it.
They began purchasing used and junked Cadillacs from every major style upgrade that had been introduced. The cars were purchased for about $200 a piece. Most came from local junkyards, but some were still running. A creampuff 1962 Sedan de Ville ran so well that, in the words of Ant Farm member Chip Lord, “it was painful to bury it.”
Sourcing various models of Cadillacs actually turned out to be one of the biggest challenges involved in the project. One seller was so proud of his ‘49 Fastback Cadillac that he wanted $700, which was a huge amount of money for a Cadillac at the time. Ant Farm bought the car anyways and smashed it with sledgehammers in front of the previous owner.
In total, it took about two weeks to buy the Cadillacs for the installation. The Cadillacs were then arranged by model so as to lend the installation a sense of progression. A backhoe operator was hired to bury the cars one at a time, in order of their production and at a precise angle so that the tail end of each car would be clearly visible. The idea was that the viewer could watch the notable features of early model Cadillacs disappear and new features as they were introduced.
In particular, there was a large focus on the tail fin, a major feature of early Cadillacs. To Ant Farm, the tail fin represented class, luxury, and a strange aesthetic choice adopted by Americans everywhere simply because the Cadillac was such a symbol in and of itself. They wanted the Cadillac Ranch to show the tail fin and to even be a tribute to the fall of such an easily identifiable part of American automobiles. The cars were buried nose first to show the glorious tail fin as it was introduced and subsequently eliminated from the Cadillac.
Of course, the modern Cadillac Ranch doesn’t quite present this feeling of progression. That’s because it’s truly a public art installation. Members of the public are encouraged to add (or perhaps more literally, subtract) from the Cadillac Ranch in just about any way that they’d see fit. Pieces of cars have been gradually stripped away for years as the Cadillac Ranch has grown in notoriety. Tourists stop by to see the installation and decide to take a part of it with them. As a result, any part of the Cadillacs which were removable were taken long ago—including the tail fins that originally inspired the art piece. Ant Farm, of course, encouraged this. Accepting a bit of thieving from the public seemed logical, since the Cadillac Ranch was built to confuse and inspire thought in the first place. Thieving didn’t defeat the purpose of the work; if anything, it helped the work to evolve from the perspective of its creators.
Spray painters have also taken their toll on the Ranch. It’s become a sort of Mecca to anyone with a can of spray paint and a quick message to relay to the world, and spray painting is, again, encouraged by the owners and creators of the Cadillac Ranch. Tourists from all over the world use every conceivable color and type of paint to leave their mark, however temporarily, on Amarillo’s most famous art piece. Spray paint messages are almost instantly covered with other spray paint messages, ensuring that the Cadillac Ranch will be different each time that you visit it. For better or for worse, it’s a piece of Americana that changes on a daily basis as new hordes of visitors file past the Cadillac Ranch.
And visitors certainly make a point to stop and marvel at the Cadillac Ranch, regardless of how it compares to its original message. The cars are no longer recognizable as Cadillacs. Spray paint builds up and chips off. A perpetual cloud of paint surrounds many of the cars at any given time as new visitors arrive and leave. However, the Cadillac Ranch has only grown in popularity, even as it has changed dramatically.
It’s certainly not the same installation, but like any good piece of art, its place in pop culture has steadily evolved. The Cadillac Ranch can now be seen in the background of countless movies and television shows. Even for people who have never known its name or visited the installation itself, the Cadillac Ranch is a timeless symbol of the West, Texas, and the once great American automobile industry.
Phil Dotree has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Fark, Digg.com, etc.). He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com.
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