Just minutes into the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men,” Javier Bardem’s remorseless, alien hit man Anton Chigurh lobotomizes some poor sap with a cattle gun and steals his car, but the scene isn’t the film’s opening series of shots. No, instead the Coens establish a profound sense of isolation in the rugged and craggy, but low-slung and far-reaching mountains of the west Texas Trans-Pecos, a region so sparse that some counties’ population density comes out to a couple of people — or even just a fraction of a person — per square mile. Not only is nobody coming to save you from the villain unbound of the social contracts of morality, the Coens seem to say, but in a desert this vast your body may never be found at all.
Recently, I vacationed there.
“There,” specifically, is Marfa, Texas, population near 2,000, which serves as the seat of Presidio County and is home to a decommissioned U.S. Army fort turned art museum. You’ve probably seen pictures from Marfa on Instagram and swiped along assuming it was Austin. The quirky town boasts more than a dozen art galleries, a nearly century-old hotel built in the Spanish Colonial style, boutiques that sell handmade soap and designer dresses, arts festivals, a coffee roastery and a surprising number of fine-dining options, considering its location in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Most point to Donald Judd when asked how Marfa’s relationship with the arts began. Seeking a respite from the bustle of New York City in the 1970s, the noted critic and sculptor purchased a lot of land around Marfa — including the former Fort D.A. Russell — set up the non-profit Chinati Foundation and, as you do when you buy a lot of land in the middle of nowhere, started installing art out there. Just, like, in the middle of an open field. A stark, impersonal set of 15 rectangular concrete structures sit out in full view of the highway, like Stonehenge, but with 90 degree angles. Seeing it wasn’t the last time that weekend that I was shocked by artifice set against an inhospitable landscape.