Art Market

Marfa Invitational Opens with Brisk Sales and a Sense of Optimism

Annie Armstrong
Apr 23, 2021 10:01PM

Installation view of Night Gallery’s booth at Marfa Invitational, 2021. Courtesy of Night Gallery.

Marfa, Texas, is not an easy place to reach. For those coming from New York City, the travel time rounds out to about a cool 12 hours; from Los Angeles, it’s at least eight. So consider that desire to make it to the West Texas desert for the second annual Marfa Invitational (postponed from April 2020 to this year) a testament to the enthusiasm of the art crowd to participate in the first fully in-person art fair in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to in-person events.

After such a claustrophobic, anxiety-inducing year, Marfa feels like the perfect place to get the ball rolling again. Set under the bright blue of Texas’s big sky, the ballroom of the Hotel Saint George welcomed masked guests, enthusiastic to be reunited once again in an art fair setting.

“It feels good! It feels exciting. I thought the timing was right,” the curator and gallerist Bill Arning said exuberantly, clad in a bright-blue face mask and purple suit. “People are so hungry for it.”

Michael St. John
Olaf, 2020
Bill Arning Exhibitions

Arning’s eponymous Houston outfit, Bill Arning Exhibitions, brought a selection of paintings by Michael St. John, whom Arning worked with while he was at White Columns in the 1980s. The paintings are St. John’s response to lockdown, where he was, like most of us, watching a lot of movies. The characters in St. John’s works are painted in gray scale, all frozen in moments of extreme duress: Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse screams as she realizes her baby has been abducted by the satanic cabal in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby; Joel Grey’s character in the 1972 film Cabaret laughs and dances to cover his terror as he witnesses the Nazis’ takeover before his eyes; and even Olaf, the snowman from the 2013 animated film Frozen, makes an appearance.

“I had never seen Frozen before I got this painting,” Arning said affectionately. “I had no idea how many friends I have that are obsessed by this character Olaf, and that he’s this snowman who just wants to go to the beach. I have so many adult friends who find him so relatable!”

The VIP opening was, for obvious reasons, significantly slower paced than the 2019 edition of the fair, though a feeling of optimism hovered about the attendees.

Nikki Maloof
The Meat Stall with Squashed Pigeon, 2021

“Marfa Invitational is grounded in the credence that sensory immersion through contemporary art heightens the human experience,” said Michael Phelan, the fair’s spritely founder, of the decision to host the event in person. “After a yearlong hiatus from day-to-day life as we previously understood it, human connection, along with our relationship to and with art, is more relevant than ever.”

Sales came in hard and fast. Nino Mier Gallery’s eye-catching booth of paintings and drawings by Nikki Maloof sold out within the first hour of the fair. Maloof’s graphic canvases depicting images of butchered meats, blood-red cocktails, and dead pigeons all sold for prices between $30,000 and $45,000. “I think of these as pop Dutch still-life paintings,” Mier explained. A handful of drawings by Maloof sold out as well, for $5,000 each.

Josh Sperling
Composite (224), ca. 2020
Jake Longstreth
Sand Canyon (Eucalyptus 2), 2020

Seated alongside Mier at his booth was the artist Jake Longstreth, whose work was the focus of a solo presentation put on by Mier at the nearby Eugene Binder Gallery as a special project for the fair. Mier will begin to host two shows per year at Eugene Binder as an annex location alongside his spaces in Los Angeles, Brussels, and Cologne. Longstreth’s exhibition, “Sand Canyon,” is a series of the artist’s large-scale paintings (some stretching to 10 feet in width) of trees along the Los Angeles landscape. “They fit in that space like a glove,” said Longstreth of his works.

Across the way from Mier was Bill Brady Gallery, whose booth, only a few hours into the fair, was nearly sold out. Four works by the artist Josh Sperling practically jumped off the booth’s walls, which, in keeping with the tradition of the godfather of Marfa’s art scene Donald Judd, are unvarnished sheets of Baltic birch plywood. Sperling, like Judd, is interested in Minimalism, and in bringing out the full function of a material’s utility. The pieces in Brady’s booth were all meandering curves of stretched canvas, painted in a manner that evoked Frank Stella and the Memphis Group. Each of the works were on sale for an average of $50,000.

The presence of Donald Judd’s influence was also present in other booths. Austin, Texas–based gallery Lora Reynolds featured a selection of work by Korean artist Jong Oh. Oh’s razor-thin sculpture Line Sculpture (cuboid) #40 (2021), on the market for $18,000, was composed of fishing wire so slight that if you cocked your head, the piece practically disappeared before your eyes.

Elsewhere at the fair, Dallas-based Gallery 12.26 sold three small paintings by Alex Olsen for $18,000 each, and one larger painting, From Light Into Dark, And Back Again II (2018–19), by Theodora Allen for $32,000. Bill Powers’s booth for Half Gallery presented offerings from two artists: Leyla Fay, a current student with Yale’s MFA program, and Alex Becerra, a Mexican American artist based in Los Angeles. Fay’s presentation of drawings, watercolors, and monoprints sold out completely, all within a range of $1,000 to $3,500. The gallery is set to present her first solo show in its New York space in early 2022. Four smaller paintings by Becerra—expressive, thickly painted depictions of skulls—sold for $7,500, and two larger canvases, City Girl (2021) and Sola (2021), went for $18,000 each.

Though the fair’s vernissage had a promising—and unsettling—feeling of normalcy after a markedly abnormal year, it was certainly not completely back to business as usual. Cologne-based Natalia Hug couldn’t travel to the fair to represent her gallery due to COVID-19 related restrictions, and thus local gallerist Mary Etherington stepped in. Hug’s participation in the fair was still fruitful, however, as two drawings and two paintings by Jana Schröder sold for $3,000 and $14,000 each, respectively. “This series is all about Post-It notes, and the things that get scribbled down and thrown away. She makes fleeting thoughts permanent,” Etherington explained of the gestural, abstract pieces.

As the sales wound down for the evening, the after-party was just getting started. Guests included Leo Villareal, Yvonne Force, Suzanne Deal Booth, and Cynthia Rowley, among others, who could be seen sipping margaritas and eating tacos poolside. It wasn’t long before one daring patron jumped in the pool, prompting many others to follow suit. Set against the starry Texan night, a feeling of renewed hope for a return to viewing art in person as we once knew it was palpable.

Explore Marfa Invitational on Artsy.

Annie Armstrong