Marfa Invitational Brings the Art Market to the Desert

Nicole Martinez

Photography by Douglas Friedman

Marfa Invitational
Marfa Invitational founder Michael Phelan and his wife Melissa Bent, who is on MI’s board of advisors.

“I like to say all roads lead to Marfa,” jokes Michael Phelan, the artist and founding director of Marfa Invitational, an art fair and immersive installation debuting April 4 through 7.

“Literally, the world comes to us.”

Ever since Donald Judd turned a former army base in West Texas into a contemporary art mecca in the 1970s, the tiny town perched on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert has gained an almost preternatural appeal. More than 200 miles from the nearest airport, artists, gallerists, musicians and cultural arbiters have flocked to Marfa on a sort of pilgrimage; most have emerged proclaiming that the experience is nothing short of transcendental.

That’s certainly true for Phelan, who fatefully settled in the town in 2005. Arriving in Marfa to install a commission for the contemporary art space Ballroom Marfa, Phelan found boundless creative energy and inspiration in the town of merely 2,000 people. Purchasing and converting a 4,000-square-foot former gas station into a live/work compound, Phelan mounted United Artists, Ltd. gallery, which would come to show leading contemporary artists like Carol Bove and Wade Guyton. He found love in the process, marrying fellow gallerist Melissa Bent after she joined the gallery in 2013. Now, alongside his business partner Kenneth Bauso, Phelan is launching Marfa Invitational to bring some of that desert magic to the art-collecting masses.

With just 10 galleries exhibiting 10 artists at the newly constructed Saint George Hall, an adjacent part of the Hotel Saint George, the event is intentionally intimate, a way of preserving Marfa’s spiritual allure. “I wanted to give collectors time to really experience the work while filtering out the distractions and noise of mall-like fairs,” says Phelan.

A selection of contemporary galleries, chosen for their outsize influence, will form part of the inaugural fair. New York’s Marianne Boesky is presenting Svenja Deininger’s intimate abstract paintings; Sargent’s Daughters will bring along Emily Furr’s looming, blood-red canvases charged with phallic innuendo, and Miami’s Bill Brady gallery will show the haunting, figurative works of Tomoo Gokita.

Blending dynamic installations with artist talks, cocktail parties and mingling in dramatically vast landscapes, Marfa Invitational aims to pare the art fair experience down into a solemn, almost sacred affair. “This is about reaping what Judd first experienced,” says Phelan, “and making space to view art in a unique and singular manner.”