By E.B. Tucker, editor, Strategic Investor
Regular readers know I like to share what I’m doing outside of the markets.
I believe it’s the experiences away from the desk that do more for long-term success than anything you can accomplish at the office.
With that, I’m excited to share details on my latest trip with you. It’s a special two-part series on art that I hope you find useful.
Let’s get started…
Last month, I went to Marfa, Texas. It’s an out-of-the-way place with a population of 1,800. It’s not a place you’d expect to see world-famous art.
In the 1970s, artist and architect Donald Judd moved to Marfa. He had risen to a somewhat famous status in New York City but he was frustrated with the art scene.
Judd wanted to be away from people. He liked the American West. He took out a map and circled rural areas that seemed like they’d suit him. Marfa won.
Marfa, Texas is three hours southeast of El Paso, not far from the Mexican border
For about 100 years prior, Marfa wasn’t much more than a dried-up town where the train used to stop. After the end of the coal-powered steam engine, the town’s status as a water refueling station didn’t mean much.
Marfa also has a military history. During World War II, there were several military training areas in the region. Judd bought a small, walled complex of abandoned buildings in the town formerly used by a military quartermaster. He transformed the complex into his home and studio.
The locals thought this was strange. They were right. Judd went on to buy an old 340-acre military site south of town. It housed Nazi POWs during the war. With dozens of abandoned buildings on-site, he set out to turn the base into a permanent art installation.
Permanent art means it sits there forever. The idea is you look at it, ponder it, and then move on. I’ll explain why that’s an important part of art later.
In the picture below, notice the large silver boxes positioned in a straight line. They’re made of aluminum. Each one weighs 2,000 pounds. Judd had each of the 100 boxes fabricated with different internal dimensions. He placed them in three perfect lines roughly 30 years ago, and they haven’t moved since.
Standing in the middle of this building is a unique experience. The giant quarter-pane windows let in a lot of west Texas sunlight. The symmetrical organization of the exhibit is purposeful.
Former military building at Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa
Judd insisted people not take photos while looking at his work. He was on to something. These days, people can’t look at anything without taking a photo of it on their smartphone. Judd realized that when you stare at a device and not the art, you’re not experiencing it.
The Point of Art
Judd died in 1994. He left behind several foundations to preserve his work. He was an odd guy.
For instance, he had thousands of books in his library organized by the author’s birthdate. I saw his library in Marfa. He also built uncomfortable furniture for the library. He thought that while reading you shouldn’t get too comfortable, or you’d lose focus.
This is all part of why I enjoy art. It’s odd. The point of it is merely to observe and enjoy. It took me decades to discover this simple pleasure.
I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina. I don’t remember people talking about art. My guess is they feared being mistaken for a liberal, which was essentially a communist in their eyes.
Most of the artworks I saw were dark oil paintings depicting a fox hunt, a Civil War scene, or something related to early American history. I just didn’t get it.
It wasn’t that we were hayseeds – far from it. We visited all the major U.S. cities. We visited the requisite museums to see the important stuff. What I didn’t know was how to look at a piece of art and simply enjoy it.
Let It Speak to You
People said a piece of art spoke to them. My first thought was if a painting talks to you, you’re clinically insane. All of a sudden, that phrase made sense to me. It happened one day five years ago.
I was in Paris waiting for Bill Bonner. In 2014, I helped him launch The Bill Bonner Letter (now The Bonner-Denning Letter). If you keep up with Bill, you know he spends a lot of time in “out of the way” places.
That summer, he was on the way to his chateau in central France. It’s a few hours south of Paris. Since the directions were complicated, he asked me to wait for his other guests in Paris before heading south.
With a few days to kill in Paris, a friend from Brussels gave me a list of several lesser-known museums to visit. He’s a major player in the art world. He told me there are around 130 museums in Paris. Most people only visit the Louvre.
I ended up at a small museum on the north side of Paris. It had nothing but Claude Monet paintings. I spent half the day sitting and staring at his works. I figured out why I didn’t understand the detailed oil paintings I remembered from childhood. Monet smashed that style, kicking off the Impressionist movement.
I’m simplifying a big part of art history, of course. The style change of the 1870s wasn’t something we should reduce to a few sentences. However, the contrast between Monet and his predecessors is shocking. Impressionist paintings are generally bright and a little messy, and they’re begging you to find the portrayed scene within that mess.
I discovered that I liked Impressionist work. I liked Monet and his contemporaries. And that’s enough to enjoy art.
Back to Marfa
Marfa is an art mecca. If you enjoy culture, excellent cuisine, and progressive art all situated in the middle of nowhere, you might want to visit.
On the drive from El Paso, you’ll pass a seemingly random building. It’s a replica of a Prada store. The shoes and handbags are real, yet there’s no one in the store. The contrast of the haughty brand against the barren west Texas landscape is interesting.
“Prada Marfa” permanent art exhibit near Valentine, Texas
Of all the art I saw over several days in Marfa, I did have a favorite.
When Judd bought the abandoned military base south of Marfa, he had a plan. He gave each of his artist friends one of the buildings. He asked that they each create a permanent art installation in their building.
Judd’s friend Dan Flavin chose six U-shaped former barracks. He painted the walls and ceilings white. He asked viewers to enter the building at the tip of the “U,” walk to the back, then turn and view each of the six exhibits.
Dan Flavin’s permanent light exhibit at the Chinati Foundation
Flavin designed the exhibit before his death in 1996. Other artists took his plans and completed the work. Walking building to building looking at the six exhibits from each side is a unique experience. If you enjoy art, it’s something to see.
Art Can Be an Investment
Traveling to see obscure art is an exciting hobby. It will also keep you away from homogenous mobs of Americans flocking to see overcrowded sites like Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore.
The art a person enjoys seeing says something about them. The art a person chooses to hang on his wall says everything about them.
I’ve turned my art hobby into an investment. I don’t intend to make a fortune from the pieces I buy. However, I also don’t want to own things I can’t sell.
There’s nothing wrong with buying a painting you like for sale on Main Street in a ritzy tourist town. Just don’t expect to ever sell that painting for more than $100. I call this consumption art. I want to own investment art.
I found a way to enjoy and invest in art at the same time. I had some help discovering it. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow in part two.
Editor, Strategic Investor
P.S. I’ll be at the second annual Legacy Investment Summit in Southern California from September 23-25. I’d love to meet you and chat about investments, traveling, art, and more.
I hope to see you there.
If you’re interested in joining, don’t delay… Spaces are filling up fast. Click here to reserve your tickets.