|”Those looking at art purely as an investment might first consider looking elsewhere.” -Melanie Gerlis|
The last line in a thoughtful book by Melanie Gerlis, Art as an Investment?, does not do her work justice, “Those looking at art purely as an investment might first consider looking elsewhere.” In fact, she makes a cautious case for those interested in fine art who also have an interest in investing. But first, full disclosure since I am biased. Both fine art and antiquities constitute a meaningful portion of my investment portfolio. As I write this note, works by Max Beckmann, Chuck Close and Sol Lewitt surround me. A visit to the San Antonio Museum of Art will find a dozen Egyptian antiquities from our collection on display.
Another quote to provide some context for the following conversation comes from another great read, The Value of Art by Michael Findlay, “A collector has one of three motives for collecting; a genuine love of art, the investment possibilities, or its social promise” (quote by Emily Hall Tremaine). Anyone not meeting all three criteria is unlikely to enjoy the rest of this note.
Gerlis undertakes a laudable enterprise by comparing artwork acquired for investment purposes with other asset classes. An editor for The Art Newspaper, she is a knowledgeable commentator on the business of art. Her book makes one-on-one comparisons of fine art to; equity markets, gold, wine, real estate, hedge funds and, intriguingly, luxury goods such as jewelry and watches. By defining each investment’s attributes – such as market transparency, liquidity, market makers, and valuation metrics – she creates a context useful in determining the differences between these investment options.
We’ll focus on the world of fine art starting from a time around 1850. However, a caveat is in order here since the art market is a complicated subject and rather than try to qualify remarks that obviously have exceptions (most of them), let’s just assume that all comments below are, “generally speaking.”
The quick and the dead in art.
Following Gerlis, it seems appropriate to use metaphors taken from the world of investing herein. Conceptually there are two distinct markets with an important overlap. On the one hand are dead artists, the majority of which have some standing in the cannons of art history and criticism. Then there are the living artists whose reputations will evolve for better and worse, as should their artistic output, over a lifetime. In between are the few long-living artists who have achieved accolades likely ensuring their place in history. This can be viewed similarly to that of value and momentum stocks, assuming a gray zone here as well.
Value artists would include names like Cezanne, Pollock, Warhol and, of course, Picasso. Like a big established multinational corporation, the price of the art will fluctuate over time, but there is an expectation of enduring intrinsic value. Both the equity and art markets experience good and bad times, but the trend over long periods is upwards. Categories having demonstrated value over time include Old Master and Impressionist works. The place of post-WW II abstract expressionists also appears to have been firmly established, with Pop Art probably not too far behind. However, much like gold, art tends to maintain value over time, also contributing to the value in art. Paintings, in particular, have a curious tangential value as insurance. During times of crisis, paintings can be quietly transported across borders, their value not being linked to any particular currency, unlike real estate or some equities.
Momentum artists, on the other hand, remain an unknown entity as far as their long-term valuations are concerned. A look at the dot-com stock era is a good context for thinking about contemporary art – where hopes and dreams intersect with savvy marketing to create the “next big thing.” Or not. As one professional dealer put it, the worry is whether a work of art is even worth displaying five years from now.
With the rise of mega-dealers like Gagosian and Zwirner, who make a lot more money than many of the artists they represent, the hype is an ever-present danger. We hear about the unknown artist who finds their work suddenly fetching high prices at auction, but not their peers watching prices drop in the same market space. The books listed at the end of this essay give many examples of just how far a new superstar can fall. And how fast. There is a difference between a fad and a trend. Fads come and go, often with little in the way of residue. Trends are indicative of long-term shifts in taste or behavior. People generally tend to “get” Impressionist paintings. Not so much with “video art.” With contemporary art, the winner can more often be the dealers rather than the artists.
Currently, there is much conversation – and sales activity – being defined by issues unrelated to the value in art. Contemporary art originating in the Middle East and Latin America are hot art commodities right now even if their shelf life is unclear. A decade ago contemporary Chinese art was a market darling, just as the Aboriginal art of Australia had been twenty years before that. On the cutting edge in trendy art markets like New York is work by the alternative lifestyle crowd who now enjoy accolades instead of opprobrium for being LGBTQ. There is also a geographic risk when discussing a “local” artist as these tend to more often be about the person instead of their art. So, what is the value in art?
|It was a presentation Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits.|
A recent rereading of his 2015 biography, Words Without Music: A Memoir, served up a reminder of the many ways in which Phillip Glass has had an outsized impact on my life. His music is, of course, fascinating and often very good. Though it really started with the movie Koyaanisqatsi which I had the good fortune to watch accompanied by a live orchestra playing the soundtrack, it was the discovery of the album Glassworks around the same time that kick-started a collection that has since grown substantially.
Personal favorites also include collaborations with Brian Eno and David Bowie, Low and Heroes, as well as the Concertos and other works conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, with the oddly titled Saxophone Quartet Concerto being quite engaging. However, despite the effort expended, his operas (like those of another favorite composer of both Glass and myself, Mozart) have just never found a place in my musical world.
The book describes in vivid detail what living in New York was like at a time when fine art and music were undergoing huge shifts in form and function. Phillip Glass worked to pay the bills as a studio assistant with artists like Richard Serra. Glass did some of the heavy lifting involved with creating some of Serra’s early molten metal works. The involvement of Glass within the New York dance scene of the 1970s was a surprise. His subsequent visibility and ultimately well-deserved respect and commercial success were hard earned and long in coming, with bills being paid by doing manual labor and driving a taxi instead of earning music royalties. An early interest in Buddhism and work with Tibetan refugees, set in motion passions that have endured throughout his life and career. Glass talks about his spirituality in an engaging manner that persuades without lecturing.
It was a presentation Phillip Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits. Coming a few years after the (relative) success around 1976 of his first major opera, Einstein on the Beach, he was at the time of the lecture working on another major project, the opera Akhnaten, which would debut in 1984. His discussion of Akhenaten’s life and place in history stoked the fires of both my imagination and intellect. That his account turned out to be more fanciful than factual proved unimportant. The life and times of Akhenaten remain an enduring interest of mine.
This short note is inspired by the fact that Sol LeWitt died in April 2007, and since then exhibits of work created after his death continue to occasionally pop-up.
“The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” LeWitt wrote this in 1967 and it remains, perhaps, the most insightful expression of what his conceptual artwork was about; the idea, not the object. Further, LeWitt was widely known for his (even now!) use of other artists to actually create his “finished product” so it is not unreasonable that people assume LeWitt was above the dirty work of putting pen-to-paper or brush-to-wall. This notion of the artwork itself, not being the point, dogged LeWitt throughout his career. Yet his later work is so colorful and lyrical that the label of conceptual no longer seems appropriate. His comment from 1982, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” may better speak to LeWitt’s true sensibilities as an artist.
|Sol LeWitt art should not be defined by hard logic and cool detachment. LeWitt’s work is better appreciated for the humor, color, and inventiveness that Giotto would have certainly enjoyed.|
LeWitt’s process of seeking every combination of a series served among other things, to ensure that he had plenty of material to work with. Seemingly endless variations of bands in four directions were turned out in seemingly endless varieties of mediums. The consistency of the form allowed for an opportunity to fully explore the interaction of colors, or in the case of sculpture, the interaction of light and shadow. LeWitt repeatedly set strict limits that allowed for infinite variety. Or, to use a phrase attributed to many but best expressed by Jorge Luis Borges, LeWitt created “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
As a founding member of the rock band YES, drummer Bill Bruford subsequently went on to a sophisticated engagement with straight ahead and several of its iterations through his evolving jazz group Earthworks. Yet on his way to becoming a jazzman, Bruford left YES, played with the band Genesis (as a friend of Phil Collins) and joined King Crimson (as a nemesis of Robert Fripp). He tells his story in Bill Bruford – The Autobiography, originally published in 2009. This marks Bruford as more of a musical flaneur than journeyman drummer.
|That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising, but completely changing one’s skin is a different matter.|
That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising. Sonny Rollins plays lyrically (and uncredited) with the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You and then there is Branford Marsalis’ extensive touring with Sting. Even a hootenanny is possible with Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson recording two successful albums together. Conversely, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea recording with Joshua Redman on Momentum shows the musical collaborations flow in both directions.
But completely changing one’s skin is a different matter. Though rockers like Peter White (collaborator with Al Stewart) and Craig Chaquiso (Jefferson Starship stalwart) both chose to pursue a different sound and enjoy influential smooth jazz careers. Even a rock legend, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, has been a leader on several jazz albums (most recently with the Danish Radio Big Band). Yet Bruford’s evolution as a jazz musician has a different feel to it. I recently played the two albums Close to the Edge (YES, 1972), and Random Acts of Happiness (Earthworks, 2004), back to back. Perhaps Bruford’s career doesn’t ever really bifurcate with rock and pop segregated from modern jazz?
The idea that being a part-time investor is going to bring you wealth and make you rich enough anytime soon to retire and enjoy the life of as a country squire, tending grapes at your chateau in France is delusional. Better to assume that your efforts as an individual investor will leave you in a position “down the road of life” to enjoy long stretches of time doing things you enjoy. Maybe even months or years pursuing interests for their own sake, regardless of whether you get paid or not. I’m a big fan of the notion we should be able to take time to pursue activities simply because we want to – without worrying about any financial ramifications. That’s the point of this blog, to help ensure you have the means to create and enjoy a full life.
|Ask yourself, is it the wealth, or what you can do with the money, that interests you most? I’m a big fan of the notion that we should be able to take time to enjoy ourselves without worrying about financial constraints; as money simply represents the potential of what can be achieved by spending it.|
The wealth of Croesus isn’t waiting for anyone diddling in the markets, or looking to make a fast buck off of gold or real estate. If you want to make the Big Money, then you had better be prepared to put the fun stuff on hold and get busy doing Big Work. Do you really believe that you can play competitively on the same court as any of the 491 players currently in the NBA? What this meant for an individual investor really hit home for me many years ago, after reading John Train’s book Money Masters of Our Times.
A collection of interviews with 17 of the best investors alive, including the usual suspects like Buffett and Soros, the relentless drive, and focus of these individuals is breathtaking. And their idea of fun is to be relentlessly driven to focus on wealth accumulation. When one of the billionaires Train interviewed is asked about his very pedestrian lifestyle he replied that money was the scorecard. If he actually spent money, his score would go down. Ask yourself the tough question; is it the money, or what you can do with the money, that interests you?
|“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” Sol LeWitt, 1973|
For reasons most people will not understand, I’m excited about a little work recently added to my collection of ephemera by the artist Sol LeWitt. Part of the reason this work resonates more than many others is due to the evolution of my goals as a collector. More than other items, many of which frankly offer more pleasing aesthetics, this drawing exemplifies the ideas that draw me to the artist. And to LeWitt’s stated goals as an artist.
The pencil sketch was likely the original conception of a wall drawing intended for an exhibit at the John Weber Gallery in March 1986. I have the invitation to that particular show, and now the working drawing for a signature piece from the exhibit. Further, Lewitt was meticulous in documenting his output, and in a catalog of wall drawings published in 1989, this work can be clearly identified as #472. Its most unique attribute is that it was gray – no colors were used, even for the background. As with so many of the wall drawings designed for specific exhibitions, the assumption was that the work would eventually be painted over, as was the case here. My research has not yet – and may never – come up with a photo of the actual painting.
|From early on in his professional career, Lewitt emphasized that the idea was more important than the final artifact – painting, sculpture, wall drawing, etc…|
“I find it difficult to write a statement that will be a correct summation of my philosophy of art. The work itself seems to subvert such statement figurines the total of one’s work creates its own philosophy. This emerges from work to work, successful ones or failures, finding its own dimensions. The total of all past work exerts its influence on the new work. The new work combines the reality of the old and destroys the idea in which it was conceived. It cannot be understood in the context of other work, the original idea is lost in a mess of drawings, figurines, and other ideas.”
“Sol LeWitt is very much aware of the traps and pitfalls of language, and as a result is also concerned with enervating “concepts” of paradox. Everything LeWitt thinks, writes, or has made is inconsistent and contradictory. The “original idea” of his art is “lost in a mess of drawings, figurines, and other ideas.” Nothing is where it seems to be. His concepts are prisons devoid of reason. The information on his announcement for his show (Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1967) is an indication of a self-destroying logic. He submerges the “grid plan” of his show under a deluge of simulated handwritten data. The grid fades under the oppressive weight of “sepia” handwriting. It’s like getting words caught in your eyes.”