People who collect contemporary art often pretend to be savants of culture. Their vanity can be tiresome when celebrity, money and power serve as substitutes for taste, discernment and social responsibility. Then there are collectors of a quieter and more bookish bent whose acquisitions are guided by historical perspective, intellectual curiosity and humility. They value artworks not primarily for their escalating auction estimates or auras of chic, but for their capacities to change the way the collectors see the world.
Washington, D.C. has many collectors in this category, and among them are certainly Barbara and Aaron Levine. They are not major philanthropists on the scale of Duncan Phillips or Joseph Hirshhorn, but they bring comparable seriousness, perspicacity and enthusiasm to collecting. A recent tour of their Georgian house suggests that they are more interested in ideas than in big-ticket trophies and eye candy.
They do have beautiful high-end paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints (see image above), but the Levines specialize in conceptual art, which tends toward visual understatement. The premise of the movement, which coalesced in New York in the early 1960s, is that the artwork doesn’t need any physical expression; it exists in the realm of ideas.
The notion that the work of art is an idea and not a splendid thing to hang on the wall doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse of the average art lover. Even seasoned art aficionados can find it a bit obscure, if not downright dry and ungratifying. Who in their right mind would collect this stuff?
The Levines — she is a longtime trustee of the Hirshhorn Museum and he is a lawyer who fights pharmaceutical companies — have more Conceptual art than any museum in town. They are obsessed with Marcel Duchamp and with his latter-day disciples Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, and many others. What’s more, they can explain how Conceptual works impact the way they see the world. And they do so not without a self-aware dollop of humor (see image to left).
When I was in graduate school Conceptual Art, along with structural theory and semiotics, were the reigning orthodoxy. I dove in because it was germane to the philosophical and epistemological questions that seemed so urgent at the time. They still are urgent questions, but we get caught up in the familiar and mundane and ignore the enigmas. No one seems to have time to pursue a life of the mind. It is refreshing to meet collectors who surround themselves with objects that function as interlocutors in that essential conversation.
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