Why Would Anyone Collect Conceptual Art?

Barbara and Aaroon Levine.
Barbara and Aaroon Levine in their Washington, DC home, with Duchamp's Box en Valise (1941) in the foreground. (Photo: Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2011).
Barbara and Aaron Levine are not major philanthropists on the scale of Duncan Phillips or Joseph Hirshhorn, but they bring comparable seriousness, perspicacity and enthusiasm to collecting, which focuses on Marcel Duchamp and Conceptual art by Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, and others. A recent tour of their Georgian house in Washington, DC suggests that they are more interested in ideas than in big-ticket trophies and eye candy.

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.

The Levines in their bedroom, lined with Warhol "Mao" prints.
The Levines in their bedroom, lined with Warhol “Mao” prints. (Photo: Jason Edwrd Kaufman (c) 2011)

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.

Aaron Levine.
Aaron Levine with a miniature replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. (Photo: Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2011)

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 have stenciled the toilets in their house with Duchamp's pseudonymous "R. Mutt" signature from his notorious urinal.
The Levines have stenciled the toilets in their house with Duchamp’s pseudonymous “R. Mutt” signature from his notorious urinal. (Photo: Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2011)

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.

Click here for more photographs of their extensive collection, and to read my complete profile in The Washington Post.

Jason Edward Kaufman


21 Responses

  1. Simple. They dont respond to visual art, only to words. These “ideas’ are all word based, thats the difference between the visual aural and the tiny portion of the frontal lobe devoted to “reason”(rationalizing ones own desire) and language. Words are but manmade symbols, the whole point of art is to utilize the enter brain, all the body, all the emotions, not the literary. One can feel and think without words, or at least some of us can.

    Go collect books.

    Look at the dreary color, the lack of passion. Warhols colors were tinted, just clashing, thats not rich color like a Gauguin. The are singular or no more than three at a time, and not harmonically, he has no music. And visual art when virile is always poetic adn musical line as melody, color as harmony, struture as rhytm. It evokes emotions we already have, not tell us what to think, how to think, or why to think. We are. If you dont get it, well, stick to what you do feel.

    This aint it.

    art collegia delenda est

  2. “They dont respond to visual art, only to words.”
    How do such people deal with visual art juxtaposed with the written word? I proffer my anthropomorphic abstracts.
    Read my Artist’s Notes Mr Frazell and tell me where such art lies in this perceived demarcation dispute?

  3. Every time that I hear the word “conceptual art,” I throw my hands in the air. All art work is conceptual. No art is an exact copy from nature or people. If it is, it is not art. A concept is an artist’s vision of the world as they see it. Now this might be how the conceptual people see their world, but most of it is bland, to say the least. When I visit many MFA shows, I am sadden by what I see. Most of the graduates’ work are conceptual. After six years of study, Is this it?

    What more can one expect when their teachers don’t teach and students don’t listen? Picasso is reported to have said, “If I had a child that wanted to study art I would never send them to school in France or the United States, I would send them to Russia where they take art seriously.” Coming soon to your Upper East side galleries, “Live artists hanging on the walls.”

    Jerry Harris

  4. Art begins as a concept with an emotional impact desired. Then it grows in contact with reality, layers and relationbships build which is what gives it its power and life. these are but sterile illustrations of concepts, never developed, never alive, needing the blinding white walls to give them the apearance of importance. Precious, but dissapating in the warm light of day. Theya re of academic dogmas not the resolving of livfes supposted contradictions whihc are only of our flabby fat filled electric spark misfifring brains. We seek, we explore, we dont sit on our duffs pontificating. We week the essence of who we are, and trigger what is already in us, brinign lfie into sharp focus and intensae emotion. Unless its not in you. That is what art academies are for, those who want to be and control, but dont work and grow.

    Creative art is always about Us, never I, the lie of the acadmies is the selfish expression of children, when art is the expression of who We are universally, not greedily personal. It explores nature, defines who We are, and reaches for what we call God, the evolution of this only concept worth discussing ignored now, fearing responsbility, sacrfice and commitment.

  5. Making conceptual art is really tough. As a BFA student at the University of Oregon, this kind of work totally throws me off. I have ideas but when it comes to really putting out these kind of ideas in the physical sense, I am conceptually challeneged. I am in awe at the layered meanings of this kind of work. Profound and humorous at the same time.

  6. These works are NOT “conceptual” in the usual art historical sense. They are Dada and Pop, which was called Neo-Dada in the beginning. “Conceptual Art” mostly are events or esoteric ideas presented in not necessarily visual ways. All of the work shown in this article are meant to be LOOKED at, as well as thought about (Duchamp in particular). This kind of art has been around for a long, long time. I think it is about due to be “understood” by just about anyone with some intelligence, not the usual carping expressed here. And Mr. Kaufman would do well to take a few courses in Art History to learn more about terms and vocabulary. If he were in MY Art History class, he would need “extra help” or at lease tutoring.

  7. concetual is not art at all, (look up the definition in a dictionary, decades alter your attempts to take away any definition to a word, thereby making the word as useless as your “art’, is still humorlessly dumb)therefore you are not an art teacher at all, but a visual wordbased jokester with no sense of humor, a follower of Duchamp. His early stuff was art, but you dont have to see his urinal to get his joke, he was semi funny, sorta a guffa.

    His large glass was totally wordbased, thereby easily packaged and reading the documents is the experience, the visual just a roadmap to the words. The cracking and dust dont help, just dont hurt as its visual sensations are not important. True, alot of their stuff is pop, based on weak design, not arts complex layering of intense relationships, there is only one in pop, appearance is everything. For limited intellects and souls. For voyeurs of life, not those who experience by doing. Ballesari simply has no ability to process the real world, and so stuck to sterilized wordplay, which is much better in the NY Times crossword puzzle.

    “Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect.”

    You can have your stuff, just call it something else and stop wasting everyones time. Call it pseudo-literacisms. Thats pretty all encompassing of its pretensions. Ones only an academic dependants on it for a career could love. No one else cares. Its irrelevant and just not funny, but ever so ‘smart” and “clever” LMAO.

  8. The study of semiotics and symbology had been clearly defined by the medieval era, where one finds exquisitely crafted illuminated manuscripts that merge words and imagery together with the intended goal of guiding the viewer from the realm of the physical into the non-objective spiritual world. The question of “what is art?” seems a bit indulgent and irrelevant considering previous generations of artists asked “what is life?”

  9. That is illustration, but when good enough can exist on its own without the need of words is then creative art. Words must have definitions to exist, to deny art meaning castrates it, and loses all existence

  10. Why all these labels. Artists follow their hearts and passions. If their work does not convey their intentions or emotions they lose. Words alone won’t help…… I love purely visual symbolism .

  11. I agree with Donald most conceptual art is a kind of “writers” art, a satirical form of absurdist satire. More visual writing than visual art. Weaker than writing that lets you use your imagination, and less than visual art that is done with true skill and emotion by a authentic artist. It’s when people take it seriously is when it all goes wrong. It’s the sarcastic court jester being made into a king. A TV doctor performing surgery.

  12. Donald Frazell is a well known homophobe, know-it-all-know nothing serial commentator I would avoid where possible.

    Here he is on Cathy Opie: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/08/football-and-art-collide.html

    And again with the vitriol at the MOMA site


    “Donald Frazell is a wannabe artist/art critic who has never had a solicited exhibition. He is a button pusher at a local copy shop and thats about the best he can do with his extensive education in “world history and the arts. He is not being considered by the Vatican or any other establishment for exhibition. He is also known for physically attacking gallery owners when they don’t give him a show. This is a fact. Beware of this man (if you can call him that).”

  13. You can find everything in the hardware store and shops of old stuff in less amount of money in the gallery. So my statement is that Duchamp opened a Pandora’s box for people who want to be visual artists, without previous knowledge of art. Why art schools are there? If the galleries and curators say this is art and that is not. The next generation will judge this generation what they were doing in art when compared to previous generations.

  14. Ahhh, so it is Tyler Green who has been following me around, copying and pasting a absurd doctrine of hate with absolutely no validity to it as my own personal stalker, check out my blog and his posts there. They are quite amusingly disturbed and too much a coward to post you name as you hysterically typed.

    He is the one who attacked me and got shot down by others for being a hypocrite months ago over the leather guy on LACMonfire, bringing up Opie, who very much is what i wrote. Sorry, but she and you have nothing to do with defining who WE are. Seeking the essence of humanity, a universality that binds us ALL together through art, is not the same as therapy for a supposedly abused minority.

    Your gilded ghetto of fearmongering has nothing to do with human culture. Heterophobes exist just as much as homophobes do. Fear leads to anger leads to hate, and most certainly is the enemy of art. It starts with constructive self criticism, try it sometime.

    Gay art is the same as any other hyphenism, it fractures for market share and splinters us all. There are many great gay artists, but all have been about humanity, not the 3-5% who happen to be gay. But not a higher percentage than that, most today are terrible, gay or not. And reading self absorbed and justifying views into teenage kids, which have absolutely nothng to do with you absurd readings as i have coached many like those, is propaganda and the opposite of Truth.

    Ligon’s show as as good as conceptual word based art can get, damning with faint praise, its terrible. Mapplethorpes best photos are excellent, but just coninuing what a truly great photgrapher, Minor White who just happened to be gay, did. Mapplethorpe had great chisled bodies to work with, when not using those two guys and the woman, the rest are just pics of gay dudes sitting around, and his flowers but bad knockoffs of Imogen Cunningham, they are badly printed too. Give me the negs and i will make them far better.

    Sorry you cant take an honest review, you do have your agenda to promoite. not that anyone cares. No one was there at BCAM, except viewing the Monets. No one cares, they are quite irrelevant. And therefore a failure as art. And you as an “art’ critic. You can deny all you want Tyler, but only you would bring up the Opie post, as you did back then.

    Proven once more, art collegia delenda est
    Fine art daycare art academies must be destroyed

  15. And Jason, you need to write more, hope that is a New years resolution.
    And check out this clown on my blog, it is pathetically hysterical, well, he is the hysterical one.
    My own personal stalker writing paranoid fiction, gotta be a surrealist.

  16. Maybe, but he mentioned the same show and me as a supposed homophobe, riiiiight, Opie, which he had with his real one months ago, who else would remember? But whoever this person is has been stalking me, really quite amusing, if weird.

  17. why would anyone want a picture of Mao Zedong in their BEDROOM – never mind 6 of them??? Yuck yuck and ultra yuck, the ultimate anti-aphrodisiac.

  18. That old couple is free to collect whatever they want.
    It is a bit sad that that they have absolutely no feel for aesthetics.
    My dog also creates art, 2 or 3 piles a day. I think some dogpoo would be a great addition to their wonderful ‘art’ collection.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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