Aaron and Barbara Levine’s conceptual art collection

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Raphael Soyer as Barbara Levine’s father’s cousin. Soyer was not related to the family. This version has been updated.

October 28, 2011

People who collect contemporary art often pretend to be savants of culture. They strut about in the belief that they possess a unique combination of resources and wisdom that enables them to support the leading edge of civilization.

Baloney.

More often than not their cultural pursuits are as high-minded as day trading, and their collecting as effective at achieving meaningful change as pitching pennies into a well.

Someone has to keep the art world in business, but the vanity of some collectors 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 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 in Kalorama suggests that they are more interested in ideas than in big-ticket trophies and eye candy.

They do have beautiful high-end paintings and sculptures, 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.

An early proponent was Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), whose work might consist of written directions for making a patterned drawing on a wall. Another is Lawrence Weiner, known for composing phrases — “Built to see over the edge,” for example — and providing instructions for how the words may be painted. In both cases the “work” is the idea or action rather than the resulting picture, which is optional. (The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum have works by LeWitt and Weiner.)

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 more conceptual art than any museum in town — four floors packed with books, photographs, drawings, sculptures, videos of performances and other creations, much of it having to do with linguistics, epistemology, psychology and other heady themes.

“We used to like very pretty things and after a while they become boring,” says Barbara. “You never get bored with [conceptual art]. It’s total challenge all the time. You’re always looking at it and interpreting it.”

Duchamp obsession

The Levine tutelary deity is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the French-born American considered the progenitor of conceptualism. His notorious revolutionary gesture was to submit a ceramic urinal to an art exhibition in New York in 1917. When it was rejected, his dadaist colleagues published an editorial proclaiming that the found object was art because the artist presented it as such and in so doing altered the way we see and think about it.

“He shifted the phenomenon of art from the object to the idea,” explains Aaron Levine, 77, with an air of excitement. “It redefined art for me. It took it out of the retina and put it in the brain.”

The central hall is devoted to about a dozen works by Duchamp: A museum-style vitrine displays “Box en Valise” (1941), a miniature compendium of replicas of all his works, including a tiny urinal. A drain stopper, a metal comb and a wooden hatrack are among the other manufactured “readymade” items the iconoclast presented as artworks. A bird cage enigmatically filled with marble sugar cubes, a thermometer and a beak sharpener offers a subtle critique of cubism. (The Levines have later editions after the originals from the 1910s and 1920s.) And a 1913 drawing and several prints relate to Duchamp’s famous allegorical collage-on-glass now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915-23).

Some are amusingly risque, like his mustachioed postcard of the Mona Lisa with the letters “L.H.O.O.Q.” written on the margin below. (When pronounced quickly in French the pun sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul,” slang for “She’s horny.”) A pink catalogue he designed for a 1947 surrealism exhibition has a foam-rubber breast on the cover and a label on the back that reads in French, “Please touch.”

The Levines are not without their own touch of Duchamp-inspired humor. He signed the infamous urinal with the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” and the Levines have stenciled a replica of the autograph on all of their toilets.

Their obsession leads them to collect work by other artists that reference Duchamp, such as a neon version of his “readymade” bottle rack (Bethan Huws) and a garden bench made of variously colored toilet tank lids on a metal frame (Jim Drain).

“We’ve been around the world visiting places where he was born, studied, lived and worked,” says Barbara, 74, noting a recent visit to the waterfall near Lausanne on which Duchamp modeled an element in his final work “Etant donnes,” a landscape installation in the Philadelphia Museum. “We’re not religious,” she says, but at Duchamp’s grave in Rouen, Aaron got on his hands and knees.

“They are extraordinarily passionate and extraordinarily independent minded,” says Sean Kelly, a Manhattan dealer who has advised the Levines and sold them many works. “They buy what they love, not what the market dictates. And they are very clear about forming a genealogy within the collection that makes sense in terms of their passion for conceptual work.”

Not every work in the Levine collection is strictly conceptual, but most provoke reflection. Among the buff-colored living room couches and chairs is a life-size figure crouching as if absorbed in thought (Juan Munoz). A violin sounds when its motorized bow drags across the strings (Rebecca Horn). The top of a functionless end table is formed by the inverted bell of a bugle (Christian Marclay).

And those are the more conventional pieces. What to make of the neon piece spelling out the cryptic phrase “The subject self-defined” (Joseph Kosuth) or the painting over the sofa that reads “Feb. 27, 1987” in white block letters on a black field (On Kawara)? On the stair landing a flashing neon shows two figures alternately poking each other in the eye (Bruce Nauman).

“A lot of people don’t really like it,” says Barbara of these somewhat incomprehensible works.

“People think it’s the emperor’s clothes,” her husband continues. “Conceptual art is an acquired taste.”

As if to reassure doubters, the dining room displays more familiar works. Over the mantle is Andy Warhol’s diamond-dusted, black-and-white portrait of the German artist Joseph Beuys, and abstract canvases by two other blue-chip artists, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, hang on the end walls.

The master bedroom has Warhol’s 10 colorful pop variations on a portrait of Chairman Mao. But the television plays a video of Marina Abramovic and her former partner Ulay taking turns slapping each other. And when that piece ends, Ragnar Kjartansson appears next to his mother, who periodically grimaces and spits violently in his face as he remains motionlessly deadpan. Such dark reflections on the demands of relationships provide a curious decor for a couple that has been together for 57 years.

Brooklyn born

The Levines were born and raised in Brooklyn, where her father ran a pharmacy and his had an optometry shop on the same street. “His family always got drugs from our family and we always got glasses from his family,” says Barbara, but they did not meet until Aaron’s family moved into her apartment house when they were in their teens.

Barbara went on to study psychology at Skidmore College and Aaron went to law school at George Washington University. The week after she graduated they married and moved into an apartment off 16th Street NW. “We were always going to go back to New York but we never did,” says Barbara, who taught in McLean public schools in the late 1950s while Aaron founded his eponymous law firm.

They have three children, including a son who works in the law office, another son who is a doctor in New York, and a daughter who practices law in Chicago and is chairman of the Renaissance Society, a contemporary art nonprofit.

Aaron collected German expressionism, but Barbara was more interested in minimal art. When she joined the board of the Hirshhorn in the 1990s they were advised by curator Neal Benezra, today director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Neal is the one who got us going, and we haven’t stopped since,” Barbara says.

They lived in Rockville for two decades before moving to the 1924 brick house where they have resided for 26 years.

All the rooms are full of art, pictures line staircases and halls, and shelves are crammed with thousands of art books, many of them limited artist editions. A bedroom has classic photographs by Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. There are color photographs by William Eggleston, Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand and Cindy Sherman.

And there are sculptures by Tony Cragg, Thomas Schutte, Juan Munoz, Petah Coyne, and Berlinde de Bruyckere, a large drawing by William Kentridge, a table by Richard Tuttle and videos by Douglas Gordon, Ana Mendietta, Beat Streuli and David Claerbout. Each of these pieces would be welcome in virtually any museum.

Their hundreds of works spill into storage and Aaron’s office near Dupont Circle. “The fifth-floor elevator opens up and the first thing you see is 10 Andy Warhol ‘Electric Chairs,’ ” says Barbara, adding that a Joseph Kosuth neon reading, “Let us now return to the topic” is aptly mounted in the conference room.

Like most D.C. collectors of contemporary art, the Levines diplomatically deflect questions about the modest local gallery scene, instead praising the museums. Aaron was president of the Washington Project for the Artsin the 1980s, and Barbara has served on the board of the Hirshhorn for 11 years and says she also contributes money to the Phillips Collection and once hosted a benefit for the nonprofit Transformer gallery. They donated a Man Ray photograph to the National Gallery of Art and other works to the Hirshhorn and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They also gave a picture by Raphael Soyer to the Jewish Museum in New York.

The Levines used to collect local artists, including William Christenberry and Sam Gilliam, but today they focus on works they find on trips to New York and Europe. They visit galleries, museums and artists, many of whom they know quite well. “They’re more fun than lawyers, I’ll tell you that!,” Aaron says.

Aaron is convinced that conceptual art is undervalued. “It’s never going to reach the heights of painting. It’s too brainy,” he says. “But a Duchamp is [priced at] one-tenth of what it’s worth.” Interestingly, the market deems many conceptual works valueless without a signed certificate from the artist. For years the Levines paid dearly to insure some pieces until Barbara realized that with the certificate in a bank vault their exposure was only the cost of refabrication. “Why should I insure it for $300,000 if it only costs me $10,000 or $12,000 to redo it?” she observes.

But monetary value is not foremost in their thinking. “You want art to give you greater intensity of perception,” says Aaron. It even impacts his work as a lawyer. “I like to think of myself as iconoclastic, taking on the establishment,” he says, noting that he represents victims of defective drugs and medical devices. (He has won major settlements in the DES, Dalkon Shield, and the Fen-Phen diet-drug cases, among others.) “I aim for innovations and new angles,” he says, “so I kind of feel kindred to Duchamp and his spirit.”

Another favorite is Joseph Kosuth. “We have probably the biggest private collection of Joseph,” Aaron notes, and a key piece is one in which a black-and-white life-size photograph of a snow shovel hangs next to the shovel itself and a dictionary definition of the word “shovel.” “One and Three Shovels” (1965) references Duchamp, who chose a snow shovel for one of his “readymades.” But Kostuh’s piece raises questions about language and representation that were in vogue in academic circles when it was made.

Aaron admires the work as much as any in his collection. “The ‘Shovels’ is for me the deepest, most complex, rich piece. I’m always looking at it, always rattling back and forth in my brain what is this? How does this relate to this? Where is the real shovel? Do we live in pictures, in language? Kosuth is one of the most underestimated artists living today,” he concludes. “The guy’s a genius.”

The collector knows that not everyone shares his enthusiasm.

Kaufman is a New York-based critic whose IN VIEW Culture Bulletin is at blogs.artinfo.com/
inview
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