Aaron and Barbara Levine spent 20 years purchasing art by Marcel Duchamp, the pioneering conceptual artist considered a giant of the 20th century. Attracted by Duchamp’s intellectual curiosity and sense of humor, the Levines describe their collection as joyful, intimate, personal.
Soon they will add another adjective: public.
The Washington couple has decided to donate its Duchamp art to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where the works will raise the profile of the Smithsonian modern art museum.
“This is the art world equivalent of the Wizards getting LeBron James,” said Hirshhorn board chairman Daniel Sallick. “Any museum in the world would want this collection.”
Timed to the 50th anniversary of Duchamp’s death, the gift includes 35 works by Duchamp as well as 15 portraits and related photographs and works on paper by his contemporaries Tristan Tzara, Man Ray and others. The gift also sends 150 books, catalogues and other ephemera about the artist to the museum.
The donation is a major coup because the works are “the genesis point” of many contemporary artists, said Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu, who said the museum now has one Duchamp work in its permanent collection.
“He is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century,” she said. “Most people think of Picasso. Duchamp sits on the other side of the spectrum. He made art as an idea rather than an object. Art could be what the artist said it was.”
The Levines’ collection reflects the range of Duchamp’s creative output, including examples of the famous “ready-mades,” the everyday items he purchased, signed and declared art. Examples include “Hat rack,” “Comb” and “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on which the artist drew a mustache and goatee.
The gift will be celebrated with an exhibition in fall 2019 and an accompanying catalogue. “It will be a chance for visitors to see the largesse of the gift and to see it in context,” Chiu said. After the temporary exhibit, the art will return to the Levines until after their deaths, when it will be returned to the Hirshhorn for good.
The couple are already preparing for the work’s absence next year. Their Kalorama home is bursting with art — with Duchamp sculptures and other pieces displayed prominently in their center hall. Every inch of the walls — and most of the surfaces — showcase works they have painstakingly purchased and displayed. In their living room, where a grand piano anchors the front corner, Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Shovels,” a work that references Duchamp, hangs across from works by On Kawara and Anish Kapoor. One upstairs room boasts multiple Andy Warhols.
The Levines are transplanted New Yorkers from the Bushwick section of Brooklyn who moved to Washington in 1958. Married for 60 years, they talk over and contradict and tease one another, and finish one another’s thoughts. She calls him Buzz; he says she’s his censor. Their passion for art is contagious, and they decided to share it — as a collection — with the world.
“The Hirshhorn is our local museum. Even though we’re New Yorkers at heart — you never leave New York — this is our home,” Barbara Levine said. “It’s important that it stays together.”
The Hirshhorn’s current holdings are strengthened by the art and the study materials that go with it, Sallick said.
“Duchamp is so important to the artists of the ’60s and ’70s right up to today. He had a major influence on everyone from Warhol to Jeff Koons. To have a trove of these works, altogether, is an incredible gift,” he said.
That they are being donated by a local couple who are longtime Hirshhorn supporters makes it even better, he added.
“These are really special people, and their collection is all about their passion for artists,” Sallick said. “They don’t collect because of monetary value but out of passion and instinct.”
The Levines began buying art in the early 1990s, when Aaron Levine’s legal career took the couple to Europe many times a year. They started going to museums on the advice of Neal Benezra, then the Hirshhorn’s chief curator and now the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“I think exposure to modern and contemporary European art was central to their development as collectors, because so many European artists relish questions in their work, rather than answers,” Benezra said. “This led them to Marcel Duchamp, who became a passionate intellectual focus. Like all great collectors, this focus became an all-encompassing interest bordering on obsession.”
Aaron Levine said that Duchamp’s preference for thinking over seeing captured his attention. “Art is no longer a pretty painting to hang above the couch. It’s something to think about,” he said. “Duchamp changed the meaning of art, the world of art.”
“He’s addicted to Duchamp,” said his wife. Aaron Levine didn’t object.
The couple traveled to the important sites of Duchamp’s life, including his birthplace and grave in France.
“People go to Mecca. [Aaron] went to his master,” said Barbara. Added Aaron, “I had to converse with God.”
Barbara Levine said she doesn’t like the titles “collector” or “collection,” saying that they suggest calculation and strategy and that their approach is more spontaneous. “It’s personal, livable and lovable. We buy art because we like it. And we never think about where it will go [in the house].”
Aaron Levine said he also appreciates Duchamp’s subversive style. “It’s about hilarity. He was a kidder. He made it fun. He was debunking the pretense of the museum,” he said. “You never get tired of it. Do you get tired of Bach or Stravinsky?”
The Levines also appreciate that the Hirshhorn is free and on the Mall.
“The Air and Space Museum is right across the street, and some of the millions of visitors will pass by. Some will go in, and some will get hooked,” Aaron Levine said. “If even [some] kids get hooked, I’ve done my job.”