“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.
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.”
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.”