Marcel Duchamp and the meaning of art
This stately Georgian mansion in Washington, DC is filled to the brim with works of art. But its owners may find it difficult to describe the visual qualities of the works. “They’re not pretty,” Aaron Levine said. “It’s not pretty. Nothing here is attractive!“
Aaron and Barbara Levine’s home contains cutting edge contemporary works by Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramović and Andy Warhol.
Correspondent Rita Braver asked, “Did you just think it would be really fun to have lots of photos of Chairman Mao?”
Aaron replied, “He’s a great colorist!”
It’s all put together by a pair of eccentric octogenarians. Aaron Levine is a personal injury attorney. Barbara Levine is a former schoolteacher and mother of three. DON’T DARE to call them collectors. “I hate the word collector“, said Beard.
Aaron too: “It has to do with money.”
Barbara said: “I buy what I love, okay? I buy what speaks to me. I buy what makes me feel emotional and loving. my collection.”
Collectible or not, some of the Levines’ most important works are not on the walls of their home, but in the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian’s showcase of modern art. They bequeathed to the museum one of the most important private treasures of the work of Marcel Duchamp, the French-born iconoclast who redefined the very idea of what makes art.
Braver examined Duchamp’s 1916 work “Comb” – essentially a metal dog comb.
“It has absolutely no aesthetic value,” Aaron said. “If you found it in the gutter, you wouldn’t even pull it out.”
“Then why did you pay a lot of money to own it?” Brave asked.
“Because it’s a Duchampian statement that art might not be pretty. It’s trying to get inside your head.”
Born in Normandy in 1887 into a family of traditional painters, Duchamp caused a sensation when his modernist painting, “Nu Descending a Staircase”, was rejected by a major Parisian art exhibition in 1912.
“The fact that viewers probably struggled to see a nude or a staircase had something to do with his initial rejection,” Hirshhorn director Melissa Chu said.
But Chu said the painting was a huge hit when he showed it at the famous Amory show in New York a year later.
Braver said, “It was really the work that launched his reputation in the United States.”
“Yes, and probably helped him make his decision to stay here in this country,” Chu said.
This version of “Nude”, which is part of the Levine gift, is in fact a copy, authorized by Duchamp. He never gave much importance to the originals.
One of his most famous and outrageous acts was to paint a mustache on copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s revered “Mona Lisa”.
He provoked the art world even more in 1917, with “Fountain”, a urinal that he signed with a pseudonym, “R. Mutt”. It was the first of the everyday objects he would later call “readymades”.
In a 1966 British television documentary, “Rebel Ready Made”, Duchamp said: “The definition of a readymade is that the choice of the artist is enough to transfer it from a functional or industrial form to – intended to be aesthetic but very different from aesthetics in general.”
But these readymades have become part of his legacy, like a hat rack, or a piece called “With Hidden Noise”, which consists of a ball of string held between two brass plates with screws.
“And what is it?” It’s nothing. It’s a ball of string! Aaron said. “About a dollar and a half at a hardware store. And then he locks her up. What is he doing ? He leaves, he breaks up. It makes you wonder what’s going on!
“It worked – I wonder exactly that!” Braver burst out laughing.
Duchamp’s work would influence everyone from Andy Warhol (with his soup cans) to Jeff Koons (his “New Hoover Convertibles”, an exhibition of vacuum cleaners).
Melissa Chu said, “While most people think of Picasso and Matisse, it’s actually Duchamp who is probably the most influential artist for young artists today.”
And for Aaron and Barbara Levine, there is a joy in ensuring that future generations will see works that continue to make people wonder about the very meaning of art:
“What does the artist say? Where is he going ? What does this have to do with my perception? Aaron said. “These games are enticing.”
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Story produced by Sara Kugel. Publisher: Steven Tyler.