Aaron Levine, Leading Conceptual Art Collector With Deep Duchamp Holdings, Dies at 88

Aaron Levine, a retired trial lawyer, who with his wife, Barbara, amassed one of the most significant private holdings of work by Marcel Duchamp, died on Tuesday morning at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 88. 

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden confirmed Levine’s passing, writing in a statement, “The Hirshhorn mourns the loss of Aaron Levine, a great friend, art lover and leader. Together with his beloved wife Barbara, Aaron transformed the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection by sharing their twinned passion for conceptual art, notably through their 2018 promised gift of 35 works by Marcel Duchamp, with the nation. He understood the Hirshhorn’s mission and radical gestures. We are indebted to Aaron’s public service, his wit and wisdom, and shall never forget him.”

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The Levines, who were listed on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list each year from 2012 to 2018, packed their Washington, D.C. home with hundreds of works of art and thousands of related catalogues and rare artist books, many of them focused on heady Conceptualism and the movement’s contemporary successors. “Conceptual art is an acquired taste,” Aaron once said. 

Among the artists they collected were Donald Judd, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, On Kawara, Bruce Nauman, Christian Marclay, Rebecca Horn, Juan Muñoz, Ragnar Kjartansson, Douglas Gordon, Ana Mendietta, Tony Cragg, Thomas Schutte, and Marina Abramović and Ulay. They also had a significant photography collection, with Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand, and Cindy Sherman represented in it. 

The couple did, however, acquire work by certain blue-chip artists, including Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Andy Warhol; Warhol’s portrait of Joseph Bueys hung above their mantle and a suite of 10 Warhol portraits of Chairman Mao in the primary bedroom. Another Warhol hung in Aaron’s law office, as did other spillover from the collection. 

Because the art they owned was so disparate in terms of mode and eras, the Levines hated when people called their holdings a “collection”; Aaron told Artnet News in 2018 that his preferred term for it was “melange.” 

In an interview, dealer Sean Kelly, a longtime friend and an adviser to the Levines, said, “Aaron was absolutely unique—and unique within the art world. He was a great patron of the art in the old-school sense of the word. He and Barbara traveled all over the world constantly. They were indefatigable—keeping up with them was both a challenge and a pleasure. Once he discovered contemporary art, his life took a completely different turn, and it defined the remainder of his life. For me, he was the heart and soul of the art world—and the conscience at the same time. I don’t think we’ll see the likes of him again.”

Nevertheless, the heart of it all was Duchamp. They owned more than 35 works by the artist, including several of his most important one from across her career. Among these were his signature readymades and assisted readymades, many of which had be recreated and editioned in the 1960s after many of the originals had been destroyed: Hat Rack (1917/64), Comb (1916/64), Apolinère Enameled (1917/65), With Hidden Noise (1916/64), L.H.O.O.Q. (1919/64), and Why Not Sneeze? (1921/64). 

Additionally, they also owned several drawings and photographs by Duchamp, as well as a 94-part suite of notes, drawings, and photographs related to Duchamp’s magnus opus, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), which is permanently housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

“[Duchamp] shifted the phenomenon of art from the object to the idea,” Aaron told the Washington Post in 2011. “It redefined art for me. It took it out of the retina and put it in the brain.”

Another major piece by Duchamp in the Levine collection was Boîte-en-valise (1941), a suitcase containing small copies of the artist’s most famous works as well as one unique work. It was their first Duchamp purchase. They had seen it at Sean Kelly’s New York gallery, and Aaron insisted on buying it. “It was about twenty years ago. And the obsession’s been an elevator ride. I’m on the fifteenth floor and there are about eighty floors to go,” Aaron said in a joint 2018 interview with Hirshhorn senior curator Evelyn C. Hankins. 

“We had this very particular conversation dialogue about Duchamp for many, many years,” Kelly told ARTnews. “Once he discovered Duchamp he committed to [the artist’s work] in a way that very few people did. Aaron would do masses of research and read every publication, every book, every article, he could get on the subject that he was engaged with. In the latter part of his collecting life, Duchamp became the great passion.” 

On top of all the Duchamp fever, they visited every significant site related to Duchamp’s life in Europe, and they reportedly had stenciled on all of their toilets a replica of the autograph “R. Mutt,” which Duchamp had infamously scrawled onto an upside-down urinal and titled The Fountain (1917). “We never go seeking something, other than by Duchamp. Anything that’s by Duchamp, Aaron has to buy because he’s mad for it,” Barbara added in the Hankins interview. 

In 2018, the Levines announced that they would donate more than 50 works, including their more than 35 Duchamps, to the Hirshhorn. Included in the gift were those iconic readymades and important drawings, as well as over 150 books related to the artists and works by other artists who had some relationship to Duchamp, including Rachel Harrison, Irving Penn, Tristan Tzara, and others. 

At the time, the museum called the gift transformative; its Duchamp holdings are now on par with those of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern in New York. The donation was the subject of an exhibition that went on view at the Hirshhorn in 2019. 

Aaron M. Levine was born in 1934 in Brooklyn, New York. His father ran an optometry shop in Bushwick; Barbara’s father ran a pharmacy down the street. They met as teenagers after Aaron’s family moved onto the same floor of the apartment building where Barbara’s family lived.

He attended law school at George Washington University. A week after she graduated from Skidmore College in Upstate New York, Barbara moved to D.C. and the two married. In 1971, he founded his eponymous law firm, which focused on various forms of consumer rights lawsuits as they related to dangerous drugs, defective devices, and medical malpractice. 

The Levines started collecting over three decades ago, beginning with German Expressionism and Social Realism, buying works by Max Beckmann, Ralston Crawford, and Philip Evergood. “I was fascinated by the 1930s, the uprising in conjunction with the Nazis and how that turmoil reflected itself in art,” Aaron told the New York Times in 2019. Barbara preferred Minimalism.

But with time, he would soon warm to more outré modes of artistic expressionism, and the two would collect ferociously.

“Conceptual art doesn’t give you the jump that visual art gives you, but it comes on better later,” Aaron told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “It all comes out of Duchamp. There’s nothing of the hand of the artist, there’s nothing of the materials of the artist. But he takes a hat rack out of the hardware store, and he puts it in the museum. And with that one act he draws the curtain down on the Renaissance.”