Buying Art You Can't Take Home

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Are the collectors who spend thousands on conceptual works crazy--or on the cutting edge?

At the Great Art Basel fair that wrapped up recently in Switzerland, you got what you paid for: $1 million bought you a sculpture of Adam and Eve as gold-skinned bodybuilders; ?1 million paid for a towering red wedge that looked like a room-size chunk of Gouda. Most of Basel's art shoppers were either buying such flash or wanting to. But Aaron and Barbara Levine, veteran collectors from Washington, D.C., were looking for rarefied work that was maybe more important than the showstoppers. And, as it happens, barely even there.

They stopped at a booth with a work by veteran American artist Lawrence Weiner. It was nothing more than the words "2 Metal Balls + 2 Metal Rings (Set Down in the Groove)" painted on the ground, loosely describing Weiner's idea for a sculpture (seen at right). But when you buy a Weiner you don't acquire the lettering itself, let alone the 3-D work it implies. You buy Weiner's immaterial idea, as a certificate that lets you write his phrase in a room, or come up with the sculpture you think it describes. "When you take ownership, you can realize it any way you want," says Victor Gisler, the Zurich dealer showing Weiner's balls-y piece, priced at $160,000. In late June, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put a vintage piece of his on display as part of a major acquisition of so-called immaterial art. MoMA curators are eagerly backfilling a collection that has tended toward the material.

"I think good art is when I can hear the ideas bouncing off each other in my brain. This is where aesthetics are for me--not in my retina," says Aaron, a 76-year-old lawyer who makes his living suing Big Pharma. "Ninety percent of the money [at Art Basel] is spent on painting," he adds with a hint of contempt. Whereas the Levines want work that makes you wonder if it's even art--and therefore might be the art that's breaking new ground.

The Levines' unoptical tastes represent a cutting edge that launched in the 1960s, and has roots in the 1910s with Marcel Duchamp, but that seems more significant than ever in our age of ultraconspicuous consumption. One strange thing, though: as this art has moved from counterculture to collector culture, it has started to become more consumable. Wall drawings by Sol LeWitt, a founding father of conceptualism, were once about reducing visual art to the raw ideas that shape it. …