Collectors Who Spend Thousands on Artist's Ideas

The Levines at Art Basel Lucy Hogg

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. LeWitt provided the most basic instructions for what a wall piece should be—"Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides" is both the title of one work and the rules for making it—and then expected someone else to carry them out. Clearly, part of the pleasure was in seeing unexpected results. Since his death in 2007, however, such pieces are mostly installed by a crack team from the LeWitt estate, and have come to play the same decorative role as standard bank-lobby abstraction. (LeWitt's spare, revolutionary early works in black and white are now regularly crowded out—and outbought—by his vastly colorful and close-to-trivial late murals.)

Watching LeWitt's raw ideas become high-end collectibles may be what has led some younger artists to seek a more ironclad evanescence. Tino Sehgal, who was born in London in 1976 and is now based in Berlin, simply makes strange things happen in the world, without any records or photos permitted. A collector who "buys" a Sehgal—they now run around $100,000, a pittance in Art Basel terms—doesn't even get a certificate to prove it: the transaction is conducted in cash, before witnesses, without paperwork to soil its purity.

That was good enough for prolific collectors Marc and Josée Gensollens, two 62-year-old psychiatrists from Marseilles. ("Ahh, the Gensollens," say Art Basel's dealers in the field, the way Harry Winston must have spoken of Liz Taylor.) The Gensollens "own" a Sehgal that consists of a museum guard slowly removing every shred of his clothes. (There being no guards in the Gensollens' home, so far the piece has come alive only when they've "lent" it to museums.)

"What's interesting is people talking about the work," says Josée. "You may think more about a Weiner [text piece], over time, than about some canvas you've bought…An idea may not be material, but it's powerful." She refers to her memory as the "medium" such works are realized in—and then you realize that that's where most art lives, anyway, most of the time.

Her husband chimes in: "When the work is immaterial, we're just its temporary holders. Accumulating fancy goods is absurd. We buy works to talk about them, and to stretch people's notions of what art is…But some people want the opposite: a reassuring object with a big name."