WASHINGTON — In 2015, the collectors Barbara and Aaron Levine were en route from their home in Washington to the art fair Frieze New York on Amtrak when their train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and leaving almost 200 injured. Her pelvis was broken in five places; his lungs were severely damaged.
“I nearly died,” said Mr. Levine, sitting with his wife of 61 years, surrounded by hundreds of contemporary artworks in their house in the Kalorama neighborhood (not far from the Obamas). A trial lawyer by profession, Mr. Levine described how, during his hospitalization, he would take a mental inventory of their beloved works by Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Kosuth, Carl Andre, John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys and other conceptual and minimalist artists they focus on.
“I laid in bed for three months and walked the house every day and looked at the work,” in his mind, he said. “You get through the day. You keep your sanity.”
The Levines, whose families lived on the same floor of an apartment building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn (before it was “the hottest place to be,” Ms. Levine said), started dating as teenagers, against his mother’s wishes. “She didn’t understand Donald Judd, either,” Mr. Levine said, nodding to that artist’s horizontal relief of repeating units in red, white and black over the sofa. “My mother thought it was Kleenex boxes.”
They began collecting in earnest three decades ago, after traveling around Europe looking at German Expressionism and Social Realism. “I was fascinated by the 1930s, the uprising in conjunction with the Nazis and how that turmoil reflected itself in art,” Mr. Levine said. Early on they bought works by Max Beckmann, Ralston Crawford and Philip Evergood — a 1930s canvas by Evergood depicting social inequities was included in “Out of the Retina, Into the Brain,” an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago of pieces from their collection. (They have pledged their library of 8,000 art books to the institute).
Their obsessions moved on to Duchamp, the conceptual prankster. “That whole mind game turns me on,” Mr. Levine said. The couple will be giving more than 35 Duchamps and 15 related portraits and photographs by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Irving Penn, among others, to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where the collection will go on view in November for a year.
“Washington is every school kid’s stop-off, and it could open up the door to all kinds of interest,” said Ms. Levine, who is retired, but counts gallery work and teaching school among her careers. She was also on the Hirshhorn board for 12 years.
The couple sparred playfully about every topic, including Mr. Levine’s assertion that they are attracted to artists who are “fun.” “Is Thomas Schütte fun?” Ms. Levine retorted. “Sol LeWitt is fun?” She conceded that Juan Muñoz, Lawrence Weiner and Rirkrit Tiravanija could be considered fun.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
So you like art that has a sense of humor?
AARON LEVINE And an intellectual impact.
BARBARA LEVINE He just doesn’t relate if it’s too pretty or too easy for him.
Do you always have to agree on purchases?
MR. LEVINE I say, I just bought it, is it all right?
MS. LEVINE For so many years I wanted On Kawara, and he looked at me like, “You’re out of your mind — you want it, I’ll buy it, but why do you want it?” Now he loves that On Kawara beyond imagination.
Have you ever worked with an adviser?
MS. LEVINE Oh, God, no, I hate art advisers. You go to people’s houses who have art advisers and they all have one of each.
MR. LEVINE We don’t have trophies.
You seem to have a number of works about relationships — like the Bruce Nauman neon of the figures poking each other’s eyes and the video with Marina Abramovic and Ulay hitting each other.
MS. LEVINE Nothing we do is conscious. It’s just what talks to us.
Are you still actively acquiring things?
MS. LEVINE Unfortunately.
MR. LEVINE As much as I can.
MS. LEVINE I could hang two more houses, I’ve got so much art.
MR. LEVINE We’re planning to go to Europe if my doctor lets me. I’m a sick person, but if I’m buying art, I’m not sick.
It keeps you going?
MR. LEVINE It keeps me alive.