The Fine Art of Collecting Words

Ruth and Marvin Sackner with a piece from their art collection, 1998

In Ruth and Marvin Sackner’s home, words don’t just wait quietly on their assigned pages. Rather, they whisper and tease from seemingly every wall, every piece of furniture, every corner of the house.

There is the welcoming 162 framed pages of the first edition of Tom Phillips’ A Humument , a dazzling art reworking of A Human Document, an 1892 Victorian novel, lining the wall in the entrance hall leading to the library and the main living room/library. But there are also paintings, drawings and sculptures, electronic signs and paper screens, rugs and even a sweater casually hanging from a bedroom door — all celebrating the word as art object.
Welcome to the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Miami Beach, one of only three major collections of its kind in the world and the only one still in private hands. (The others are housed at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles, and the Stuttgart Museum in Germany.

The Sackner collection includes sober meditations on art and intolerance (Phillips’ Merely Connect; A Questschrist for Salman Rushdie, a collaboration with the Iranian novelist) and also quick-hit visual and literary puns ( A bright idea, a lamp-sculpture by Nancy Dwyer) and art objects such as a Yellow Pages phone book — each of its pages reconfigured with drawings by French artist Christopher Cheung. It also includes works of almost tangible spiritual power, such as Etude Einer Liebe (Study of a Life), a finely etched black stone tablet by Werner Hartmann, and Phillips’ shroudlike image made on his typewriter backing paper of his translation of Dante’s Inferno.

Not every piece in the collection is related to concrete and visual poetry. In fact, initially, the Sackners were collecting Russian avant-garde but, in part because of economics at the time, says Marvin, “I soon realized we could never have an important, major Russian collection.” Besides, says Ruth Sackner, “We wanted to do something that had not really been done before.”

Their interest in concrete and visual poetry was piqued when they saw a retrospective by Phillips, a multidisciplinary British artist, in Basel, Switzerland, in 1974. They were so impressed by his work, which uses words and images, that they began collecting it. It has since become the heart of their collection.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing called visual poetry. I knew nothing about it,” says Marvin Sackner, a retired physician and inventor of medical equipment who now  “alternates” between his passion for collecting, teaching and his work as CEO of Non- Invasive Monitoring Systems, his own publicly held company. “But in about 1979 we were in an old bookstore in Soho and I saw this Anthology of Concrete Poetry by Emmett Williams way up there on the shelf. I reached it, pulled it out, turned to my wife and told her `Wait a second, this is what we are collecting. It even has a name. We are collecting word pieces.’ ”

For Ruth, combining text and visual arts was an approach that seemed to add “an extra dimension” to both.

“I was interested in color early on, but it didn’t hold my interest,” she says. “I felt there it had to be more of a message. I needed help, you might say, and I liked the idea of a story. I liked paintings with narratives, so in some aspects this was for me another step in that direction — here I had a narrative, literally.” While the heyday of concrete poetry was in the 1960s and early ’70s, says Ruth, it is “still going on. Artists don’t call it concrete poetry so much. But the influences are still there, all around us.”

In the Sackners’ case, the observation must be taken literally.

“Living with art is wonderful,” she says. “Once we made up our minds that this was what we were going to do we really focused on it. But,” she adds softly, “I never thought we’d be carried away to such an extent.”

This piece appeared in the Miami Herald, October, 1998

Fernando González