A vaguely anthropomorphic structure of colossal semi-circles, triangles, and projecting masts, Fletcher Benton’s painted steel Balanced/Unbalanced towers above a nearby fence line and stream of passing cars as if beckoning in an amiable gesture of asymmetrical geometry. Around the corner and a short distance down a tidy gravel road, a pair of Albert Paley welded gates mimics, through its organic rhythms and meandering verticality, the disposition of the flanking brush and grasses. These unexpected, though wonderfully consonant steel features of the landscape provide the first hints that the boundaries of Karen and Robert Duncan’s 40-acre Lincoln, Nebraska, estate encompasses more than a series of low hills, stands of hardwoods and evergreens, a modest vineyard, and a sizeable pond. Punctuating the idyllic terrain are the highlights of a world-class collection of contemporary sculpture, much of it commanding in scale and perfectly suited to an environment that is no neutral stage for isolated objects, but a medium subtly for the cumulative experience of works of art.
Large portions of the grounds are visible from an observation deck, open to the air like the belfry of a pseudo-campanile, that rises above the classically allusive but sparsely modern pediments and porticos, rhythmic fenestration, and Romanesque bastion of the Duncans’ residence. Below, on a broad and relatively flat section of the property -articulated into an implicit grid by two pale concrete pathways that meet at right angles and test their rigidity against the arc of an interesting, darker gray asphalt driveway -Jim Dine’s The House (Heart), a bronze slab bearing a relief composed of cast tools, serves as a blunt terminus. From a slope beyond, Philip Grausman’s Eileen, a colossal white fiberglass female head, imperious as the great, droop-eyed visage of Constantine on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, surveys a closely cropped lawn where Richard Long’s Rain Line stretches out, the slabs of slate suggesting through their linear disposition and planar irregularity a solitary furrow plowed in a virgin field. A few degrees to the right, the hunched torsos of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Untitled (From Backs Series in Six Parts) extend like a row of low stelae on the grassy periphery of an archeological site. Just beyond, an Anne and Patrick Poirier amphitheater perpetuates the vague air of antiquity.
The easy visual and conceptual flow from object to object in this private sculpture park should perhaps be surprising, given that none of the works was acquired expressly for installation at a particular site. Since the mid-1970s and the purchase of a small marble sculpture by a regional artist -one of the first pieces in what has grown to be a collection of over 1,200 art objects -the Duncans have held true to their practice of acquiring art not for the sake of ostentatious display, not for investment, and not for the satisfaction of progressively ticking off a checklist of famous names. Instead, their motive is simply to surround themselves with objects that they truly enjoy by artists whom they know and admire. Professional consultants are superfluous to this strategy of collecting, and, as a result, a wonderful sense of freedom underlies each purchase. When pondering a possible addition to the collection, no consideration need be given to whether it might be visually or thematically consistent with previous acquisitions. The guiding criteria are simply that an object piques the couple’s interest (nearly all selections are made jointly) and seems to offer the potential for an enduring sense of connection. Holding to these two criteria has made for few regrets and it is worth noting that virtually nothing has been de-acquisitioned since the collection’s inception.
The Duncans’ feelings for the integrity of their collection derive not only from a deep attachment to the objects themselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from an interest in and commitment to the creators of those objects. Whenever possible, purchases are made only after having established a personal rapport with the artist. The importance that the Duncans place on personal contact is evident in their recent acquisition of several sculptures by English artist Sophie Ryder. After attending the Frieze Art Fair in London, they continued on to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to visit director Peter Murray, with whom Robert had served on the board of the International Sculpture Center. They were captivated by an exhibition of Ryder’s large figural works in the park, and their enthusiasm led to a visit to the artist’s studio, where they eventually selected four pieces for their collection. The largest, Upside Down Kneeling, depicts, in a 10-foot-long volumetric mesh of galvanized wire, Ryder’s distinctive hybrid human/hare on its back, with knees tucked up and its long ears forming an acute angle against the horizon. Eye, a 96-inch-wide bas-relief, appears from a distance to be a charcoal drawing, though it is rendered entirely in wire. Meeting Ryder’s daughter, whose left eye served as the model for the unusual sculpture, was a memorable experience for the Duncans, now inextricable from the value of the work. Lady Hare with Dog will forever bring to mind the image of Ryder’s pet as it laid its head contentedly on her shoulder during their conversation.
Prominently situated on a berm fashioned of earth from the excavation of the pond, stands another sculpture acquired only after the collectors had become personally acquainted with the artist. In a rare instance of offering a potential commission, they contacted Dennis Oppenheim to solicit ideas for a set of gates. Though his design ultimately proved incompatible with their vision, the Duncans ended up purchasing Device to Root Out Evil, a rendering of a disintegrating and inverted church so wonderfully expressive as a form that the artist reputedly overlooked its social and political implications and was surprised when a university rejected it for installation on campus.
Despite the potentially provocative nature of Oppenheim’s sculpture, few observers are likely to discern any obvious threads of controversy running through the Duncan collection as a whole. Most of the works, including the figural ones, are non-narrative, and their metaphors tend to permit a wide range of interpretation. Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent cast aluminum and black lacquer Abstraction -a jewel, if one can apply such an intimate term to a sculpture so monumental in impression -is, with respect to its potential referents, one of the most unfettered forms in the collection. Spiraling outwardly in a sinuous curve around a central ring, the composition suggests an unfolding tendril, a rippling movement of water, a coiled rattlesnake or a maternal figure embracing a sleeping infant. The sculpture once stood on the grounds of the Duncans’ previous residence but was brought into the spacious atrium of their new home, where rays from an overhead skylight illuminate the gleaming surfaces and cast a delicate pattern of overlapping shadows on the wall.
The Duncans’ current residence, which they have come to regard as the most prominent sculpture in the collection due to its beautifully integrated geometry and stately expression of an infinite aesthetic durability, lends itself to the display of a range of art, although a set of illuminated cherry-wood niches flanking the high-pedimented doorway on one end of the living room and the planar limestone fireplace on the other are the only features constructed deliberately to house art objects. (Currently these niches are occupied by Karen’s extensive collection of ikebana and contemporary baskets.) Designed by London-based, Greek architect Demetri Porphyrios in a style of stripped-down classicism that unites broad planes of pale gray and rose stone, warm accents of stained wood, and lustrous surfaces of brushed steel, the house possesses a Doris sobriety conducive to the quiet contemplation of art. At the same time, the plenitude of objects, not quite Victorian in its ebullience but a far cry from the sparseness of a museum display, marks the space as a lived-in environment subtly shaped by a confident and consistent taste.
Set against floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room and flanked by Empire, Beidermeier, and Art Deco furnishings, Niki de Saint Phalle’s life-sized equestrian sculpture LE Cheval et la Mariee depicts a trotting horse assembled from a jumble of cast baskets, babies, branches, and assorted toy airplanes and trucks, surmounted by a silvery figure enveloped in a flowing veil of diaphanous fabric. Produced shortly after the last of the artist’s celebrated Shooting Paintings in 1963, the composition carries forward the bricolage and irregular surfaces of those works and anticipates, thematically, her signature Nanas. No doubt a reflection on her premature marriage and experiences of child rearing, the piece takes an ironic view of the bride in glory, soon to succumb to the beast of responsibilities on which she is romantically (though precariously) perched.
Evan Penny’s L. Faux Colour #2 (Libby) inflates the scale of nature and extends the dimensionality of art: the former by amplifying the human head to the height of the entire body and the latter by extending into relief the Chuck Close portrait that every such meticulously rendered, oversized representation of the face inevitably recalls. The result is an implicit trace of a sequence from nature to photograph to painting to sculpture that stresses the body’s ultimate absence even while conjuring all of its details with an exactitude and ambition that are impossible to ignore. On the opposite end of the scale, a curious miniaturization reinforced the body’s absence in Charles LeDray’s Untitled (Bust), a neat little handsewn suit, shirt, and tie, all in the dimensions of a ventriloquist’s dummy, carefully arranged on a tiny hanger but severely truncated by a horizontal slash. The troubling amalgam of doll and death, of child-like innocence and aggression gone rampant, breeds a chill of secret abuse and the poignancy of a “little man” metaphorically, and perhaps literally, broken.
Given the size and diversity of the Duncan collection, most genres and mediums of contemporary sculpture are represented. The collection contains, for example, work by some of the foremost contemporary sculptors in clay, no doubt partly a consequence of the Duncans’ friendship with Omaha-based Jun Kaneko, whose work, including drawings, slabs, a large Dango, and a massive head, is liberally dispersed throughout the couple’s home and the surrounding landscape. Displayed in an intimate, arc-shaped gallery -situated above the dramatic cylindrical library and accessible by a stainless-steel spiral staircase -are works including Akio Takamori’s Sleeper and Annabeth Rosen’s Bemis Ball, a conglomerate of expressively glazed tubular and spherical forms suggestive of pollen under a microscope. Ken Price is represented by Shorty, an abstract ceramic form layered in partially sanded acrylic paint that smolders in red and blue like a lump of mafic lava in the process of cooling.
Video and electronic art constitutes a growing presence in the Duncan collection, which contains three Nam June Paik sculptures, among them Good Girl, Bad Girl, a depiction of a robotic female figure with glass powerline-insulator breasts, a voltage-meter abdomen, and nine compact television sets composing her arms, legs, and head. A notable recent acquisition is Elizabeth King’s installation Bartlett’s Hand, the central element of which -an articulated human hand made of carved wood and brass -is mounted like a glover’s display before a freestanding empty rectangular frame, beyond which an LCD monitor plays a stop-action animation of the hand’s movement through more than 6,000 gestures. The contrast of virtual and actual is rendered especially intriguing by the effect of volition created by the filmed hand and the inanimate, still-life condition of the physical hand itself – though convention would grant advantage to the latter on the question of which possesses a greater reality.
A major tenet of the Duncans’ philosophy of collecting is reflected in the fact that, since the purchase of King’s installation, the wooden hand has been almost continually out on loan. Cognizant of the uniqueness and historical importance of many of the sculpture that they have acquired, the Duncans are devoted to a policy of granting access to the collection to artists, scholars, fellow collectors, students, and anyone else with a serious interest in contemporary art. Robert and curatorial assistant Anne Pagel lead several tours of the home and grounds each month, and Pagel, who maintains a database of the objects, is helping to produce a Wed site featuring many of the more prominent works. Most characteristic of the Duncans’ effort to share their collection, however, is an unusual event that they first organized in 2003: a weekend celebration to which artists whose work the couple has acquired are invited to come and view the collection, tour local art installations, and above all, meet and spend time with one another. After all, for the Duncans, collecting has never been about objects alone, and perhaps nothing better represents their motive for building the vast and varied collection than the pleasure that they derive from hosting this artist-oriented event.
Glen R. Brown is a writer and art historian.