Art Basel

Marvin and Ruth Sackner

By Jane Wooldridge

Ruth and Marvin Sackner with on the their concrete poetry pieces in 1998.
Ruth and Marvin Sackner with on the their concrete poetry pieces in 1998.

Marvin and Ruth Sackner were first attracted to visual poetry because of its accessibility. “When you have words in the artwork you can communicate easily,” says Marvin, a retired doctor who was chief of medicine at Mount Sinai hospital in Miami Beach before his formal retirement in 1992. “It’s an extrospective kind of art rather than introspective.”

Until the mid-1970s, the couple had been collecting optical, Russian avant garde and contemporary art. The 1975 purchase of a series of prints by Tom Phillips, Ein Deutches Requiem: After Brahms, spurred their interest in works combining text, calligraphy, words and images. But it wasn’t until 1979 that Marvin climbed up on a ladder of Jaap Rietman bookstore in New York’s Soho and discovered a dusty copy of Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. “As soon as I looked through it I said, ‘Ruth, look! Our collection has a name!’ ” Marvin says.

They bought the entire long-ignored shelf of books, then trooped to two other Manhattan shops in search of books on what was called patterned or shaped poetry. Invariably, the publications had been relegated to dusty backrooms. They bought everything they found. “When we came back to Miami from that weekend, we had a mini collection,” Marvin says.

Ignoring the temptations of the artforms that previously drew their eye, the Sackners focused on artists’ books, interesting typography and other works that married verbal content with images. The result is the 75,000 works — and counting — of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. It is the largest collection of its kind. Two other collections — one now owned by L.A’s Getty Museum, the other by the Stuttgart Museum of Art in Germany — ceased growing when their respective collectors died.

When the Pérez Art Museum Miami opened last year, an entire room was designated to showcase 300 works from the collection, from images created through the clever use of a typewriter to a rare 1897 publication of Un Coup de des (A Throw of the Dice) by Stéphane Mallarmé. That show closed in August. But enthusiasts can often find works on loan to other institutions and hear Marvin on panels hosted by institutions such as New York’s MOMA. Next year, they’ll also be able to peruse his 350-page Art of Typewriting, being published by Thames and Hudson.

And if that’s not enough, they may find themselves using a medical device designed by Sackner, who has created non-invasive monitoring systems and therapeutic beds, among others. An unexpected pairing of pursuits? Not really, he says. “People say medicine is art,” explains the Renaissance man, who admits, “I just don’t sleep much.”

This article originally was published in December 2014 in the Miami Herald’s Indulge magazine.