The following blog is written by Rich Dana, Olson Graduate Assistant in Special Collections.
Dr. Marvin Sackner passed away on September 29th. A national leader in the field of pulmonology and an inventor of innovative medical devices, Marvin Sackner was also an internationally recognized authority in the field of word-art, known as concrete or visual poetry. Along with his late wife, Ruth, Dr. Sackner collected the world’s most extensive collection of word-based art, which arrived at the University of Iowa in 2019.
In an October 5th memorial, International Dada Curator Timothy Shipe wrote that “For those of us at Iowa, Dr. Sackner will be forever remembered for selecting the University Libraries as the permanent home of his world-renowned collection of concrete and visual poetry; but as his obituary shows, his memory will be treasured for his countless contributions in many areas—by his numerous patients, by members of the medical profession, by artists, art historians, and literary scholars around the world, and most of all by his beloved family.”
Timothy Shipe later shared with me some personal thoughts about his interactions with Marvin Sackner, recalling that his 2018 New York meetings with Dr. Sackner and Head of Special Collections Margaret Gamm were not just business negotiations. Rather, he remembers working with Marvin as “enjoyable days full of enlightening conversation.”
Dr. Sackner was scheduled to visit Iowa City in April to attend the opening of an exhibition of works from the Sackner Archive at the UI Main Library gallery. Unfortunately, Dr. Sackner’s visit did not come to pass. In March, the world was thrown into the chaos of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Iowa, like most campuses across the United States, quickly closed the campus and moved to virtual classes. The Sackner exhibit was put on hold, and Dr. Sackner’s visit was postponed.
Later in the spring, I had the good fortune to talk at length with Marvin Sackner in a series of phone calls in which I interviewed him for a pair of blog posts. Our discussions were far-ranging, covering everything from the origins of the Sackner Archive to current events, historical medical treatises to science fiction.
When he inquired about my own scholarly interests, I mentioned that I was working on a paper exploring the links between early science fiction fandom and the literary and artistic uses of the mimeograph by the avant-garde. He became quite excited, telling me that “Oh, yes, you are on to something there!” Quickly pivoting from fine art to pulp paperbacks, he went on to share with me his own early interest in science fiction. In hindsight, he thought that the first time he saw an example of concrete poetry was not in a rare book shop or gallery, but rather in the paperback edition of Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination. “You will find several copies in the collection,” he told me.
At age 88, his memory for detail was impressive and his enthusiasm infectious, even over the phone. His comment about Bester’s book was spot-on, providing me with one of the first critical lynchpins in my thesis. We continued to correspond through occasional emails, and I held out hope that I might one day get to meet him in person after the pandemic had passed.
In late August, the exhibition of highlights from the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry finally opened in the Main Library Gallery. Sadly, one month later, we received the news of Dr. Sackner’s passing. A portrait of Dr. Sackner was added to the exhibit, next to the portrait of his wife Ruth.
I regret that I won’t be able to talk to Dr. Sackner again, but I will always appreciate how generously he shared his time with me. I also regret that the UI students and faculty will never have a chance to meet him, to experience his infectious enthusiasm, and thank him in person for the gift he has given us. However, we will continue to celebrate his passion and gain inspiration from the fantastic artwork and legacy that he has left in our care.
To see a sample of works from the Sackner Archive, please take the time to visit the Main Library Gallery website. To see more, schedule a private or socially-distanced small group visit by contacting the gallery staff.