An exhibit of 28 contemporary Chinese artists collected by the Rubell Family out of Miami has just opened at the Asian Art Museum. The Rubells are an odd, interesting clan who have been buying art from mostly undiscovered contemporary artists since the 1960s, and who now have their own museum in Miami to house it all. (Photo above is from the press preview on Wednesday morning, where Mera Rubell was being greeted by Museum Director Jay Xu in the foreground while guest curator Allison Harding is with Don Rubell in the background.)
If the last name sounds familiar, it is probably because Don's late brother, Steve Rubell, founded the infamous, celebrity-studded Studio 54 discotheque in New York with Ian Schrager in the 1970s. Those two eventually went to prison for tax evasion in 1980, and bounced back onto the scene as hipster hoteliers in Manhattan before Steve died of AIDS at age 45 in 1989. In a great article by Diane Solway at W Magazine, she quotes the patriarch, “Everyone thinks our inheritance from Steve accelerated the collecting,” Don said. “But he died during a recession, so it’s not the amount people think.”
In the early 1990s, the clan which included son Jason and daughter Jennifer, made their way to Miami. Jason became a hotelier and was joined in the business by his father Don, who had retired from his medical practice. Meanwhile, Mera became a commercial real estate broker and they bought a 45,000 square foot warehouse that previously belonged to the US Drug Enforcement Agency which they turned into a public museum for their growing art collection. (Photo above is of Mera Rubell talking with Museum Deputy Director Dr. Pedro Moura Carvalho.)
According to Don and Mera, all art buying decisions have to be met with unanimous consensus within the family, or the sale is vetoed. At the press preview, Don sheepishly mentioned that the only time he ever bought something without asking anyone else in the family, "I had to return it two days later which is the only time that has ever happened." Daughter Jennifer dropped out of the art buying family cartel in 2009 to become a conceptual artist herself in Manhattan, while the hotel business continues to fuel Don, Mera and Jason's art acquisitions.
Don and Mera made their first visit to China in 2001. "We came down to the hotel lobby to speak with various writers and intellectual friends of our Chinese host, and we saw a plane crashing into the World Trade Center on the television. We honestly thought it was a movie at first." They weren't impressed with the art they saw and bought nothing, but returned in 2006 and visited the studios of over 100 Chinese contemporary artists during five separate buying sprees over the next six years. (Photo above and below are of Huang Yong Ping's 2007 Well and what's inside one of them.)
In the W Magazine article, Solway writes:
"The visibility they give artists strengthens the Rubells’ bargaining power, because their exhibitions can raise profiles and prices. Since the Rubells rarely sell works, they are not the immediate beneficiaries of artists’ increasing values, but the family is sometimes criticized for the kind of bartering it does. Young artists are eager for the Rubells’ imprimatur, which can put pressure on their gallerists to agree to the Rubells’ requests to buy in bulk or at steeply discounted rates. “Young dealers are afraid to say no to them,” a veteran said.
Whatever their methods of collection, two years ago the Rubell Family Collection in Miami put together the fruits of this Asian project and gave it the prosaic title of 28 Chinese, for the simple reason that there were 28 Chinese artists represented. "If we had put it together now," Don added, "the number could be 29 or 31." The results are scattershot, but there are some great pieces in the show, above all the exquisitely large sculpture in the North Court made out of paper, bamboo and cotton thread called Boat by Zhu Jinshi.
You can walk through the sculpture and the temptation to touch the huge, delicate piece is almost overwhelming. The beleaguered security guards are being quite gentle in telling people, "we want to touch it too, but please don't," even though the cotton strings sustaining the piece look like harps that demand to be fondled and played.
There are also a number of disturbing photographs, including 1/2 by Zhang Yuan and Tattoo II by Qiu Zhije...
...along with a whole series of alienated individual guys by Chen Wei, including Honey in the Broadcast above (detail).
A large gallery has been modernized and is devoted to up-to-the-minute abstractions that could come from anywhere in the world, including the gorgeous, computer-generated Liberation No. 1 by Liu Wei.
In a welcome development, various pieces have been stealthily installed in the ancient Chinese art galleries and they work wonderfully, including The Death of Marat above by He Xiangyu, which is a sculpture of the artist Ai Weiwei with his face on the floor. The room surrounding the piece is filled with artwork excavated from Chinese tombs, which only adds to the shock value of the prone figure.
History Observed: Joseph Bueys & Mao Zedong by Li Zhanyang also looks perfectly happy in the ancient Chinese lacquered furniture room. There is no extra charge to attend the special exhibit, and Sunday the 7th is a free admission day, so get yourself to the Asian Art Museum. The exhibit is well worthwhile.