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Art as Experience: An Inside Look at the Home of Two Premier Art Collectors

Donald and Shelley Rubin’s apartment is a curated space for an eclectic collection of works from around the world.

When the elevator doors open and you walk directly into the New York apartment of collectors Donald and Shelley Rubin, you are immediately plunged into an environment where there is no separation between art and life. To your right is a wooden chest, only it’s no ordinary piece of furniture; Tibetan Buddhist deities and mythological creatures dance all over it in a swirl of hot colors. On the wall just behind you, another Buddhist deity, jet-black, wielding a sword and trampling on a corpse, terrifies or protects, depending on your point of view. He also conceals, behind his swinging frame, a panel of electrical switches. In the living room and dining room, ethnographic textiles from around the world decorate the chairs (cleverly upholstered so that the rich fabrics are on the backs, where they won’t be subject to wear and tear). As you climb the curving stairs, you brush right by contemporary Indian paintings that look like diagrams of the cosmos. On an Art Deco table in front of a soaring window, a group of Precolumbian pottery figures cluster together, their various facial expressions and gestures making them resemble a humorously quarrelsome family. The art, even if it hangs high on the walls of this lofty space, is never out of reach.

The emphasis on Tibetan and Indian works should come as no surprise, given the fact that the Rubins are the creators and patrons of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, the nation’s premier institution devoted to Himalayan and Buddhist art. Donald, who founded a health-insurance company, and Shelley, a former computer programmer, saw a White Tara painting from Tibet in the window of a Madison Avenue gallery in the early 1970s and were captivated, although they knew nothing at the time about the religion and culture that inspired it. That purchase began a collecting journey that led to the opening of the museum in 2004 and continues both publicly and privately. In keeping with their fluid philosophy, the Rubins occasionally lend works from their personal collection to the museum.

“An organizing principle of my life, “says Shelley Rubin, “is about creating experience. The museum, for me, was an opportunity in the largest sense to change the world, one person at a time. It’s a full experience, not just paintings on the wall. It’s education, wall texts, the shop, food, the entire feeling. The apartment is also an experience.”

An integral part of that experience is the apartment itself, which was created for the couple by design partners Samuel Botero and Emery von Stankoczy of Samuel Botero Associates in New York. (The collaboration was facilitated by owner’s representative Karen Thomas Associates Inc.) The architect of the project was Larry Wente of Gertler & Wente LLP, also of New York. Taking a duplex in a former hotel building on Park Avenue as their raw material, they completely opened up the space, resulting in a double-height living room with super-sized windows to match. The décor is the diametric opposite of “white cube”; the walls in the main “public” spaces are a rich tan or honey color, while in the private spaces such as the bedrooms (also replete with art) they are a deep orangey-red. The golden color, says Rubin, “is Sam reflecting me and the thousand of photos I’ve sent him from all over the world of peeling plaster in golden light. I wake up every morning and come down the stairs, and when the sun is on those walls, you’re warmed by them.” The warm-climate feel is enhanced wooden Egyptian-fretwork doors throughout the apartment, which, in addition to the cultural connotations, create a dialectic of seeing and not-seeing. In some cases, through the tiny carved holes, one can see oneself reflected back through a mirror behind the fretwork.

Fittingly, there are no sharp edges in the Rubins’ apartment, but rather rounded or beveled curves by which one plane blends gracefully into another. At the edges where the walls meet the floor-to-ceiling windows, the walls actually ripple in a way that echoes curtains. The stairs curve sinuously, and the banisters themselves (made of a special Indonesian wood) end in spiral finials that seem almost like seashells. Their forms were too complex to be carved in wood, so Stankoczy sculpted them in clay and then had them fabricated on a CNC machine. The whole conception is biomorphic—the ceilings have recessed cutouts that recall Surrealist amoeba-like beings or waves, and a long, art-lined hallway is shaped like a sine curve. “We kept the vocabulary going throughout the apartment,” says Botero. “We got rid of corners so your eye keeps traveling.” As it travels down this particular hall it takes in an astonishingly eclectic sequence of works, including not only traditional Himalayan pieces but contemporary Tibetan and Indian, Cuban contemporary, a Henry Darger drawing and a Dorothea Lange photograph.

This eclecticism is part and parcel of the Rubins’ approach. Their collecting can be broken down into four main fields: Classic Himalayan, contemporary Tibetan, modern and contemporary Indian and contemporary Cuban. The 20th- and 21st-century works have in common a recontextualizing of traditional forms and subject matters within the modern world, a repurposing of sorts that confronts the breaking down of barriers between cultures.

Some of the Rubins’ major works fall outside those four main groups, though: Chagall is a favorite, represented by several large paintings, such as Le Bouquet du Ciel, 1982–83, and Figures with Menorah, 1956. Another is Yahne Le Toumelin, a contemporary French abstract painter who is also a Buddhist nun (her son, Matthieu Ricard, is a Buddhist monk in Nepal, a translator for the Dalai Lama, and also a photographer whose work has been praised by no less than Henri Cartier-Bresson). There’s also photography and video art installed in several places in the apartment.

The Rubins are in some ways ahead of the curve; Indian modern and contemporary art is increasingly being discovered and sought after by collectors outside India, and Cuban art is also gaining a wider audience, informing the outside world about the difficulties and paradoxes of life in Cuba. But their buying has never been driven by market trends, says Rubin. “In terms of us as a couple, my husband is truly the compulsive collector, and I’m the experience-builder. What we both share is the falling-in-love sickness. Just as we fell in love with the original pieces that led to the collection of Himalayan art, we were in Cuba several years ago and fell in love with the art and with the people.” She calls these new fields “an extension of what we collected in the past, taking old themes and stories, old colors and shapes, and re-energizing them in a new way.”

Rubin sees the apartment as more than just a repository for these diverse works. “Everywhere you look in the apartment,” she says, “your eye finds something beautiful—the architecture, the light and shadow. It’s a work of art. Living with art is not just about what is traditionally defined as art; it’s about the carpet and the table, even the sounds. All of them are objects of art.” Botero, for his part, acknowledges the symbiosis between the apartment and the art, saying, “We wanted to give importance to the art and sink the architecture into the background,” but also insisting that “Emery and I sculpted this apartment; we had never worked so intensely.” In fact, he doesn’t hold back from describing this project as his career-long favorite.

This designer and his client were clearly made for each other. “I was drawn to Sam in the beginning because he was the only designer who said to me, ‘In your fantasy, how would you live? No designer had ever asked me that, had ever cared. Sam’s incredible magic is that he wants to please his clients but also bring out the best in them, to help them grow, to become more sophisticated and more aware.”

While still actively involved in collecting and in the Rubin Museum, Shelley Rubin’s attention is now particularly focused on a philanthropic venture, a foundation called A Blade of Grass. Its mission is to support artists and arts organizations that “innovate beyond the gallery and engage communities.” Rubin explains that the foundation is promoting “artists who see process as their practice, whose intention is to make social change. For me, this brings together two things that have really been a part of my life forever—politics and art. As I’ve learned more about contemporary art, I’ve realized that there are artists who are trying to engage the community and the world in a way that is not about putting paintings on the wall.”

While this might seem like the opposite pole from collecting art and installing it in an exquisitely designed space, Rubin sees a point of contact, even a theme in common: “Socially engaged artists create experiences as opposed to products. The apartment is a process, an experience, an entity itself. So in that sense, they are related things.”

This article originally appeared in the September issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Art as Experience.”

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: August 2012

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