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Rubell Family Collection: Highlights and Artists’ Writings, Volume 1

Amanda Keeley

Rubell Family Collection: Highlights and Artists’ Writings, Volume 1. 700 pages, 880 images, Rubell Family Collection.

The Rubell Family Collection: Highlights and Artists’ Writings, Volume 1 was published to commemorate the Rubells’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and to mark the twentieth year that the collection has been open to the public. The book encapsulates a selection of 880 works from 250 artists represented in the collection. With more than 6,800 works by 832 artists to choose from, I do not envy that editing job. The book functions as a very extensive catalogue, documenting the trajectory of the collection with images of artists’ works alongside writings submitted by most of the artists themselves. Biblical in proportion, the size and scope of this book are a bit off-putting at first glance. Since the catalogue weighs in at four pounds and is 700 pages long, you may not be inclined to pick this one up. You might prefer to use it instead as an object itself—a doorstop, bookend, or yoga block. But on further inspection, the bountiful images of contemporary art draw you in. The tome is a pictorial survey in a way, taking the temperature across two decades of art collecting, accompanied by an anthology of writings from the artists that proves insightful, and at times intimate and poignant.

The book is thoroughly researched. It includes an exhibition history of the Rubells’ collection, a list of the family’s exhibitions that have traveled around the world, and an inventory of the works they have loaned to other institutions. Each artist’s works are organized according to the year the Rubells acquired them. The catalogue begins with Cindy Sherman, so we are off to an impressive start. A 1978 photograph is accompanied by a text in which Sherman reminisces about her early days as a photographer. The Rubells identified her talent early in her career and purchased this piece, with many more to follow after that. Sherman was just twenty-four at the time. In the text, she discusses how she could not really afford to shoot a lot of film: “I would just shoot maybe six to seven shots per character. As soon as I thought we’d gotten enough, I’d move on to the next character.” The Rubells were there at the right moment—and that early sale would enable Sherman to continue shooting and become one of the most recognized photographers of our day. The book next features Jeff Koons, who talks about showing up at the Rubells’ for a Whitney Biennial afterparty in 1979 on the wrong evening and being invited into their home anyway. The following day, Koons sent them one of his inflatable flower pieces and began what would grow into a long relationship. (Apparently, the Rubells had some pretty notorious Whitney Biennial parties; Richard Prince also mentions these gatherings in his text.)

Francesco Clemente, David Salle, Robert Longo, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat all follow on the heels of Koons. The list of heavy hitters goes on with an impressive trajectory. The contemporary artists diversify as you progress through the book, and I found myself encountering artists who I was not familiar with, but were refreshing to discover. I was also pleased to find the work of our homegrown Miami talent represented by Hernan Bas, José Bedia, Mark Handforth, Naomi Fisher, and Dara Friedman. As I made my journey through this comprehensive survey, what struck me is the compelling range of the work the Rubells have acquired, and that they have often selected pieces that are more challenging—either in terms of size and installation or the subject matters explored, such as race, identity, and gender. Radical works by artists like Janine Antoni, Sarah Lucas, Catherine Opie, Gary Simmons, and David Wojnarowicz are prominent. A notable number of provocative and confrontational works stand out within the book’s pages, including pieces by Francis Alÿs, Paul Chan, Sigalit Landau, Carrie Mae Weems, Paul McCarthy, and Charles Ray.

The most valuable feature of this book is the essays that the artists contributed. It is rare to have an opportunity to get an artist’s personal insight into their creative and artistic process. These texts feel like an intimate studio visit, and the quiet moments of reflection unveil small treasures. The best texts were not necessarily didactic, but enlightening, thoughtful, and charming: Prince reminiscing about the first time he met Robert Mapplethorpe at the Rubells’, Peter Halley’s formulaic instructions, Clemente recalling his lack of furniture, Bruce Nauman’s list, Robert Colescott discussing racial stereotyping, and Thomas Houseago’s identifying with America. Glenn Ligon contributes the longest essay with a powerful A–Z list describing African American identity, and Hank William Thomas reveals a personal note on grief. All these essays enhance the reading experience of the catalogue and serve to shed light on our perception of what is represented within.

Feeling a bit of the 700-page fatigue on completing the book, what remains evident is how deeply connected Don and Mera Rubell are with many of these artists. I’ve often wondered how the family identifies which works they would like to acquire and how they select artists without any advisor’s guidance. From the substantial size of their library, filled from floor to ceiling with books, it is clear the Rubells conduct a great amount of research on each artist to make very informed decisions. At the same time, the Rubells obviously have an innate and intuitive sense. The introductory essay mentions the family must always reach a consensus; there is something symbiotic happening among all parties, and that mutual trust and exchange has clearly built a world-class collection. “Artists first” is the helm of this family foundation. The artworks and artists are treated with integrity. The Rubells cultivate talent over extended periods of time, they nurture and support the artists throughout their careers, and there is a deep level of commitment felt for each one. I await the second volume of this set, which will feature the Rubells ruminating on their personal history as it relates to the collection and sum up the collective voice of the Rubell Family Collection. Hopefully there will be some good party stories, too!