Sunday, March 2, 2008

Rubin Museum of Art

A favorite stop of mine when I go to Chelsea is this relatively new museum, located in the old Barney's building at the corner of 17th Street and Seventh Avenue. It is an imaginative reuse for a familiar place, I lived across the the street at 16th and Seventh, so I knew the Barney's store well. The spiral staircase of the women's section now serves like a downtown Guggenheim, for conveying one between the floors of exhibition space. It is beautifully done, the exhibitions and collections well displayed and lit. However, the organization of the collections and the labeling I find strange. For in fact this is not so much an art museum, as an educational institution whose mission is to bring Himalayan art and Buddhist religion to the west. As such the labels are less concerned with the work of art as what it depicts, and some of it is silly. For example, the floor with my favorite pieces in the museum is in sections labeled; Where is it made?; Why is it made?; How is it made?...etc. It is as if it was geared to kindergarten students, rather than people interested in art. What redeems it though is the quality and beauty of much of the art, and the beautiful installation and display of the objects. Below is a selection of some of my favorite pieces.

Statue of Maitreya.
Gandharan, ca. 3rd -4th Century A.D.
Grey schist.
This beautiful statue is a very fine example of Gandharan art, which comes from the part of the Kushan kingdom that had been conquered by Alexander the Great, and retained ties to the Western world and showed the influence of Greek and Roman art in its own style. Maitreya is the Buddha of the future, and here is depicted as a Bodhisattva, thus the jewels and rich clothing and adornment. You can always recognize him by several attributes, a small jar of water in one hand and the jewels he wears, often with large bracelets worn on the upper arms and sometimes only shown as a shape under his robe as here on his left covered shoulder.

another view of the Maitreya statue.

Here you can get a better view of the Maitreya showing the muscled torso, and sensuous treatment of this beautiful figure; he really is quite sexy here.

Statue of a Bodhisattva.
Tibetan, 14th to 15th Century.
Gilt bronze, apr. 36 inches tall.

This poignant sculpture is in gilt bronze, about half life sized, and is heavily damaged with limbs ripped off, bullet marks and holes, and appears generally abused; and yet despite these damages there is a peaceful tranquility that it radiates and a triumphant beauty. It comes from a monastery in that was destroyed by the Chinese army in the 1950's. There are many fragments from these monasteries on the art market, and in museums in the West, this is one of the largest figures I have seen, and one of the most beautiful and moving of them.

Upper part of a statuette of the Buddha Sakyamuni.
I believe it to be Indian, from the Kasmir region, 8th Century A.D.
Bronze, height apr. 12 inches.

Terrible photo of the complete figure above, I could not get a good one, and no better image
is available online. But just for those who need to see the complete figure, I am posting this.

This beautiful bronze statuette depicts the enlightened Buddha, freed of earthly desires and possessions, dressed simply and without adornment in a simple monks robe, distinguished however from mortals by the ushnisha, the bun on top of his head, and here his webbed fingers and unnatural proportions; his hands reach to his knees for example. All of this is specific to the Buddha, and deliberate, not a stylistic fault on the part of the artist. The long sweeping eyes that go right off the sides of his head are a feature of Kashmir, and Swat Valley art, and the treatment of the shallow folds of the robe and the way it clings tightly to the body dates this piece to the earliest period where the Buddha was given human form. However the label in the museum dates it much later, and I simply do not agree with it. I think this may be one of the rarest and most important objects in the museum, which is not being adequately recognized by the institution.

This mislabeling in the museum makes me question the quality of the art, there are many great works that I admire in the museum and three of them are featured here; I know these to be good examples of their kind; however the misunderstanding of this last piece and the emphasise in the labels on teaching about Buddhism rather than the art work in front of one makes me wonder about the works I understand less; are they any good? Are they good of kind, and are they correctly labeled? I wish more emphasis was given to the artworks and educating the public about them, as well as what they depict.

The Rubin Museum is always worth a visit and they have thematic exhibitions that change several times a year. After a day of seeing contemporary art in Chelsea it is a welcome respite for the eyes and soul.


DrewEvans said...

I enjoyed your most recent entry 3/1/08. I wanted to hear more about the architecture of the building itself as you spoke with some authority about it.
To ne critical, I couldn't see why you included the blurry picture when you stated yourself that I'd was awful. It serves no apparent reason to be there thus it is a distraction. I would suggest removing it.
Keep the posts coming, I enjoy them

Toms art report said...

thank you for reading my blog.
I assumed that most people knew the old Barneys on 17th St., but forget that many do not. The women's section had a large open spiral staircase going up six floors, around which the clothes were featured, now the art is.
As for the photo, I feel it important to have a photo of the complete object, and could not hold still long enough to take a good photo of the whole, but was able to take a better one of the top part, which I also feature. No image of this piece is available on the website of the museum, or I would have used it. I take my own photos for that reason, with my iphone, which works reasonably well, is discrete, and always with me. It has no flash so is within most museums guidelines. Sorry about the blur, but it was important to me to have a complete view as well as the detail.