A day at the Rubin Museum of Art

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Businessman Donald Rubin started buying Himalayan sacred paintings twenty years ago. Now over 900 works of art from his collection are on display in the new Rubin Museum of Art. The museum opened in Chelsea last October in a building which used to house the original Barneys store. Judith Kampfner spent a day with visitors experiencing an unusual art space.

Kampfner: Over the course of a cold rainy day, many visitors came into the Rubin museum on 17th and 7th avenue. A common initial reaction was to compare the new space with how it looked when it was a store. The reincarnation was a change that tantalized this visitor.

Man: I am amused in walking into this museum which I know was Barneys before it became the Rubin museum that this was in essence the locus of a certain desire in New York for everything material and that here within a museum which is dedicated to the arts of the Himalayas, are lesson after lesson in leaving desire behind and searching for a spiritual truth

Kampfner: That museum goer described himself as a spiritual advisor who had come to look at this art collection from Himalayan monasteries to further his knowledge of Buddhism. This was not his first visit but many were newcomers.

Woman: There's just a wonderful feeling of energy that drew me in from the street. just being in here feels really good. JK Q: A contemporary energy or an ancient energy? A: An ancient energy.

Kampfner: The atrium on the first floor is like a market square with a café and a store where Indian classical music is playing. The interior designers of the museum left one Barney’s fixture – a central curving steel staircase – intact. Walk up to the galleries. On the second level a woman absorbed by portraits of gurus and followers of Buddha, is taking stock of the space.

Woman: I am still taking notes…Beautiful wall colors, the reds and the yellows and the green.

Kampfner: No white walls in this museum - the jewel colors in the paintwork match pigments in the art which came from crushing semi precious stones.

Woman: It looks terrific.... Wonderful little sketch areas. Free magnifying glasses. Area to sit down and meditate. It's unconventional but I'd say at the highest museum standards.

Kampfner: The Rubin collection covers Himalayan art from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries and from a region which stretches from Afghanistan in the west to Burma in the east. There are some Hindu deities on view but the focus is on Tibetan Buddhism. Going from level to level, you move from pictures which document the lives of real sages over the centuries to imaginative illustrations of demons and on up to intricate mystical impressions of heaven One man said it’s like a Buddhist Vatican.

Man: As you move from level to level you kind of get more and more of a sense of that. And when you get to the final one you’re kind of like, "whoa, what is going on here?" It’s not just the art, there’s a lot more, there’s an energy, a spirit here

Kampfner: Himalaya in Sanskrit means "abode of snow". But there is little snow in most of these pictures. They are verdant and bursting with nature and community life – children play and monkeys fight and people picnic around elephants in vignettes around a Buddha. The buddhas come in all shapes and colors –The symbolism of these images can be understood in wall texts which are delightful to read, said this woman.

Woman: I never knew the Buddha’s little bump on his head. I thought it was just a crown thing but I guess it was said that is was a result of his skull, additional wisdom that literally came on the top of his head.

Man: This is the Glorious Goddess Queen of the Power to Turn back Armies.

Kampfner: Most of the paintings in the museum are called thangkas. They are fabric scrolls which the monks rolled up and used as teaching aids for an audience who couldn’t read or write. In these epic narratives gods often look angry but that is only because they fight off evil

Man: The figure is pretty much black but it has highlights of blue in it. Of course the facial expression is very wrathful. Teeth showing, eyes bulging. Even the horse that the figure is riding on has the same expression. It looks like it’s basically riding in a sea of blood. They’re not there to scare you. They’re protectors.

Kampfner: Some visitors find personal meaning in these mythological scenes. One painting depicts a group of wild men aiming bows and arrows at the Buddha. This young woman found it a comforting image.

Woman: I like this because of the absolute serenity of the Buddha in the face of the demons of Mara.

Kampfner: The Buddha sits serene in a golden ring of light. As he does, the tips of the arrows threatening him have miraculously blossomed into flowers.

Woman: Bad experiences can be turned into flowers.relating my own bad experience and realizing that you too can be flower out of them of have flowers out of them

Kampfner: For those visitors who like more abstract paintings, there is a section devoted to mandalas. which are like architectural floor plans depicting residencies of the gods. A visitor who described himself as a Buddhist in training, said working his way around a mandala helped focus his meditation.

Man: You can be flying above it, you can be coming through the side, you can be coming from underground, it’s just that you can see it all, it’s not just a two-dimensional view. Like this right here. You can see the whole palace for what it is. All of the different people who inhabit the palace, all of the different things to teach. All of the different rooms the different places to go. And each different room there’s something new to learn, something new to see. Until you get to the center of the palace, in which the main deity resides.

Kampfner: He picked up a long cushion and put it on the ground and lay on his back listening to his I pod. As he became absorbed in the otherworldly, a woman on the next floor was approaching the art from a political standpoint. She said she was glad that the Rubin collection provides a home for endangered artwork because so many masterpieces were lost after the 1950 Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet.

Woman: There were thousands and thousands of things destroyed and people killed and you know if this maybe opens a doorway to people knowing about that and thinking about it that would be good...

Kampfner: Here is a museum of sacred art which appeals variously to the eye to the mind and the spirit. Travelers come to revisit journeys, connoisseurs of religious art come to make comparisons. And some visit simply to draw sustenance from a peaceful space. I've never seen so many people meditating in a museum. For WNYC, I’m JK.

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