In the ten years of its existence, The Rubin Museum (W. 17th Street), which focuses on Southeast Asian art (especially Tibetan Buddhist), has achieved a nice balance of aesthetic and scholarly approaches and ambiance re: its exhibitions and installations. Featured objects and images—especially the ancient and ongoing traditional painting and sculpture, but also including some modern and contemporary work—have generally been highly engaging and evocative on formal and subjectively symbolic terms; however, the extreme difference in context (i.e., circumstances of creation; intent) requires some exegesis to address oversimplification, as well as exoticization, for a primarily Western audience–usually provided in accessible terms via supplemental display (wall texts/labels, electronic resources).
The building itself, with a large central spiral staircase, infuses a spiritual dimension into the proceedings within, furthered (typically, so far) by a variety of backdrop gallery colors that destabilize the white-box Western display protocol.
Diversion: the Rubin has laudably developed its educational programming, crucial, in terms of the complexity of its cultural emphasis, and following a trend in mainstream museums nationally. However, we are at a “tipping point” with regard to the number of gadgets and guides at the ready to interpret and explain and lead visitors around museums – here as elsewhere. The trend mimics the Pandora’s box of problematics in the age of virtual reality for art and museums.
The very idea of Tibet (and to a lesser extent, other regions of the Himalayas) is, of course, highly political, which simmers as an energetic undercurrent of the goings-on at the Rubin. Equally interesting are non-sequitur musical and other events that periodically, along with those directly connected to its mission, show up in the museum’s extensive extra-curricula programming. If you’ve never been to the Rubin, don’t admit it and do it the very next time you’re in (lower) Chelsea. The ground floor (semi-permanent) exhibit strikes the proverbial right notes as a brief primer on basic Buddhist and (preceding) Hindu iconography for the uninitiated and a review for others destined mainly for the special exhibitions, and includes illustrative impressive examples (I almost said “high quality” — but that phrase is a bit too loaded without parameter-defining discourse).
This posting was inspired by a visit to the summer show, “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine” (through 9/8/14) — not unexpectedly, highly recommended. Seen one intricate South Asian hanging Buddhist mandala painting (c.16th – 20th c.) seen them all (for those other than specialists in related fields)? Hardly; if you slow down and look at the imaginative, body-oriented cosmic diagrams (painted sheets and scrolls, as well as intricate wood and metal sculpture) on view here, along with slightly (though not much) more straightforward anatomical chart-like drawings created around the same time as anatomical studies coming out of the Renaissance West, in a very different vein (sorry).