Serenity best describes the 11-year-old museum, which houses philanthropists Donald and Shelley Rubin’s collection of art from the Himalayas, India, and other Asian countries. These objects inspire quiet contemplation, not the usual bellicose commentary from otherwise well-meaning art lovers. Soft lighting and spaces dividing into quiet corners further eliminate any “institutional” feel.
Despite its busy, upscale neighborhood, the museum exudes calm. Located on 17th Street between Seventh Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, the Rubin is the site of the former Barneys Woman’s Duplex. The store’s most notable design was not on the racks but renowned interior designer Andree Putman’s steel-and-marble staircase snaking its way through seven stories. While in no way does the Rubin resemble a trendy retailer, the premise of ‘inviting’ visitors to take that closer look remains.
Visitors unfamiliar with this sacred art form have their choice of print, audio, digital or wall guides pointing out symbols and themes to look for. Other museums do this as well, but the Rubin’s text and graphics are exceptionally well written and concise. The Rubin’s combined aspiration to teach and share is fully realized in the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. Tucked away on the second floor, the beautiful full-scale recreation of a home shrine includes cushions for meditation, recorded prayer chants, and a user-friendly computerized display highlighting the 130 objects throughout the room. The Shrine Room currently represents the ancient Nyingma Tibetan Buddhist tradition; the Room will feature the Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug practices as well over a two-year rotating basis.
The current exhibition, ‘Becoming Another: The Power of Masks’, perfectly complements to the Rubin’s mission. Becoming Another celebrates the act of donning on a mask. The ancient practice continues today by Halloween revelers, superheroes, and devoted fans of New York Met Matt “The Dark Knight of Gotham” Harvey. Twihards will sigh knowingly over a painted wooden Wolf Headdress with long black hair from either the Quileute or the Makah tribes, both not far from where Jacob’s pack resides in the Pacific Northwest.
Each of the 100-plus masks made between the 15th and 19th centuries has a specific purpose – and fascinating stories to tell. The Spirit’s Face from the Chukchi (present-day Siberian) region is out of a nightmare or the vivid imagination of artist/archeologist Nicholas Roerich. With his long leathery face, small eye slits and pained expression, he should be frightening, for he kidnapped bad children. The Nepalese Valin the Black Monkey is a respected king unjustly murdered in the Hindu epic Ramayana. The humanlike wood, polychrome face grins through his own the bird-shaped warrior mask.
Dating back to the 14th century, Noh (“Skill” or “Talent”) Theatre eliminates the nonessential in order to suggest rather than tell. Therefore, Ko-omote lives up to her name “Beautiful Maiden.” Despite being four centuries old, her wood and lacquer face remains that of a teenager. Bright lipstick offsets her fashionable painted white skin and blackened teeth.
Complementing the masks are costumes and video of a Mongolian ceremony. Visitors are also encouraged to try on the virtual mask of their choice at the exhibit kiosk and then send it, providing selfie proof of “becoming another”.
Becoming Another: The Power of Masks is on display through March 8, 2016. Please check the Event schedule for both regular education programs and those specifically related to the exhibit.
The Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011, +1 212-620-5000
By Patricia Contino