A Look at the Rubin Museum of Art

Wheel of Becoming, 18th Century. Eastern Tibet; Pigments on cloth, 23 3/4 x 16 1/2 in.
Image courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

Since opening its doors to the public in 2004, the Rubin Museum of Art has become the Western world’s premier institution for those seeking a comprehensive look at Himalayan culture.

But what does Himalayan art actually describe or entail? Is it strictly art of a Buddhist background? A visit to this engaging museum makes one point clear immediately: Himalayan art, as well as its geographic roots, are intriguingly diverse. Characterized by Tibetan, Nepalese and Kashmiri religious culture, it is influenced by Buddhism — but also by Hinduism, Bon and various other indigenous religions.

The fact that Himalayan art and culture enjoys an increasing popularity in the West is in part reflected in the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors. Founded by the collector Donald Rubin in 1999 as a nonprofit institution, the museum not only focuses on establishing and preserving a permanent collection of artworks, but also on showcasing exhibitions that reflect the vitality, complexity, and historical significance of its field of study. One of the first revelations is that the Himalayan region is extensive and multi-faceted, comprising parts of Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Kashmir, Bhutan, as well as the northernmost regions of India and Pakistan.

Governed by an independent board of directors, the museum’s mission entails the exploration of connections between Himalayan art and other world cultures. Along these lines, it aims to address a broad audience, including both specialized scholars and novices. It indeed serves as a serious international study center, as well as a tranquil place that can simply be enjoyed by all. In that sense, the Rubin functions as an institutional ambassador. It does not advocate a religion, but a rich culture that finds its artistic expression through religious iconography and symbolism. By spreading enthusiasm for its subject, the museum hopes to achieve its ultimate goal — to help preserve a culture that counterbalances an increasingly fast-paced world that suffers from a global attention-deficit disorder.

While succeeding in exuding an immediate sense of calm, the museum’s exhibition space is quite impressive. It spans six floors and about 25,000 square feet. A striking spiral staircase dominates its core, evoking a Mandala-like structure of a circle that is set within a square. The staircase organically connects the various floors, some of which are dedicated to the permanent collection and others to periodically changing displays.

Structurally, it initiates a dialogue among Himalayan paintings, sculptures, textiles, ritual objects, and prints from the 2nd to the 20th centuries. All installations are organized with a focus on education and frequently feature comprehensive wall texts that supply the viewer with aesthetic, social, and historical contexts. The works on the second floor serve as an intentionally didactic introduction to the museum’s overall discourse.

The basics of Buddhist iconography and symbolism are presented in an easily accessible manner. Sculptures and works on paper (most of which were originally scrolled) feature Buddhas (enlightened persons), Bodhisattvas (awakened beings who aspire to attain enlightenment), Tantric Deities (deities who personify various enlightened qualities and can have many heads, arms and legs to symbolize their abilities), Wrathful Deities and Female Deities. Here one can learn about the meaning of postures, for example, which function as keys to the compositions.

One realizes that a hand gesture tells you not only about intentions, but specifies the identity of the figure engaging in it. A hand loosely pointing downward in fact “touches the earth” and signifies Buddha calling the earth to witness his enlightenment. A hand pointed slightly upward expresses “do not fear” and a downward facing right hand with its palm turned towards the viewer implies a giving gesture, implying that wishes and blessing will be granted.

One of the most striking subjects that can be repeatedly found is the “Wheel of Life” or “Wheel of Becoming.” In most general terms, the “Wheel of Life” describes the struggles, pitfalls and stages on the road towards enlightenment. In these images, Yama, the Lord of Death, holds a large wheel in his mouth. Locked between Yama’s fangs, the wheel has several rings or compartments that show human figures and animals. These signify various stages of worldly existence — including hells, ghosts, animal realms, world of human beings and various gods. In its center are usually three animals, such as a pig, a rooster, and a snake. They symbolize what Buddhists call the three klesha (root delusions or mental afflictions), namely ignorance, attachment, and aversion. The figures on the right side are being led down in darkness, while those on the left side are led up in radiance and light. Stories of glorious or punishing worlds that await us after death exist in most religious traditions. However, in contrast to Christian and Muslim beliefs of Paradise as a final state, Buddhism views it as only one station in the endless cycle of death and rebirth. At its ultimate, it is a place where final enlightenment might be attained.

In addition to its permanent displays, it is through periodically changing exhibitions and innovative educational public programming that the Rubin encourages its audience to explore the artistic legacy of the Himalayan region and contextualize it. Its educational program includes a 10-session museum-school residency called “Thinking through Art,” which teaches students in grades K-12 basic art techniques using the art and culture of the Himalayan region. All in all, hundreds of lectures, discussions, film screenings and musical performances are held throughout the year. This past November, one could witness the pioneering video artist Bill Viola discussing Buddhist references in his work with the Tibetan lama Ponlop Rinpoche, hear the British actor Brian Cox pondering existentialist questions, or watch famed film director Mike Nichols addressing the emptiness in contemporary American life and art. In December, Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, among many others, will take part in public panels at the museum.

Recently, the museum has begun to include contemporary exhibitions in its repertoire, revealing its commitment to bridging the past and the future. At times, these contemporary programs bring together seemingly unconnected themes to exemplify the universality of Himalayan ideas. For example, Harlem in the Himalayas (now in its third season, occurring on select Friday evenings and presented with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem) features renowned jazz artists who are asked to play at least one piece inspired by a work of art in the museum during their performance.

Until April 11, 2011, the Rubin will present works by five artists of different generations and ethnicities, working between 1960 and the present. All of these artists have contemplated the fleeting nature of all things. Here, color photographs by the South Korean Atta Kim stand out. Employing a long exposure technique that in the case of a street in New Delhi, for example, leaves the architectural details crisp and the street action a mysterious blur. Kim addresses Buddhist notions of impermanence and the impossibility of grasping the true essence of a subject.

Considering the Rubin’s extensive outreach to its surrounding communities, one could not think of a better place for it than New York City. While the vibrancy of the diverse communities found in the Himalayas are surely unique, it certainly finds a tasteful reflection in our multi-faceted metropolis.

The Rubin Museum of Art is located at 150 W. 17th St. (btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.). Hours: Mon. & Thurs, 11am-5pm. Wed., 11am-7pm. Fri., 11am-10pm. Sat. & Sun., 11am-6pm. Admission: $10. $7 for seniors, middle/high school students, artists & neighbors in zip codes 10011 & 10001. For college students, $2 (with ID). Children & RMA members, free. Gallery admission is free every Friday from 6-10pm. For seniors, gallery admission is free on the first Monday of the month. For info, call 212-620-5000 or visit www.rmanyc.org.