A Conversation with Jennifer Rubell
By PAUL LASTER, DEC. 2014
The most artistic member of the celebrated Miami family of collectors, Jennifer Rubell came of age in the contemporary art world, but after years of playing a passive role in it she began to finds ways to express her own creativity. Letting it blossom, she went from making clever food-related installations at the Rubell Family Collection during Art Basel Miami Beach and institutions nationally to showing at museums and galleries around the world. Whitehot contributing editor Paul Laster recently sat down with the artist to find out what is was like growing up a Rubell and how the act of art-making has set her free.
Paul Laster: What was it like growing up in a family obsessed with art?
Jennifer Rubell: It was the best thing and the worst thing. It was the best thing because being exposed to not only great work but also to great artists from the earliest possible age you can imagine is a very privileged way to exist in the world. You see the world without any kind of boundary. On the other hand, it makes it very hard to even think about your self as someone who is participating in that kind of conversation or creating a part of that conversation—it’s very intimidating. You know what’s good, but you don’t have the luxury of being 19 years old and thinking that you are the best artist that ever lived, because you know who the best artists that have ever lived are and nobody is that at 19. It made it very hard for me to think of myself as an artist and I didn’t for many years, but it also gave me the deepest understanding of an artistic practice.
PL: What’s your earliest memory of you and your brother Jason being taken to galleries?
JR: I have two memories that flash into mind when you ask that question. One is that we would go to galleries in SoHo and my parents would bribe us with zeppoles from a pizzeria that I believe is still there. After we went to galleries we could get a bag of zeppoles powdered with sugar and we would eat them. I also very clearly recall Pat Hearn’s gallery in the East Village on a corner.
PL: On the corner of East Sixth Street, all tiled in glass…
JR: Yeah, it was the brightest imaginable space in the darkest of neighborhoods—back then the East Village was really bad. I remember seeing her as a fundamental art person. Within this sphere of art there are artists and gallerists and people that participate in the creation of these things that are recalled forever. I remember thinking of her and Colin de Land in that light.
PL: Pat had those areas of plants in the front of the gallery. It was very surreal.
JR: Yeah, the gallery was like a set. The walls were made from glass blocks. Then you walked out into the streets and they were full of graffiti. I think one of the reasons that it’s stuck with me was because it was clearly a sacred space. A sacred space being able to exist anywhere is a very basic art fact. I might have seen it for the first time then, but I’ve seen it repeatedly all around the world.
PL: Yeah, like you go down a street in Vienna and you come upon Georg Kargl Gallery and it’s enchanting inside.
JR: Artists’ studios are that way multiplied. You walk into a space where there’s a magical force field, and it feels safe.
PL: Your parents use to entertain a lot when you were growing up, especially around the time of the Whitney Biennial. What was it like when you and your brother were teenagers and everyone was coming into your house speaking art language?
JR: I loved the Whitney Biennial parties. It was a very special time for my brother and I. We lived in a townhouse and our bedrooms were on the fourth floor and the party went on mostly on the second floor. We had a bathroom outside of our bedrooms and we would sometimes find people there, doing drugs or having sex, with the door not even closed. It was an exciting moment. And what’s funny, because art was always in our lives, I don’t remember a moment when I wasn’t aware of sexuality, of homosexuality, of drugs—but it was all filtered through the language of art.
PL: Like Keith Haring…
JR: Yeah, like Keith Haring, absolutely! One time, the day after the Biennial party, the doorbell rang and this young guy says to my parents, ‘I’m here for the Whitney party.’ They said, ‘You’re here a day too late, it was yesterday, but what do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m an artist,’ and they said, ‘OK, come in and have dinner with us.’ My mom made pasta—she always made pasta—and it was Jeff Koons. He hadn’t even had his first show yet.
PL: He was just starting out…
JR: He was just starting out, and you know what I think is interesting? There’s no way that I think the olden days are better than today—I always think today is the best day—but what existed back then was a lack of exclusivity. There was no doorman at the door. Anyone that wanted to go to the party could go to it, which meant very young artists could show up. We still have that in the art world. The best things that happen in the art world are openings, which are open to anyone. For all that people think of it as being exclusive, it’s actually one of the most inclusive realms that there are. Anyone can have access to anybody if they just go to an opening.
PL: When you went to college did you study art?
JR: I studied art history at Harvard.
PL: Was that before or after your parents had moved to Miami?
JR: They moved to Miami just as I was finishing college. My mom went first and my dad followed. At the time that I entered college we were living in New York.
PL: Were you a chef when you moved to Miami or did you run the restaurant at your folks’ hotel, the Albion?
JR: My family asked me to move to Miami to help them with the hotel restaurants, first at the Greenview and then at the Albion. I was never a chef, but I put together the food program and was very involved in the running of the hotels—for what I might call the lost years. I did that for 10 years in Miami. I’m very happy that I worked with my family and spent that time with them, but…
PL: So when did you do your first food installation? When your family opened the collection in the former warehouse space in Wynwood?
JR: My family opened the collection in 1996 and I started doing it around that time. In the very beginning I didn’t even understand what I was doing. It was never catering. I didn’t really know how to describe it. I always wanted a degree of intentionality and originality, that in retrospect is obviously art making, but at the time I didn’t see it as that. I was psychologically unable to think of myself in that context. I ended up just doing stuff and it was actually other people seeing it as art that gave me the first notion that that’s what it could be.
PL: You provided some type of nourishment while people came to see the shows, but you also did it with a sense of whimsy.
JR: Sure, I just did it the way that I did it. But I think there’s so much humor in my work when I do it. It’s not part of the intention. It’s just who I am and how I see the world. I think humor in general comes out of retooling a certain expectation. I think that’s what a joke is.
PL: And the humor comes out of the interaction.
JR: Now I understand it in a completely different way, because it’s been some time that I’ve been quite clear that what I’m doing is making art. There is a tremendous joy with transgressing the traditional artwork/viewer boundary—just being able to touch an artwork is really joyous!
PL: John Cage said that music, which is not played, is not finished. For you, the spectator completes the work.
JR: Yes, but what’s interesting is that the spectator always completes the work. It’s very explicit in my work. It’s a kind of magnification of something that’s fundamental to art. The relationship between the object and the viewer is a relationship of mutual necessity.
PL: Because the object sits in a gallery by itself until a viewer enters. It could sit there for five hours without a viewer and then the viewer walks around it to activate it. Then he or she takes it with them in the way that Beuys talked about social sculpture, by keeping it in their minds and discussing it later.
JR: Yes, in the form that they imagine it to be.
PL: You’ve used multiple boxes of cereal, jars of jelly, and piles of bacon. What were you conveying with those projects?
JR: All of the Breakfast Projects at my family’s collection were really opportunities for me to evolve what I was doing in public without me being seen. My work really depends on a very large engagement and doing it in that place allowed for that tremendous engagement without any critical context. I could just work and make these things. I wouldn’t do them in exactly the same way now, but it allowed me a chance to develop my language in hidden and plain sight.
PL: It was on the fringe. It wasn’t within the context of the galleries. It was outside.
JR: It wasn’t in the galleries and I didn’t want it to be in the galleries. The wall with the donuts on it, Old-Fashioned, was a 60-foot wall of donuts in the courtyard, which wasn’t a critical context. I wanted to have the freedom of developing.
PL: What was the first piece that you did, utilizing food, in a context other than the Rubell Family Collection? Was it the Brooklyn Museum?
JR: No, it was Performa. I made Creation for the Performa Benefit Gala. I was very conscious of that particular moment being a shifting moment, where it was no longer hiding in plain site, developing my vocabulary. I purposefully took on a topic that had to do with coming into being—the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as a kind of parallel to my own work coming into being. That was my coming out as an artist.
PL: Did RoseLee Goldberg approach you with an idea in mind?
JR: RoseLee and I had a conversation about my doing something, but there wasn’t really any context put around it. There wasn’t any kind of brief. It was very open ended.
PL: I’ve interviewed RoseLee about her working method and she usually leaves it up to the artist to decide what he or she wants to do.
JR: I think it’s RoseLee’s genius and the reason why she is such a great gift to the art world is that there is really no agenda there. It’s really about a tremendous freedom, and giving a context to that freedom, but it’s also about an idea taking form. I’m very grateful to her for the opportunity to make my first project, where the context of art making was very clear. I couldn’t have been in better hands.
PL: Two other projects at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London Engagement, which let viewers take Kate Middleton’s place on Prince William’s arm—albeit a wax version of him—and Portrait of the Artist, which allowed visitors to climb into your larger-than-life womb, go beyond working with food. Was that a creative leap for you?
JR: Even though I’ve worked with food—and people at one time called me a food artist—I don’t really think of myself at all in those terms. I think of what I do as a way that people interact with art objects. The pieces that I’ve done for Stephen Friedman Gallery engage in the exact same issues of giving people the prompt to interaction. Whether something is a photo op or it’s to be eaten, I think that creating that prompt is all kind of the same activity. I don’t actually see those projects as a leap.
I couldn’t take the ephemerality of my work anymore—it was really heartbreaking. It’s funny that when I began making work I never wanted to make anything durable. I wanted it to exist and be gone. I didn’t even want it to be photographed. I wanted it to have just been something that you couldn’t hold in your hand for the moment, but then that made me very sad and nostalgic. I had emotions that I didn’t want to feel. I began to think about something that could be ephemeral in an ongoing way—something that creates this ephemeral interaction, but continues to exist as a physical object.
PL: You showed Engagement at the gallery and Art Basel Miami Basel in 2011 and Portrait of the Artist at Frieze London in 2013, and everyone wanted to get their photos taken with the pieces.
JR: Yeah, everyone from hardcore collectors to high school kids. For me, it’s very satisfying to see how much joy people take in the transgressive act. As much as I talk about growing up inside the art world being great, and all this exposure—whatever—it was also really boring. It was a very young kid standing around inside the art world—a lot, quite a lot. Sarah Morris jokes that she can still see my posture from 100-feet away, because this kind of hands behind my back with my bored stiff posture, and I still slip into that when I go to an art opening. I think a lot of my work is an antidote to those hurt feelings. It gives other people what would have made me not feel so badly. The great thing about art is that it can do things in that way. It can be an antidote to hurt feelings and it can actually do something for the person that makes it.
PL: The installation, Free, that you showed at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2013, was like that, too. It was transformative. People entered a darkened chapel-like space, where there was light at the end of the tunnel and they were given a gift, a biscuit, which they had to present at a kind of alter to get some honey on it. We were led into the cave to get the treat. What were your thoughts in putting it together?
JR: That piece paralleled the art-viewing experience. It was intimidating to enter because you were entering into a void that you had no control over, which made the viewer quite insecure. You didn’t really know what you were meant to do. And, yes, there was something beckoning you at the end. When you arrived there—taking a biscuit from the shelf along the way—you became the subject of the work. You were a kneeling portrait. When you walked in, if something else was in there, what you saw was a person kneeling at the end of the sculpture—not even knowing if it was a performance. There was something so poetically sad about it.
After that things happened rather quickly. You had a biscuit; the honey dripped quite slowly so you were forced to smell the beeswax from the altar’s construction and you were forced to be on your knees, in front of this thing, receiving. For me that’s the fundamental art-viewing act. You’re on your knees like an open vessel and all you’re asked to do is look at it and take it in. The moment that you turn around and start to walk out, you become the expert to the next person stepping up or going in. You walk away in a completely different way than you walked in, and to me that’s the essence of the art-viewing act. It’s a moment where the physical connects to the non-physical world—and that’s everything!
PL: The Art Newspaper amusingly headlined its report on Portrait of the Artist as “Womb with a View.” What inspired it and what other kinds of response did you get to it?
JR: I was very pregnant with my son—my second child—and being pregnant is one of the most interesting, exciting and inspiring states that you can experience. It’s very easy when you are creating something inside your body to create less outside your body, but I really felt quite the opposite. I wanted to use this experience in an artwork. Most of my work deals in some way with the relationship between the viewer and the object and the artist and the institution and how all of these relationships manifest themselves in the art world. I was thinking about the viewer in relationship to the work that I create and somehow it felt like the viewer most belonged in this position of being nurtured and taken care of by the artist.
PL: It was an interactive sculpture that people could enter, right?
JR: The fundamental idea of the work was that it was my body blown up to a size large enough to contain an adult in the fetal position. One of the things that I really like about the piece is that even though it was huge—24-feet long—there was this rational for scale that felt very reasonable to me. Rather than it looking like a giant, maniacal gesture, it was really about just making it big enough for the viewer to fit. It was made from a 3D scan of my body when I was eight months pregnant and the belly was carved out in an egg-like shape to accommodate the viewer.
People’s reaction to it was great. They were lining up to climb inside. I love it when people participate in my work and photograph themselves with it and photograph others with it. There’s a kind of shadow work that results from it, which is the image that people take of their own participation in the work. It was very exciting for a lot of people—as it was for me when I entered it for the first time. It was thrilling!
PL: Like "Engagement", it also became a photo op, where fair visitors could actually participate in something and get a take-away.
JR: Right. So much of my work has to do with a correction of the way that I grew up feeling about art, which was a feeling that art was separate from you and above you. That’s certainly one approach, but I think it’s more interesting when you place the art and the viewer on the same plane and inside the same existence. Of course, that also connects to the way that we live today. We inhabit a much more open world than we ever did and people want to participate. I think the act of giving the viewer a way into the work is a service of some sort.
PL: The picture that the Art Newspaper ran was a photo of your parents in your womb. How funny is that?
JR: Yeah, there’s no couple more game than my parents, which is great. As much as my work has to do with the art institution, the artist and the viewer, all of that is on the matrix of my family occupying these various positions inside of that institution of collector and artist. On the one hand, there’s this funny reality of containing my parents in my womb, while on the other hand it’s me as a stand-in for the artist containing my parents as the stand-in for the collector in my womb. I’m the one that creates them; I’m the one that nurtures them; and I’m the one that gives rise to them and is their reason for being.
PL: How did you meet Brandi Twilley and how did the two of you collaborate under the name “Brad Jones” for your show at Sargent’s Daughters in New York?
JR: Shortly after my son was born I was craving some time to sit and do nothing. Of course, being the intensely productive human being that I am I needed a concept for doing that and I needed a result for doing that in order to really carve out the time. I was doing a lot of performative work; I was doing the sculpture work; and I was taking care of the kids. I wanted to sit and do nothing and have that built into my life. At the same time I was very interested in doing a painting project that wasn’t conceptual painting but actually engaged with the act of painting. It’s a bit of a long story, but over the past year and a half I’ve been collaborating with Brandi who got her MFA at Yale. I found her by posting a listing on the NYFA website. I got hundreds of responses to my post, but I just could not get her work out of my head. We began collaborating. We meet three times a week. She paints me nude. I give her no input whatsoever about the paintings. I pose and she paints me and the paintings range from extremely realistic to extremely gestural and nearly abstract work. The ones in the show at Sargent’s Daughters are all diptychs. As much as it was about freeing up time for me it was about freeing her mental state from the burden of every artist that came before her, every living artist and all the paintings that she had ever made—that was all lifted from her. She just made paintings, and for each one she had two stabs at it. For both of us it was a hidden, live, ongoing performance, and it continues to be. WM
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author