Afrika Brown for White Hot Magazine
Nestled in the heart of Miami ’s Wynwood Arts District resides an old DEA confiscation warehouse. Once used to store evidence for DEA cases, this building has been converted to a facility that stores some of contemporary art’s finest treasures. The Rubell Family Collection is one of the most prominent collections of contemporary art. Mera and Don Rubell have been collecting art since 1964. Their children Jason and Jennifer also partake in the family business. The Rubell Family Collection has been opened to the public since 1996 and consists of rotating exhibits showcasing the work of contemporary art’s most renowned artists.
Their current exhibit, Red Eye: L.A. Artists From The Rubell Family Collection, showcases work from L.A. based artists such as Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy. The exhibit itself is an odyssey that chronicles two decades of a family’s sojourn collecting art in the city of angles. Jason Rubell stated in a December 2006 press release about the exhibit, “Red Eye epitomizes the very heart of our collecting. We push and pull, push and pull, push and pull again, and then we get on an airplane, head back home, wake up in a new place on a new day – bleary-eyed and trying to make sense of it all.”
I traveled to Miami to view the Red Eye exhibit and witness the push and pull first hand. The works displayed definitely jolted my mind to and fro, challenging me, and leaving me with open queries growing inside my brain. While I was there, I met with Mr. Mark Coetzee, director of the Rubell Family Collection since 2000, and asked him a few questions about the exhibit.
Afrika: Mark, could you give us a little history about your background?
Mark: Sure. I was born in 1964, ironically the same year that the Rubell Family Collection was started, so in some way I feel connected to this place. My life span is the life span of this exercise, which is really cool. I grew up in South Africa during the height of the Apartheid years, so I really got to see the horrors of what humanity can do to itself. It had a huge impact on me, and I think my involvement in contemporary art was fueled by Apartheid. I noticed that during the Apartheid regime that contemporary artists were completely silent. If you did not produce work that the government warranted, you were not given opportunities to show in public museums. Your work was not collected for public collections. Also, if you did anything that was critical of the government, or if you were an artist that represented anything that was not in the status quo, you went jail, disappeared, or got tortured until you stopped doing it. So I became really fascinated by the ability of artists like William Kentridge, who we have in the Rubell Collection, like historical figures like Goya who do things which could criticize a power structure, but do it in such an intelligent way that they couldn’t legally get into trouble.
Afrika: Could you give us a little history about your background as a curator and writer?
Mark: Sure. When I was studying abroad, I made a commitment to come back and contribute something. I thought to myself, what could I do. Initially I was going to teach, but I realized that it was a predetermined paradigm that a lot of people use. Then I realized that perhaps the most viable thing to do was to create a space where artists can show what they need to show. So I created this space, and learned as I went along. Then I realized increasingly that there was this huge need for somebody who was not making the art to mediate between the artist, the public, the collectors, and the museums. I am not saying that I was the only person in doing it, but I was definitely one of the youngest, and also taking many more risks than other people were at the time. Also, I think doing this in Africa with no money and no infrastructure really filters the ones who believe in it and the ones who do not because there is no prestige in doing it. It is not financially rewarding, so you really do it because you believe in it. Also, I believe if you can do it in Africa and you can do it well, then you can come to America or Europe where there is financial support for the arts. I mean with the Rubell’s support, the world is really opening up for me because all of a sudden there is an institution. There is this incredible collection. There are finances for publications. There is money for traveling shows and educational programs. So I always say many of my disadvantages in have become advantages when I came to because I learned to do things with very little.
Afrika: In your opinion what makes a good curator?
Mark: For me a great curator is someone that has the ability to understand what is happening at a particular moment, how the different people contribute to that moment, and who helps to kind of mediate, concretize, or explain it in a clearer way to a broader audience. I really like that tradition of curating where we look to the artists to teach us about what’s happening at a particular period of time as opposed to being [the person] at the top of pile who decides what is going to happen.
Afrika: You have been the director for the Rubell Family Collection since 2000. What prompted you to accept the position?
Mark: I got a scholarship to do research, and I was traveling through Europe, North America, and South America . I was coming through Miami , and the Rubells invited me to come and look at the collection and I was completely blown away. The problem with contemporary art is that museums don’t show contemporary art. They show what they think is contemporary but what is actually modernism, like from ten or twenty years ago. I walked in here and what was amazing for me was I got to see stuff that literally had been finished yesterday. This was a family finding these objects, buying these objects the moment that they are made, and putting them on public show immediately. I said to myself, I want to be a part of this. Not because I can be a great curator, but because I can learn from this stuff. When they offered me the job, I thought when do I start [laughter].
Afrika: Can you explain what criterion, if any, goes into the selection of pieces for the collection?
Mark: The Rubells collect because they have to basically. Like if you ask an artist why you make art, they will say because I have to. I need to. They collect because they need to. They don’t collect because it is prestigious. They don’t collect because it is a good investment, because they don’t sell it. With that said, I believe the criterion is establish from years of experience, a knowledge of art, of art history, of knowing what to look for, but also a kind of gut experience – an instinct from constantly looking and staying in contact with curators around the world, other artists, and critics. They are constantly talking to people and finding out what’s new. They are not sitting back and saying this is what we are gonna make famous this year. They are a part of an incredibly huge network of people who love the subject. They exchange in information and ideas and are using that as well as very personal things like do they respond to it. Does it ask them difficult questions? Does it enrich their lives? Because ultimately they want it to enrich their lives.
Afrika: In the press release for the Red Eye exhibit, Mera Rubell stated, “For us, L.A. is never a complete experience, but at best an imperfect exploration – a vision found from the outside.” How do you interpret this statement?
Mark: Well, I think she’s talking about herself and the family. We all live in Miami, so it would be arrogant for us to even ever imagine that we could understand what Los Angeles really is. When they go there they are tourists, that happen to be art tourists, but they are still tourists. I think she is being very honest in saying this is the family’s view of what Los Angeles is for them. Maybe someone who lives in Los Angeles would see it differently and would understand it differently. I actually respect that. She is not trying to say this a retrospective. This is an overview. This is a log resume. She is saying this is a family’s experience of a particular place, of a particular group of artists, and it is their opinion, their take on what they experienced, and what they got to see.
Afrika: Is there a specific style that is you find inherent in the contemporary art of L.A. ?
Mark: You know, what is interesting is when we decided to do this show the Rubells and I sat down, and they tried to identify what is the character of the Rubell Family Collection. This family is from New York originally, before they kind of ran away from home and came to Miami , so you would think that the most important holdings would be from the east coast. Strangely enough, when we started to look at the collection they quickly realized that their most important holdings come from the west coast. I asked why is this, and after many conversations, they said they think it is because they went to Los Angeles twenty years ago and saw a show by Paul Schimmel who is the curator of the museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles . The show was call Helter Skelter, and they were so blown away with it that they bought a lot of the work of the artists of that time and continued to collect them. So obviously when they decided to do this project, they decided to go back to Los Angeles twenty years later and collect the next generation. It was seen as kind of a cross generational conversation between these two generations. When we started to work on the show I had ideas of what it was going to look like. I thought pop art and bright colors. I thought Hollywood . As the work started to arrive and I started to see what was being made, I was shocked that all the ideas I had about Los Angeles ’ artists were completely different. I didn’t see necessarily a style, but I do see a certain thematic content that you see in many of them and also certain material concerns. The Los Angeles artists especially the sculptors are very interested in surface as well as in technicality and virtuosity. Like making a man look so real that you believe he is real like the Frank Benson or the Charles Ray mannequins. What was more interesting to me is the content because so many of the artists refer to antiquity. There are a lot of images that look like Roman and Greek sculptures. There are a lot of photographs of Greek models. So, it wasn’t the idea that I had that was L.A. was going to be superficial. It’s going to be Hollywood . It’s going to be hip. It was exactly the opposite thing. These were serious artists who were very aware of the tradition of education and the tradition of passing information from one artist to another.
Afrika: How would you contrast the contemporary art scene in NY and L.A. ?
Mark: Well, we all know that New York has these huge museums, but strangely enough they don’t have a museum of contemporary art. They are going to open a new museum. They did for a while but now it is closed. They have museums, which encompass contemporary art along with other things. Los Angeles has more than one museum of contemporary art, which is interesting. We all know that in New York the commercial world is based in Chelsea . I think people put a lot of attention on New York as a place to find art, and as a place for artists to launch their careers. In some respects Los Angeles is not that central on the radar, but I think that is a good thing because it means that the artists can do what they want to do and work. In New York , there are huge amounts of pressure to become successful, to show your work, and to get shows. The Los Angeles scene is smaller than New York , but sometimes the biggest, the best, and the most expensive is not always the best way to create an environment for good art.
Afrika: How many of the featured artists created pieces specifically for this exhibition?
Mark: Well, as I said earlier the Rubells collected a lot of the older generation artists twenty years ago. Everything we show we own. The new generation artists did receive budgets and [The Rubells] said okay this is what you got, go and knock yourselves out. It was really exciting to see what they came up with and how ambitious the artists were with these budgets. I can’t give you an actual number, but a large percentage of the newer artists created work for the collection.
Afrika: What would you like the viewing audience to take away from this exhibit?
Mark: I think I would like people to take away the fact that artists fulfill a role that is essential in our society, which is they’re not afraid to ask us the questions that are maybe uncomfortable. That make us angry. That are irritating or mundane. Artists are not necessarily entertainers. I mean some are, and it’s amusing and beautiful, but that is not only the role of an artist. I think that this show clearly demonstrates how artists can challenge everything about our presence at this moment in time. What is our reason for being here? What is our ethical and moral structure? What is our relationship to ourselves, to our body, to our religion, to our sexuality, to people, to politics, and to the environment? I think when you walk through the show all those different difficult questions are posed in many ways. Many times the questions are not answered, but they are definitely posed very clearly to me. So, I would like people not to walk away with an idea that this is what L.A. is about. What I would like them to walk away with is many different questions –many irritating itches that won’t go away with one scratch.
Afrika: The works of Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy appear to be a large part of the Red Eye exhibit. What is their influence?
Mark: The Rubells bought five artists when they saw the original [Helter Skelter] show, and they have consistently bought work from these artists. So yes, you will see a huge dominance of there work in the show because they have been collected for longer, but I think there is an influence on the show, which goes beyond just the depth of how the Rubells have collected their work. Los Angeles has some of the best art schools in the world. All the older generation artists teach at the schools. So in the younger generation artists, you see the traditions are carried on, which is some thing that they hold very dear in Los Angeles . The traditions of the school, of the academy [a place] where you go to learn from a master or a mentor, and there is not this complete rejection of what your peers do. You converse with them and extend instead of creating your own space
Afrika: What is your favorite piece from the exhibit?
Mark: Hmmm. You know, I can tell you which pieces are important historically. I can tell you which piece I liked yesterday, and which piece I liked a week ago. I think each time I walk around and give guided tours a new piece declares itself. Sort of like layers of an onion, you peel away and with each layer you pull there is another layer. So I can’t say that there is one piece that stands out above anything else.The exhibit is a very exponential experience. There is sound. There is movement. There is noise. There is mechanics. There is video. As I walk through the space, I’m experiencing different things in different ways depending on the mood, what I see, and what work I’m doing. It changes constantly.
Afrika: Do you see another exhibit in the future that focuses on a specific locale?
Mark: Actually the Los Angeles exhibition is part of a tradition that we have already set in place. I’m sure we will do it again. I find it very fascinating because we all know that the boundaries are very artificially imposed frontiers, but it is interesting for viewers to see a group of artists who all might be different in style or content, but who do have one similarity, which is, they come from the same place.
Afrika: It appears that the goal of this exhibit and the collection itself is to push boundaries. What would be the next boundary?
Mark: I think artists will determine that next boundary. They will push the boundaries, and the Rubell family will be with them on that beat – to be part of that dialogue. They don’t sit down and say okay, this what we are doing next. It is more like they are going to respond to the beat and boundaries artist are pushing. They are going to learn from it, be in dialogue with the artists, acquire the pieces, and preserve the pieces. Really to a large extent, they are in service to the artists.
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Afrika Brown is a published poet and freelance writer in New York City.
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