Rubell’s guide on how to collect art

Dec. 13, 2012 @ 03:27 PM

Two exhibitions, about collectors and their collections, the “Contemporary Art Collection of Jason Rubell” and “The Cone Sisters and Matisse,” are currently at the Nasher Museum of Art. Among the many messages in these exhibitions is that art collectors come in many variations. There are those rich enough to buy the top of the line, like a Monet or Picasso, and those who buy young unknowns trying out new ideas. Some are mature women, like Etta Cone, who bought the developing Matisse, and then there is the teenager Jason Rubell (born 1969).
Rubell was surrounded by the contemporary art world his entire young life and decided to buy his own art at the age of 13. He used money he made stringing tennis rackets, gift money and he bought artists who made marks on paper, put graffiti into a frame, reused cattle gates and saloon doors as sculpture, and took hundreds of photographs to find the stark essence of each sitter. Rubell recognized talent among a forest of artists who lived and made art in New York and parts of Europe.
Like the Cone sisters, who were willing to go out on a limb about the then “modern art,” Rubell did the same in the last decades of the 20th century. Unlike Matisse, who was anything but political, this art is all about politics. These artists voice their concerns about sexual assault, the waste in American society and art itself. Although Rubell and Cone are generations apart, the exhibitions are perfect pendants.
The show, titled a “Time Capsule,” covers an eight-year period and is a redo of one Rubell organized at Duke as his graduation thesis. The catalog contains a copy of the original exhibition with a current forward by Rubell, who is one of the family members supervising the Rubell Family Collection, housed in its own museum in Miami, Fla.
Young Rubell bought his first painting, George Condo’s “Immigrants,” on time when he was 14 years old; the first painting he ever owned was one of Keith Haring’s (1958-1990), who gave it to him as a bar mitzvah present.
Rubell’s family lived and breathed the art of the day. His parents are not the typical art collectors; they are self-taught in the world of art. Mera, the mother, is a first generation Russian immigrant who became a grade school teacher and then a real estate agent; his father, Don, is a doctor. They lived in New York and began collecting shortly after they were married. As buyers, they became part of the local art scene and entertained artists, museum directors and owners of galleries in their home. Rubell and his sister, Jennifer, were always included at the table and were part of the conversations that swirled around them.
The parents were determined to give their children a hands-on art education and included them in family discussions about the next purchase. When young Rubell decided to buy his own art and put it in his bedroom, his parents introduced him to Pat Hearn, a young gallery owner in the East Village, and she introduced him to a whole series of young artists. All through high school and college he bought art; the “Immigrants” cost $1,600 and he paid for it in weekly installments over one year. The artists he liked were speaking with a “now” voice – cartoons, graffiti, video games, advertising – and they spoke his language.
He came to Duke to play tennis but soon decided to major in art history. Since his personal gallery had always been his bedroom, he brought a lot of his art to school and hung it in his dorm room. At the time, Duke had a museum program for its art history students which allowed them to help curate shows and learn about the museum world. Under the guidance of Kristine Stiles, Duke professor of art, Rubell chose to create an exhibition borrowed from his own collection for his senior thesis.
Looking at the show from a 20-year perspective is fascinating. There are lots of homeruns here attesting to the aesthetic eye of a very young man. He bought minor works by major future artists. Besides Haring and Condo, included are the artists Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Bruce Nauman, Brice Marden, Jenny Holzer, Eric Fischl and Francesco Clemente.
As I see it, the exhibition is not really about the artists Rubell collected but is a primer on how anyone can be a collector; the catalog is a must for that person. In it Rubell instructs the buyer who cannot imagine being able to afford an original work of art. He writes if you want art, you sacrifice by drinking one less cup of coffee a day or riding your bike, saving on bus fare. The advice seems old-fashioned, but it works. He also touts Parkett magazine, a quarterly which offers insights on the contemporary art world and supports well-priced limited editions from the artists they identify.
From my viewpoint, you do not have to be in New York to find artists; they are here in the Triangle. However, it takes dedication and self-study to become a serious art collector. The rules are simple: Go to group shows, haunt the galleries, both commercial ones and collectives, talk to the artists, and watch what they do. Study a style. Decide to buy those artists who are part of that style, but do not feel your first inclinations are locked in stone. Be willing to change your mind and to take chances. Do not buy art to make money; collect art because it is a life adventure. It will give you joy that is incomparable.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.

“Time Capsule: Age 13 to 21, The Contemporary Art Collection of Jason Rubell,” Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, through Jan. 6. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.