In praise of revolution

Art collector Donald Rubin

Durga, a 16-armed Indian goddess able to slay demons while astride a tiger, and Virupaksha, the Chinese guardian king of the West, have new company: Fidel, Che Guevara and José Martí, the Cuban freedom fighter.

Donald Rubin, founder with his wife Shelley of New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, which focuses on the art of the Himalayas and which he has stocked with 3,800 works, has been amassing since 2009 what may be the world’s biggest private collection of contemporary Cuban art. According to his curator Rachel Perera Weingeist, at the last count there were 543 works by some 60 Cuban-born artists.

“Some day I want to give the works away,” says the 78-year-old Rubin from his offices in New York, where he heads his family foundation, after selling his health provider MultiPlan in 2006 for a sum rumoured to be near $1bn. “I don’t think I’m going to open up another museum. And to sell anything is a desecration to what’s in my heart. When I buy a work, it means I love the work.”

It was at an invitation in 2008 from Sandra Levinson, who founded New York’s Center for Cuban Studies, that Rubin bought his first Cuban work, “Mi Amigo Sincero” (2003) by the late Afro-Cuban José Montebravo.

“Don was immediately attracted to it,” Levinson recalls. “It is one of the few works by Montebravo that includes male figures – a self-portrait of the artist side-by-side with José Martí. It also included a long, difficult poem on the canvas and Don was as insistent on buying the painting as he was on having me translate the poem beforehand.”

“Don doesn’t spend much time with a work,” she adds. “If it strikes a chord with him, he wants it immediately.”

Whereas the statuary and scroll paintings from Nepal, India, Mongolia and China are on public view in his museum on Manhattan’s West 17th Street, the Cuban paintings and drawings – which depict everything from toiling sugar cane workers to evocations of aluminum rafts and Superman flying above Havana – remain in a carefully controlled exile.

Nearly four years ago he created The 8th Floor, a private exhibition space that occupies a floor of his office building. Weingeist is largely responsible for curating exhibitions there, currently a group show entitled Waiting for the Idols to Fall. But Rubin also readily shares his collection, loaning pieces to institutions that include the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Cleveland Clinic and Studio Museum in Harlem.

Weingeist has worked as the Rubins’ curator since 2006, and Rubin often defers to her to explain why he collects what he does. “Although we have disagreements sometimes, I say to her, ‘You do it’,” Rubin says of Weingeist, sitting beside him in the organisation’s conference room. “If she feels it’s a good piece of art, I let her get it. It’s best not to interfere with what works. You need to encourage people. That’s the way I run my business.”

‘Dejadnos Pintar en Paz’ (2001) by Armando Mariño

To prove his point, Rubin acknow­ledges two canvases by Armando Mariño, perhaps the best-known Cuban painter working today, that anchor opposite walls of the conference room. “I am absolutely mesmerised by this piece,” Rubin says, referring to “Dejadnos Pintar en Paz” (“Let Us Paint in Peace”, 2001), a figurative work where a shirtless black man carrying spear-sized paintbrushes, his head aglow in a halo, emerges from a landscape littered with cultural and economic allusions. “The piece behind you [‘Recycled Atomic Bomb’, 2010], doesn’t do much for me. This does it for Rachel, this one for me.

“I think Mariño is one of the great artists of modern times. Look at the passion, the energy, the drive, the rage, the imagery: it’s magnificent.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Rubin, despite his wealth, is imbued with revolutionary DNA. He refers to himself as “a red-diaper baby”: his father Jay Rubin, a communist, founded the Local 6 trade union and the Hotel Trades Council, which, Rubin proudly insists, “provides the best healthcare in New York. I come out of the trade union movement.”

Virtually every work in the collection is charged with a political message – but also with an artistic energy as palpable as a salsa beat, and even with a sense of humour, an appealing feature of much Cuban art. Rubin owns more paintings by Douglas Peréz (25 of them) than by any other artist, in part because Peréz’s surrealistic canvases poke fun at the revolution and the US embargo.

Assemblage by Clara Morena (2010)

There are few sculptural works in the collection, because Rubin prefers two-dimensional pieces that can be readily hung in rooms, but Clara Morera is another favourite (he owns 13 works) whose mixed-media-on-wood assemblages feature in the current show. Found-art imagery of the US dollar combined with Cuban pesos and Cuban Convertible Pesos jokily sugest that the two economies may in fact be one.

Also prominent are canvases by Frank Martínez, a draughtsman so precise that his charcoal works are often mistaken for photographs. Martínez, Cuban-born but living now in upstate New York, has a mischievous penchant for borrowing other nations’ histories, or infamies, for subjects. “Sin capacidad” (“Disabled”, 2012) has a Rosa Parks-like figure riding a bus, with the heads of Eshus (Afro-Caribbean deities able to turn misfortune into fortune) occupying empty seats.

Among the most provocative works in the collection, those by José Toirac, are also perhaps the prettiest. “Pantocrator” (2012) reveals an iconic image, rendered in gold leaf, of Fidel Castro at a microphone, arms spread Christ-like. Although it is illegal in Cuba to paint or draw any image of Fidel, Toriac skirts the directive by insisting he is merely reinterpreting extant photographic images.

Rubin is reluctant to predict the future of this cultural revolution of Cuban art. But, he says, “I think the extraordinary quality will keep going for five, 10 years, but it will slowly deteriorate. Because you need tension. Great art comes out of struggle and when the people of a nation get too fat, too well off, the quality of their art deteriorates. This applies to every culture, not just Cuba.”

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