Don and Mera Rubell are known in the art world as the New York-to-Miami transplants who helped to bring the Art Basel art fair to Florida and opened a museum-like space there for their cutting-edge collection. Not so well known: their connections to California.
They lived here briefly in 1969, when Don did his internship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center before becoming a gynecologist. In 2005 and 2006 they flew from Miami to Los Angeles so often in search of new, exciting art that they called their resulting exhibition “Red Eye.” “We could have called it GPS,” Mera said, laughing, remembering crisscrossing the city to reach artists’ studios.
And last month the opening of “Beg Borrow and Steal,” an exhibition drawn from their collection at the Palm Springs Art Museum through June 2, brought them to the desert. Then they drove to L.A. to make the rounds at galleries and museums and visit collection artists like Thomas Houseago and Amy Bessone. We caught up with them over a late breakfast in Culver City.
You’ve shown work from your collection at the Palm Springs Art Museum once before. How did this relationship come about?
Mera: We sent a Keith Haring show to Palm Springs five years ago, after our collection director met their director, Steven Nash. Then we got to know [deputy director] Daniell Cornell, who comes out to see us in Miami. Museums usually have to negotiate loans with a lot of different places for a show like this. But this way they can get a quality exhibition that is doable and affordable — one truck, one loan form, with catalog. It’s immediate. We thought the community would embrace Keith Haring — a pioneer in gay rights who lived his life as a humanitarian.
And what’s the motivation on your end for loaning shows: Do you make money off of it?
Don: If we have one genius in the world, it’s our ability to lose money. We’re experts in it.
Mera: For us this is about our responsibility to our artists. We want the artists in our collection to know how committed we are to sharing their work with the world. If you’re going to keep work in the bedroom of your mansion, however big it is, that’s not going to fly with a lot of artists.
“Beg Borrow and Steal” has some great L.A. artists in it, from Paul McCarthy, John Baldessari, Mike Kelley and Charles Ray to younger artists like Houseago and Karl Haendel. Who was the first L.A. artist you really got to know?
Don: It was really Mike Kelley — we bought some iconic work early on, like his afghans and stuffed animals from 1990.
Mera: Also Charles Ray and Paul McCarthy. We bought Ray’s “Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley” and McCarthy’s “Cultural Gothic” in the early ‘90s when we still lived in New York and didn’t have any space for these pieces. Our frustration over not being able to show this work led to our thinking about having an exhibition space of our own. Also Paul was one of the first artists we developed a real relationship with — and we really respected his wife; it was a family friendship, his and ours.
Don: I would say 99% of artists whose works we purchase we know. A good number of them have become real friends of ours. One of the great pleasures of collecting contemporary art is getting to know the artists.
Thomas Houseago tells the story about how you came along at just the right time — when he was flat broke. It was 2006, days after his daughter was born, and he had to borrow a studio just to set up his sculpture for your visit. He says you bought eight works from him almost on the spot and changed his life.
Don: He changed our lives too. People speak about art world in terms of fame, money and glory, but then you come across artists who are just making great work. Art is almost like a religion to us — we need affirmations to keep going. We need a sign.
Your Palm Springs show is heavy in appropriation art, but a number of pieces also riff on popular forms of entertainment and a sense that spectacle has become the new reality. Do you think of Hollywood as a theme in the show?
Don: I don’t think theme is the right word but inspiration — so many of these artists have been inspired by Hollywood. Paul McCarthy for example was definitely influenced by the mechanism of Hollywood, as he lures people away from Disney and his studio resembles a stage set.
Mera: What makes it interesting is that it’s not a celebration of Hollywood at all — these artists are determined to read between the lines and are very consciously keeping track of the money-motivated, easily digestible consumer equivalent of fast food. I would call these artists the watchdogs of Hollywood.
Don, I know that Steve Rubell [the late cofounder of Studio 54] was your younger brother. And you probably know that Jeffrey Deitch is working on a big show for the Museum of Contemporary Art on the history of disco. Are you involved in the show in any way?
Mera: We’ve known Jeffrey for years and would be happy to work with him. I actually just sent him an email to let him know we’re in town. But, no, we haven’t been approached about anything yet.
You have said in the past that you think Richard Jackson, whose work you own, is underappreciated. Any other artists in your collection that you don’t think have fully gotten their due?
Mera: Richard Hawkins, though he is getting a lot more attention now. I think he’s a real artist’s artist. Also Hans-Peter Feldmann: He won the Hugo Boss Prize but he’s definitely underappreciated. I think he’s interesting because he is constantly dealing with the voice, authority and platform of the artist — challenging you to accept his decisions as an artist.
Don: I also think about Cady Noland. I would call her the most important sculptor of her generation because of the way early on she started using images from the underbelly — her work is a celebration of the ordinary. You can’t walk into a young artist’s studio without hearing her name.
Have you bought any art on this trip?
Not yet. Talk to us in a few hours.