In The Magazine

The Generous Iconoclast

Tuesday, December 1, 2015
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photographed by Ryan E. Plett

creative direction by Emily Barnes

hair and makeup by Deborah Altizio

breads courtesy of Balthazar, Maison Kayser, and Dean & DeLuca

Artist Jennifer Rubell would like to invite you out of your comfort zone. Fun guaranteed.

In December, Jennifer Rubell will do something she has done every year for the past 13, a number that actually blows the 45-year-old artist’s mind a little bit. She will serve up breakfast at Miami Art Basel. But this will be no ordinary breakfast—it never is. Her annual installation/performance is a must-attend artistic happening, a take on breakfast that gives a whole new spin on the morning meal.

The menu is familiar enough: it’s bread and butter. For three hours a man and a woman, a couple whom Rubell actually knows and who are in real life engaged to be married, will serve one another. “The man has a hypermasculine role involving the bread, the woman a hyperfeminine role involving the butter,” Jennifer says tantalizingly over an early lunch at Keith McNally’s Cherche Midi in SoHo. “It is about condensing an everyday gesture over the course of a lifetime, which adds up to love and devotion.”

Which just so happens to be the name of the piece: Love and Devotion. “I’m very into this physical form of love . . . this concretization of love,” Rubell says, tucking into her soup. “It’s the kind of love you can hold in your hand.”

It’s rather disarming, this talk about love, food, devotion and the accumulated profundity of repetitive simple acts. We’ve just met and already we’re discussing the nature of love and marriage. But there you have it. Jennifer Rubell is not exactly like anyone else you’ve met. And her art, which carries some echoes of Duchamp, Warhol and Koons, as well as the “happenings” of the Sixties, is also entirely different from all of them, and unlike anyone else’s out there. It often involves food (but not always), can be quite shocking and funny (a naked nutcracker mannequin that cracks nuts in its vagina) and almost always eggs the viewer on to participate somehow. It’s safe to say that no one does what the iconoclastic Rubell does and what she does seems to come from a deeply authentic, sometimes painful place. But more on her art in a moment. First, there’s her lineage.

From a close-knit family of art collectors and competitive tennis players, Jennifer grew up on the Upper East Side with parents Don and Mera and barely older brother Jason. The Rubells have played an important role in transforming the art world in the past 50 or so years, something they almost certainly did not set out to do. They simply followed their passion and collected edgy contemporary art, all while working away, Don as a doctor, Mera first as a teacher then in real estate, and raising their two kids. But seeking out artists and collecting their pieces was the family’s avocation. “The house was always packed with art,” Jennifer says of her youth. “Artists were always coming over for dinner. My mother was always cooking pasta for them.”

Among those artists, Keith Haring, whom the Rubells pretty much discovered and supported until his death from AIDS. Through Haring, they met Jean-Michel Basquiat. They were tapping into the gritty contemporary art world of the ‘70s, before it was the superglamorous Art World of today. “It was a much smaller fringe scene,” Jason Rubell, who now runs the family’s Miami-based hotel business, recounts. “Everyone knew one another.” The Rubells’ budget dictated they collect young and emerging artists, and, as is now clear, they also had an uncanny eye for talent.

Somewhere along the line—Jason dates it at around 1983—the contemporary art word began to morph into the glamor-filled social scene it has become today. Artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Basquiat began to be featured in New York magazine as emerging stars. The Rubells, just by virtue of doing their thing, became major players. The social world and the art world began to intersect.

Some of that had something to do with Jennifer Rubell’s famous uncle, Steve Rubell, the night-life impresario best known for Studio 54. Jennifer was very close to her uncle Steve, speaking to him

almost nightly and going on vacations with him. He was, she says, like “ a second father to her.” She shared his deep interest in social interactions, and his sensitivity, and at the age 7 she experienced the crowds parting for her at the entrance of the nightclub, which embarrassed her and deepened her empathy for those left out. Steve Rubell, who died when Jennifer was 19, had sometimes told her that he’d never let himself into Studio 54, a statement she has said she found rather heartbreaking. “I feel like my whole life is atonement for the velvet rope.” she told W magazine at one point. She has been trying to include people ever since.

Her reflections on her uncle are far more intimate than the scene-maker he is famous for being. “My uncle was very attuned to humans of all kinds. He had a special relationship to every human,” she says. “He was a real New Yorker.”

The same could be said of his Jennifer, whom her friend artist Sarah Morris calls a consummate insider. The two met while working for Jeff Koons, back when Jennifer was still in school. “She kind of adopted me,” says Morris. “She knows everybody and has since she was a kid.”

Steve Rubell may be best known for Studio 54, but he went on to open the Palladium, creating events and spaces in collaboration with artists like Haring, who created the huge backdrop in the ballroom, furthering the intersection between art and the social world. Brother Jason sees a through-line from the “happenings” that Rubell created to Jennifer’s art, which always invites some engagement with the viewer. “She always related to art as an event,” he says.

“Her work is always interactive with the viewer. It bring people into it.”

Don and Mera Rubell moved to Miami, where their private collection became a museum, the Rubell Family Collection and Contemporary Arts Foundation, which boasts some 6,800 works by 831 artists. It is one of the most ambitious private collections in the country, and is located in a former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse, which real-estate-savvy Mera spotted and the Rubells bought in 1993; it can be found in the once crime-ridden Wynwood Arts District of Miami. Naturally, it helped transform the area into an artistic hothouse. When Art Basel came looking for a winter home in a warmer climate, the Rubells helped, and before long Art Basel Miami became a must-attend staple of social and art collecting calendars in January.

This condensed Reader’s Digest version of the Rubell family history doesn’t quite explain how Jennifer came to be the artist she is today, but it will have to do. She studied art, sociology and writing at Harvard, then spent a year learning to make really great food at the Culinary Institute of America. She spent ten years writing about food, and had a stint working in the family’s hospitality business, which is based in Miami. For a while, she recounts, she took it upon herself to write “anonymous love letters” to hotel guests. “That way they would arrive feeling loved and like their life mattered to someone,” she says. “For whatever reason, I feel the pain of other people’s loneliness. I’m very sensitive to the state of being a human being, and especially the feelings between people.” This hypersensitivity, she points out, is only a problem if it remains unharnessed, and art allows her to make some use of it.

Loneliness was the obvious theme of a recent show of her work titled Not Alone at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London. The Guardian called it the “most Freudian exhibit ever.” Gallerygoers were invited to hold a glass baby, which Jennifer created to weigh what her now 3-year-old son weighed at birth. The piece is a powerful metaphor for the terror new parents feel about their infants. One room featured huge portraits of Rubell naked on a horse, and a dark room where visitors were urged to take off their clothes as they watched a film of Rubell similarly naked. “It was literally giving people the opportunity to be naked and be okay,” she says. The point of that, and other pieces, she says is to invite people to “enter into an emotional experience that is better than life. It’s clearer and more intense.”

Her brother admits that her Jennifer’s art can make people both feel very welcome, and very uncomfortable—especially, he thinks, men. One of the paradoxes of Rubell’s art is that while it often seems to derive from intensely feminine experiences, its expression can be almost brutally masculine. Another is that while it can put people on the spot, it is also incredibly generous and inviting. “There’s always a utility in her work,” says Jennifer’s friend and fellow artist Rashid Johnson. “I think that is generous. The work gives you something back. It gives you the opportunity to interact with it.” As a friend, Johnson says, Rubell is incredibly level-headed and practical—not at all the kind of head-in-the-clouds artist one might expect.

Another friend, chef Mario Batali, gobbles her work up, appropriate since it so often involves food. “Her art puts people slightly out of their comfort zone,” he says. “If you’re informed, you’re provoked. If you’re not informed, you’re also provoked.” Batali, friends with Rubell since he met her while she was working as an intern at the Food Network, brought his two sons to the Brooklyn Museum annual Artists’ Ball a few years back, an extraordinary event that Rubell catered and created and people still talk about to this day. “There were 800 roasted rabbits with their heads still on, and two carving knives, and you didn’t really know what to do,” Batali recounts, the charge of the experience still evident. “So we started carving them up. My sons were juggling rabbit heads.” She sets up a kind of “no rules game,” he says. Dessert featured a giant Andy Warhol piñata head, 20 feet in diameter, and offered guests plastic bats to strike it. “My sons were the first to break through and spill the Hostess treats,” Batali says, a certain delight in his voice.

The then-director of Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, called the whole event, a kind of performance piece that you could eat, a spectacular success. There were “drinking paintings” with faucets pouring vodka and whisky, enormous hanging heads of cheese that dripped onto your crackers. Everything was on a kind of massive scale. “She must have gotten about 3,000 Twinkies for the piñata,” Lehman says. “It was such fun. I can’t even imagine what goes on in Jennifer’s mind. It has a kind of fertility that just kind of breeds this super-abundance of spirit.”

And then there are her parties.

Rubell is known as a fabulous hostess, and says that up until a recent move to an apartment in Gramercy Park with her 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, she hosted dinner parties about once a week. Her guests, she says, are an assortment. She is drawn to literary types more than artists, who she thinks have become almost too polished and media-savvy in this artist-as-superstar age. “I have a type,” she says, but struggles to define it, except to say that her friends are always somehow special. “It’s not always the most well-known people. There’s no agenda at my parties. I’m often drawn to shy, awkward people.” A new table that seats 14 will likely jumpstart her weekly dinner party habit again, she thinks. “Having people over is the opposite of my work,” she says, intriguingly.

Chances are whatever is on the menu, it will be like nothing you’ve ever had.


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