The young Rubin Museum of art, as featured in NY Magazine in 2005:
In contrast to the reviewer, I saw less of a museum devoted to the Buddha than to art itself; this was one point that I kept grappling with as I ascended each floor on the Barney’s spiral staircase. The Rubin Museum of Art: Art of the Himalayas, is bound to have a bountiful collection of Tibetan Buddhist artifacts, but one thing to keep in mind, which I think would be better for the visitor, is that this is a museum devoted to the art and not the religion. As a result, the galleries are built around educating certain concepts from the religion that are depicted in the artwork. That being said, before you enter, keep in mind that because of the geographic location of the Himalayas, there is a wide range of artworks from India, China, Nepal, Tibet, and other neighboring areas.
This is a blurry photo (dim lights do not go well with the Iphone 3GS camera), but you can see that this entire left side of the lobby is quite long, and the window area is lined with the bookstore to the left of this photograph. The bookstore has a variety of books from the more expensive, large bound, hardcovers to the small pocket-sized Dao De Jing. They also have jewelry and other museum memorabilia. The right side of the lobby is an open space with the iconic metal staircase leftover from when Barney’s occupied this space (see below).
The lobby is definitely my favorite part of the museum architecturally because it was so open, pleasant, and inviting. I love the hardwood floors, and this lobby is more or less how I imagined the Rubin to look like. The smells of curries and spices from the cafe also made my stomach stir. I really wanted to order some food, sit down, and enjoy reading a book or engage in a really intellectual discussion about the larger questions. But alas, that will be for another day.
(I also heard that the Rubin has a great program for young professionals; for example, according to their website, “Every Friday night the café becomes the K2 Lounge, offering a special Pan-Asian tapas menu along with a martini and wine bar to accompany the evening’s DJ and thematic gallery tours and programs.” Perhaps this is something to keep in mind as well… This is definitely a big thing now, youth initiative programs, even at the American Museum of Natural History where we have the SciCafe series and other events.)
The iconic Barney’s metal staircase on the right side of the lobby.
And the journey begins! The exhibitions continue as you climb up the stairs, so this is the second level at the top of the stairs.
I liked this interactive map; it leads visitors to the right (and continuing in a circle around the floor until they return to the stairs) while it also highlights the region of Tibet. Maps are always a useful tool, especially in the context of Tibetan Buddhist and Himalayan art, which is influenced by both Indian and Chinese traditions. This is just one part of a video on loop.
Another thing to keep in mind is the dramatic lighting that the curators use in the entire museum. I actually wish that there were moments of more uniform lighting because it became quite tiring for my eyes after traipsing through four floors of it. I liked the layout of the second floor, where different types of deities are grouped around a large wall placard of information. This photo is of the “Wrathful Deities” group with a painting, the information and outline drawing of the painting on the placard, and a statue. It was visually interesting to see the flat painting interacting with the three-dimensional sculpture (and the placard to offset the two), all with a similar iconographic image of a “Wrathful Deity.”
It would take a very good camera to do justice to these artworks. The color is so bright in some cases and so subtle in other cases, and the level of detail was incredible in each piece of artwork. With the paintings especially, I found myself constantly walking closer and farther from the glass so that I could examine the details while taking in the entire piece at once. I recommend you do this as well, especially when you are particularly fixated on one piece, spend time looking for the minutia and remember to step back, or else you will lose the focal point of the piece.
I really love how active these sculptures are.
So moving right along, the Rubin also has a significantly large wall that is devoted to explaining the most commonly used images in the artwork as well as the meanings behind the various hand gestures of the Buddha (mudras). They had a very handy handout version of this wall text, and it’s free! Definitely a great giveaway for anyone who is unfamiliar with these icons.
This is like Buddhist art 101. I also really like their line drawings of the symbols too. One thing I wondered about though, was if their information placards (“Wrathful Deities”) and this wall of symbols can be used as a universal guide for all Tibetan Buddhist schools. Perhaps the symbols in the artifacts may be universal, but I think that the information on the large placards should contain more material about if these icons were used in certain parts of Tibet (if this occurs) and maybe if some of the styles were imported from India or China. I noticed that many of the pieces had a distinctly Indian Hindu feel to them. I will have to read up on my Tibetan Buddhist cultural history to explore this question further… Maybe in another way, there should have been a disclaimer-like paragraph at the very beginning of the exhibits that reminds the visitor that there are different schools in Tibetan Buddhism?
There was also a prayer room in the far corner of one of the floors, where cameras were prohibited, but it was a really nicely arranged niche where you can lean against the wall on some small protruding seats and enjoy the aura. There are two ear pieces that play a recording of an entire explanation of the icons and items in the room.
Below I have some nicer photos of other pieces in the main collection. I was a little surprised to see that all of the artifacts were made relatively late, 16th century and after, if I remember correctly. I’m sure there is a reason for this; this is another question which I will put on my list of things to research. (Another side note, I did not like that each of the walls on the exhibition floors were painted a dark color, like dark grey and dark red. I thought that it took away some color from the artwork, since most of the paintings had a lot of red, blue, and gold in them. I felt like the colors were being washed away. This also seems to be a new trend in museums, to paint walls dark colors.)
This is an example of Buddhist artifacts from China. This is a statue of an Arhat (in Chinese, Luohan), one of 18 sage-like figures. He is standing in a very traditional greeting pose with his right hand cupped over his left fist.
Speaking of detail, I was able to have a glare-less photo of this painting. I don’t really need to say anything here, just that the photo might be magnifying it to a certain extent. This is so highly detailed and intricate and colorful. I loved this piece!
This is what I really think of when I think of Tibetan Buddhism. I thought that this piece was spectacular.
This is a very important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and his image is repeated quite often.
I liked this part too, where they have a cushion to gaze at a piece mounted on a floor that is slightly lower than the rest of the level. I thought this was a great idea, and the space felt very intimate.
Photography is prohibited on the upper floors for special exhibitions.
The Rubin Museum of Art
150 W. 17 St.
Monday: 11 a.m – 5 p.m.
Wednesday: 11 a.m – 7 p.m.
Thursday: 11 a.m – 5 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m – 10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m – 6 p.m.
The museum is closed on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.
Adults - $10.00
Seniors (65 and older) - $5.00
Students - $5.00
Children (12 and younger) - Free
Museum members - Free
Coat Check (per item) - $1.00
Audio Tours - $3.00, free for members
Gallery admission is free for all every Friday from 6 – 10 p.m.
Gallery admission is free for seniors on the first Monday of every month.