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Heights of the Himalayas

Donald and Shelley Rubin's affinity for paintings and sculptures from a vast region turned into a passion that inspired them to launch their own museum.

August 15, 2004|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

New York — When the Rubin Museum of Art opens its doors this fall, visitors will have a choice: Start at the bottom and ascend chronologically through eight centuries of Himalayan art. Or take the elevator to the top and descend the grand spiral staircase -- just like the old days, when the building housed Barneys clothing store.

Either way, veteran shoppers who frequented the firm's former emporium in Chelsea will note that the lingerie department, with its natural light and high ceiling, is now a particularly dramatic showcase for artworks meant to nourish spirits and inspire faith.

Goodbye, panties, bras and nightgowns. Hello, buddhas, monks and saints.

Or as museum founders Donald and Shelley Rubin might put it, goodbye, shmattes for the ego; hello, art for the heart. Above all, the New York collectors who have spent $60 million to create the museum, including $22 million to buy the building, want their guests to fall in love with Himalayan art, just as they did when they bought their first Tibetan painting.

Thirty years later, they have amassed what's said to be the world's largest collection of tangkas -- Tibetan icons painted on fabric so that they can be easily rolled up and moved -- amid a broad survey of Himalayan paintings, sculptures and decorative objects representing the vast region that stretches from Pakistan to China. About 1,000 of these artworks have been transferred to the museum; hundreds of others remain in the Rubins' private collection.

"We made some sort of connection with the art that is not explicable," Shelley Rubin says. "No one could have imagined that we would become one of the world's largest collectors of Himalayan art."

The museum -- to be launched Oct. 2 -- is an improbable institution. And the handsomely refurbished 70,000-square-foot building at the corner of 17th Street and 7th Avenue isn't the half of it. Despite its mandala-like floor plan and symbolic detailing, including a bronze cloud-motif mural in the lobby and metal door fittings inspired by Himalayan iconography, the museum is more than a spectacular packaging job.

"This is probably the first museum in the Western world devoted entirely to the art of the Himalayas," says Pratapaditya Pal, a leading authority on Himalayan art who led the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's department of Indian and Southeast Asian art for 25 years and recently cataloged the Norton Simon Museum's Asian art collection. "There's no question that the museum will be a very significant contribution."

It began with a 19th century Tibetan painting of a female deity that caught the couple's attention at the Navin Kumar Gallery. Aimless window-shoppers on Madison Avenue, they went home with a $1,500 painting and a depleted savings account. MultiPlan Inc., the managed health-care network that would make a fortune for them, was a fledgling enterprise at that point.

"We hung the painting in our bedroom and it really began to radiate," Donald Rubin says. "When you meet someone you love, you don't look for a resume or a recommendation. We didn't know anything about Tibet or Buddhism, but the painting grew on us. We were very connected to the imagery, the beauty, the dynamism. Six months later, we bought another one."

Those two purchases led to many more as the Rubins acquired more disposable income. Art filled the walls of their home and MultiPlan's offices. As the company prospered and required more office space, additional walls were available.

They had wandered into a sphere of precisely coded, intricately detailed art that serves spiritual, educational and social needs. Populated by a cast of characters representing opposing forces, the artworks function as intermediaries between deities and humans who struggle to deal with their desires and find more meaning in their lives.

"The whole thing sort of exploded," Shelley Rubin says. "Donald is an obsessive collector."

To art professionals, he seemed to come out of nowhere, says Pal, who got a memorable introduction to the collection in the late 1980s.

"Even for someone who had devoted his whole career to Himalayan art, it was a shock to visit the office," Pal says. "All the walls and partitions were lined with tangkas, more than a Tibetan monastery would show. I was totally overwhelmed."

By then, the Rubins had learned a lot about Himalayan art while buying at auction and from dealers all over the world. They still make no claims of expertise and defer to their staff on specifics of art history and iconography, but they have developed a passionate, humanistic view of the art they collect.

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