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Friends of the art and artists

Relationships are key to Don and Mera Rubell. Now they've bonded with the Palm Springs Art Museum.

November 23, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Muchnic is a Times staff writer.

PALM SPRINGS — "The advantage of not being able to produce art is that you can spend all your energy looking at art," said Don Rubell, whose family of self-confessed contemporary art fanatics is perpetually in search of the next addition to its 5,000-piece collection. Pleased to have uttered a complete sentence without being interrupted by Mera, his wife and collecting partner of nearly 45 years, he eased into a knowing smile as she jumped in to explain how their collecting obsession works.

"To do what we do, we have to go everywhere, with rolling suitcases that we never check and wash-and-wear clothes, usually black," she said. "Here's our schedule for about two months: Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, London, Paris, New York, Washington, Los Angeles and here, then New York again and Abu Dhabi. We need to see what's going on in the world."

Miami is home to the globe-trotting Rubells, who are on ARTnews magazine's international list of the top 200 collectors. "Here" is Palm Springs, where they traveled for a special occasion -- the launching of a relationship between the Florida-based collection and the Palm Springs Art Museum with the recently opened exhibition, "Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection."

A museum's focus

The partnership is in its infancy, and no one would go on the record about what's next. But here's what Steven Nash, executive director of the museum, had to say: "We hope to have an ongoing tradition of excellence and great art brought from Miami."

It's a notable development for a regional outpost founded in 1938 as a museum about the desert. Long known as the Palm Springs Desert Museum, it has collected art -- including Western American paintings and sculpture, studio art glass, photography and Modern and contemporary works -- and presented exhibitions for many years. Eventually, the natural history component was phased out and the institution's name was changed to reflect its exclusive focus on art. The last big show featured realist paintings by D.J. Hall of Los Angeles. Coming attractions include a 20-year survey of paintings by Bay Area artist Wayne Thiebaud and photographic portraits by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

The bicoastal association began serendipitously about a year and a half ago, Nash said, when he met Mark Coetzee, director of the Rubell Family Collection, who was visiting the desert community. Nash, who had recently taken charge of the Palm Springs museum and was overseeing its refurbishment, was open to new ideas. One conversation with Coetzee led to another until a plan shaped up.

The relationship was "evolutionary," Don Rubell said. "But when it occurred, it felt so good. It's like a marriage. You don't want to give your children to a home where they are not appreciated. And the home wants to feel that it is receiving something very worthwhile."

The Rubell Family Collection, which functions like a museum under the nonprofit Contemporary Arts Foundation, organizes traveling shows and frequently lends works from its holdings of art made from the 1960s to the present. Although the Miami institution has developed relationships with other museums, the Palm Springs association is the only one on the West Coast.

The inaugural show, organized by Coetzee in collaboration with the Palm Springs staff, emphasizes the intensely personal, expressive side of Haring, a close friend of the Rubells who died of complications of AIDS in 1990, at 31, and tends to be remembered as a lightweight Pop artist. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, he emerged as a public artist in New York -- churning out hundreds of chalk drawings while working in the subway system. Although he gained recognition as a fine artist, he is probably best known for his Pop Shop, a retail store in SoHo that sold T-shirts, toys, pins, posters and other items bearing trademark images of radiant babies, lightbulbs, angels and hearts.

Some of that spirit lives in the Palm Springs show, but it also has an ominous aspect. "The work is so accessible," Mera said, looking around the galleries. "It's so cheerful, so loving, so friendly. Yet the issues are of our time, tough issues."

A final work

The 70 paintings and drawings on view include bold reworkings of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley posters, joyful celebrations of life and anguished outbursts about environmental destruction, consumerism, poverty, violence and racism. The single sculpture, an ode to New York made in 1982 with an artist known as LA II, is an 8-foot-tall Statue of Liberty painted in screeching hues and decorated with a black network of drawings, linear patterns and text. Works by Haring's friends, including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and George Condo, hang in an adjacent gallery.

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