By Niva Taylor
This article represents the first in a series looking at specific works of art from Time Capsule.
When you first think about art collectors, do bar mitzvah age boys come to mind? No, not for most people. But, to Duke alum (T ’91), Jason Rubell, there seemed no better way to spend birthday or holiday money as a young teen than to purchase art. Living in a decade of phenomenal contemporary art growth, Rubell spent eight years assembling what would serendipitously become his senior project in 1990 — A Duke Student Collects: Contemporary Art from Jason Rubell. Twenty-one years later, the impressive conglomerate of over eighty works of art returns to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University as Time Capsule, Age 13 to 21: The Contemporary Art Collection of Jason Rubell.
How did this impressive collection of art from a teenage curator come to be?
In 1982, family friend Keith Haring designed Jason Rubell’s bar mitzvah invitation with an unconventional sumi ink drawing of two figures running up flights of stairs toward a radiating number thirteen. This customized invitation, coupled with the personal relationship between the young Rubell and emerging artist Haring, represents a pivotal moment at the start of Rubell’s collecting. Indeed, in the Time Capsule collection, there are two featured pieces by Haring. The first is Untitled, an acrylic and ink on fiberboard work featuring two abstract figures in a palette of five bright colors and a multitude of lines that was given as a gift to Rubell at his bar mitzvah. The style of Untitled has become synonymous with many of Haring’s works and was the first to really “kick off” Rubell’s collection. I was immediately drawn to this radiant piece. The simple inspiration behind the work appears to come from comic books or graffiti, and I could easily imagine how its simply drawn figures would appeal to a 13 year old boy. The figures drawn are part of Haring’s use of symbols to express his message, although through this piece alone, it is difficult to identify what that message is. Rather, I found this first piece as part of a larger universal dialogue.
The next piece that struck me in Rubell’s collection Time Capsule is Haring’s second contribution: The Story of Jason [editor's note: not Jason Rubell]. This combination of nine separate pieces, each depicting bright colors, bold lines and cartoonish figures that contrasted the heavy social and political underpinnings, was gifted to Rubell by his grandparents as an early graduation gift from Duke. Done in 1987, just before the young Haring was diagnosed with AIDS, The Story of Jason depicts “the fall of man” through trademark spiritual auras around a baby figure through different situations of danger. As a viewer, it was hard for me to balance the familiar stylistic elements of Haring’s works and the more sophisticated theme of this composition. This series of drawings feels vastly different in mood and emotion from the more cheerful, and readily legible, first piece that Rubell acquired. Here, the use of the radiant baby as a symbol of the times is much more apparent, and makes the piece incredibly personal. Another aspect of this piece that appealed to me was its similarity to the style of one of my favorite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The pieces that Rubell collected from his bar mitzvah until his Duke graduation are an eclectic mix of artistic styles, mediums and subject matter. Each makes you wonder — what could have motivated a teenage Jason Rubell to save up his money to purchase this? The start of Rubell’s story seems intimately linked to Haring’s career; Rubell’s bar mitzvah fell at the same time as Haring landed his first solo show. Rather than simply having the traditional Jewish ceremony in which a boy accepts his role as a man, Rubell mirrored Harring’s infectious energy, vitality and generous spirit and started his art collection.
The rest of the pieces in Time Capsule serve to embody Rubell’s growth, as a young man, as a student, and as a person of a larger society than just himself, just as over the same time period, Haring’s style of work had changed to reflect the new world around him. When Rubell conducted a series of interviews with Haring in 1990, Haring was already at the end of his young life and The Story of Jason was one of Haring’s final works. Rubell used this last piece, combined with the first Haring contribution, to transition from a 13 year old young man to a learned college graduate, with each piece he collected along that way fulfilling a particular appeal and serving a specific function in his growth.
Chevalier, Juline. “Interview With Jason Rubell.” Web log post. Nasher Museum Blogs. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 9 July 2012. Web. 5 Sept. 2012. http://nasher.duke.edu/?p=5118
Prinz, Jonathan J. “Collector.” Web log post. Artbouillon. N.p., 28 Aug. 2012. Web. 6 Sept. 2012. http://www.artbouillon.com/2012/08/collector.html
Roselione-Valadez, Juan, ed. Time Capsule, Age 13 to 21: The Contemporary Art Collection of Jason Rubell. Sunrise: Rubell Family Collection, 2010. Print
IMAGE, AT TOP: Keith Haring (Collaboration with LA II), Untitled, 1982. Acrylic and ink on fiberboard, 11 3/4 x 23 3/8 x 3/4 inches. Collection of Jason Rubell. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation. LA II artwork © Angel Ortiz. INSET IMAGE: Thomas Ruff, ‘Porträt [J. Rubell],’ 1989. Chromogenic color print, 9 ¼ x 7 inches (24 x 18 cm). Collection of Jason Rubell, Miami. © Thomas Ruff. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery, New York. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.