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The Rubin Museum of Art on West 17th Street in Manhattan


Indian Adept (Mahasiddha)
Kanha (of the East)

Guhyasamaja Akshobhyavajra

Lama (Teacher) Karmapa 9, Wangchug Dorje

Mandala of Hevajra
Central Tibet

Tonpa Shenrab Life Story

Arhat 16 Elders: Pantaka (detail)

Himalayas in Manhattan
by Fred Stern

No, you are not going to see herders milking yaks on Seventh Avenue, or gaggles of saffron-clad monks standing on street corners with begging bowls in their cupped hands.

But as of this Oct. 2, 2004, you can see the underappreciated art of the 2,000-mile stretch of the Himalayas from Nepal, Kashmir, Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian province of Jammu -- all gathered together in the most unlikely of places: the former Barneys fashion emporium at 150 West 17th Street on Manhattans West Side. The restructured premises is now the Rubin Museum of Art.

Years of preparation
Some 25 years ago, Shelley and Donald Rubin first visited an Asian art gallery and experienced "the shock of recognition," that great moment, that epiphany when a collector gets a "must have" feeling.

Their collection grew slowly at first, as the Rubins were preoccupied with business ventures. But as their knowledge of Himalayan art grew along with their resources, so did their collection and the fervent wish to share what they loved.

Himalaya in Sanskrit means "house of ice and snow." The art of the region has a strong, otherworldly quality, irrespective of whether it is Hindu or Buddhist. But it also has a certain kinship with Chinese art and to a lesser extent with that of Japan. The Rubin will concentrate on Buddhist aspects of this art expressed through thangkas (aka tankas or tangkas), which are religious paintings on silk. The art also includes sculptural renderings of Buddha in a multitude of settings, expressing himself with intricate hand gestures. Priestly robes, manuscripts and altar hangings form other important components of the Rubin collection.

Some of the hangings may seem puzzling, and perhaps even horrific to Western eyes, so the museum is planning to aid understanding and appreciation with an extensive graphic orientation on its second floor. The Rubin considers education to be one of its most important missions.

The museums makeup
The new Rubin Museum is by no means the first institution in the New York area to offer exhibitions of art from this exotic region. The Newark Museum features a strong Tibetan installation, including a complete altar and displays of thangkas, jewelry, temple hangings and musical instruments used in Tibetan ceremonies, as well as a wonderful collection of unique photographs. Out on Staten Island, the Jacques Marchais Center of Tibetan Art houses the collection of Edna Coblentz, which includes many thangkas and sculptures. And the Asia Societyand the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of course, both have many Himalayan objects.

But the Rubins 70,000 square feet are devoted solely to Himalayan art. That sets it apart from all other regional institutions. Its six floors of galleries will display more than 900 objects at any one time.

Specific topics have been assigned to each of the museum floors. Permanent installations will provide graphic orientations to the art and to Buddhism. An area will also be devoted to the historic personages and artists that have influenced the tapestry of the Himalayan region.

The Rubin ground floor will have the usual gift and bookshop, but the café promises a special menu -- foods from the region, including some with a special kick.

Architect Richard Binder of the firm Beyer Binder Belle oversaw the project. The renovation retains the shell of the former department store and many of its features, including the great spiral staircase of steel and marble by Andrée Putnam as well as the sixth floor atrium, which provides the primary light for the museums core. Binder collaborated with several other designers; Milton Glaser provided a number of new architectural flourishes.

Rich wood paneling, along with wall coverings in peach, rich saffron and eggshell, provide a welcome feeling of warmth. The interiors are a subdued background to the thangkas rich reds and blues, the predominant color scheme of the silk paintings.

A photo gallery and one of the best sound stages in the city are on the lower level. I heard a recital there and the quality of reproduction was simply incredible. Here a cavalcade of music, ballet, recitals, lectures and films will be presented.

The Chelsea connection
Its only natural, given the museums location, that it hopes to establish a close relationship with its Chelsea neighbors. Local performers, photographers, film-makers are invited to participate in the inaugural season. Among the planned presentations are a musical talk show hosted the singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash; a conversation between philosopher Peter Singer and author Lance Morrow titled "All About Evil"; a poetry festival hosted by the celebrated Beat poet John Giorno; and films of all kinds.

The Rubin has also reached beyond its local neighborhood to form partnerships with New York cultural and educational institutions, including the New School, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Asia Society is also actively involved in many aspects of the Rubins activities.

The exhibition lineup
Caron Smith, former Asian art curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, has signed on as chief curator and deputy director. While not set in concrete, here are some of the exhibitions planned to for the Rubin in its first year:

The inaugural installation, opening Oct. 2, 2004, fills all six floors, including "Perfected Beings," "Pure Prealms" and "Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond."

"Paradise and Plumage: Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting," Feb. 8-May 8, 2005. An exhibition of 27 works dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries by Arhats -- early Indian followers of the Buddha -- demonstrating the ties between Chinese and Tibetan painters

"Tibet: Treasure from the Roof of the World," Feb. 8-May 8, 2005. More than 200 Tibetan sculptures, paintings and textiles from the Potala Palace in Lhasa, which once housed the living quarters of the Dalai Lama.

"The Eternal Presence: Foot and Handprints in Buddhist Art," June 14-Sept. 14, 2005

"Female Buddhas: Women of Enlightenment," Feb. 4-May 7, 2006.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.