Sterling Ruby (b. 1972) makes a strong impression. His esthetic is masculine and a little bruised, antisocial and smart, grounded in its materials, and seems completely unpredictable. His varied output includes 18-foot-tall phallic “stalagmites” dripping with seemingly viscous urethane; rough-hewn ceramics with primordial glazes; paintings done with Robitussin-red nail polish or graffiti-like spray-paint; sculptures of smudged and scratched white minimalist forms; bus-sized cages on wheels; and videos of frustrated male pornstars masturbating to no end. For his latest exhibition, Ruby has turned to a classic Goth theme -- vampires.
“Sterling Ruby: Vampire,” Sept. 24-Nov. 3, 2011, at Pace Beijing, is an appropriately splashy entrance into what looks like something of a new phase in the Los Angeles-based artist’s career. In the six years since he earned his MFA, Ruby has seen his prices leap to unsustainable levels, has ricocheted between galleries, and has confused some collectors and advisors with his refusal to stick to any one -- or even three -- mediums.
But now, the painter-sculptor-ceramicist who has been labeled a “rising young star” for years -- he turns 40 in January -- seems to have hit his stride. He has signed with Pace Gallery, stabilized his market and suddenly looks poised to move from cult hero to a kind of “mid-career” canonization.
“Sterling is the only one who shows signs that he’s going to be on the level of the major artists Pace has shown in the past -- or that he could be in 20 years,” said art advisor Lisa Schiff. “There’s a space opening up. Artists like Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen are starting to move into seniority, so there’s room for the next wave of great artists like him.”
“This has been a particularly hectic year,” said Ruby by phone from his studio in Vernon, Calif., a few days before catching a plane to install his first solo show in China. In 2009, Ruby was one of Pace director-in-waiting Marc Glimcher’s first recruits, and now he’ll be the Beijing outpost’s debut western artist. Luckily, “I tend to make an abundance of work,” he said.
Ruby is also in a two-person exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, in which his ceramics are aptly paired with works by Italian maestro Lucio Fontana, who of course also made ceramics as well as his trademark punctured monochromes. Last year, in a similarly savvy bit of curating, the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels juxtaposed Ruby with Robert Mapplethorpe, another chronicler of elegance and the abject.
In an even bigger consummation, Ruby has recently seen a stream of museum endorsement -- traditionally the ultimate arbiter of legacy. Since just last year, his works have been acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Tate Collection, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and seven other major public collections around the world.
But success for the young artist whose market once teetered on the brink of too-much-too-soon has not always looked so probable. Born on a military base in Bitburg, Germany, to a Dutch mother and American father, Ruby has spent most of his life far outside the bounds of the rarified art scene. The family moved around the Netherlands, to Baltimore, and finally settled on a farm about 20 minutes south of York, Penn., because, as Ruby put it, his parents “were hippies who had a subscription to Mother Earth News.” (That also might explain his name, which, he added, “was somewhat difficult as a kid living around a bunch of rednecks.”)
After graduating from an agriculture high school, Ruby spent several years working in construction and “getting very depressed” before having his introduction to the art world. His mother’s friend, a wildlife illustrator, helped him get into the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in Lancaster, an unaccredited college where Ruby learned, predominantly, to draw bowls of fruit and nudes.
His real artistic awakening came with the discovery of Paul Schimmel’s catalogue Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s in the tiny school library. “It was a red herring -- I don’t know how it got there,” Ruby said. “I became certain that I was going to wind up in L.A., which seemed like it had more pathology than any other city in America.”
But he got his first break before he ever made it to the coast. He moved to Chicago to finish his degree at the School of the Art Institute, and it was there, at 1R Gallery, that New York dealer Michael Gillespie spotted Ruby’s work. The following year, Gillespie gave the artist his first solo exhibition in the city at his gallery, Foxy Production.
In 2006, not long after Ruby graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he signed on with Metro Pictures gallery. But the relationship was rumored to be unsteady and they parted ways after two shows. So Ruby bounced back to working exclusively with Foxy Production (where he continues to show today on a project basis).
Then, the following year, Ruby saw a stratospheric surge in his auction prices. A spray-painted canvas, SP28, estimated at $35,000-$45,000 at Phillips de Pury, sold for $260,000. A month later, a print estimated at about $10,000 at Phillips in London went for $62,000.
“He came of age right at the pinnacle of the last decade's market,” said Schiff. Suddenly, “a lot of people were glomming on, trying to get work out of his studio.” Gillespie remembers that “no one knew him and really no one knew us. But a small group of collectors and other gallerists started coming around. I think it was just the rawness and visceral quality of the work -- it just hit you in the gut.”
Schiff stopped recommending Ruby’s work to her clients. Sure, he was popular, and the critics loved him too -- that year Roberta Smith wrote in the Times that Ruby was “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century” -- but “I couldn’t understand what was going on, and it made me nervous,” Schiff said.
Glimcher said that dealers face a problem of arbitrage when this happens. “If your public market goes above your private market, what are you going to do? Your dealer has to drop prices. Nothing hurts confidence in an artist’s work more than when a gallery has to say, ‘we’re going to drop prices.’”
And the most coveted works seemed to be Ruby’s paintings -- not the sculpture or ceramics that had largely defined him thus far. Paintings, as a whole, tend to sell better than other media because they’re considered more livable, but some advisors worried he was becoming too stylistically pigeonholed.
“People are always confused by artists who work in multiple practices,” Glimcher said. “But he doesn’t really care.”
While Ruby’s primary-market prices have risen steadily over the years, he “is very conservative. He has kept his prices low and that’s a consistent trait of artists who, 40 years from now, we still know their names,” Glimcher said, citing Robert Ryman as a model of this kind of long-term prudence.
According to Pace, the majority of Ruby’s works range from $25,000-$150,000, while his large-scale sculptures go for between $250,000 and $500,000. (One dealer said that a larger ceramic work in the Andrea Rosen show is going for $75,000.)
Things seemed to settle down for Ruby in 2009. The economy was faltering, but that may have helped slow any further spikes in his auction prices. That was also the year he signed with Pace and, so far, they seem to be making smart moves. Ruby said he has intentionally held off showing ceramics for a while, maximizing the Fontana exhibition’s impact. “Ceramics are in vogue, without a doubt,” he acknowledged.
And could there be a subject with more mass-market appeal than vampires? “Twilight, True Blood, that Gucci Mane single… everyone wants to be a vampire in some way,” he said, adding that he was happy to play up to the theme, partly selected by Pace Beijing director Leng Lin.
But that’s not to call Ruby a sell-out. “Vampire” is a natural continuation of the anti-jingoistic themes he has long explored. There are 30 extremely large-scale new works, including Old Glory-printed fabric sculptures of lips and fangs; a supersized sheet-metal flag; new spray-painted canvases; a series of five-by-eight-foot bronze Debt basins filled with scraps; and an 18-foot stalagmite in which shades of empire red and blue bleed into black. It’s all housed in Pace Beijing's perfectly Brutalist 25,000-square-foot old munitions factory.
“Society-conscious art has taken shape and risen in China,” said Leng Lin in an email. “Chinese contemporary art tends toward narrative, while Sterling Ruby's work emphasizes shape and form. Sterling's entrance will undoubtedly open eyes and minds and pour new life and energy into a flourishing, society-conscious Chinese contemporary art scene.”
“There’s something drastic about the vampire,” Ruby said. “It’s hyper-sexual, taboo, and there’s the existential scenario of never dying, being faced with the principles of eternity. It seems fitting for the time.”