28 Chinese Broadens Perspective on Contemporary Asian Art

Art collectors Don and Mera Rubell – who helped launch the careers of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring – made six trips to China from 2001 to 2012, visiting over 100 artists’ studios around the country. This approach is key to their collecting, they say.

“Art never comes to you, you have to go to art,” Don said at a preview at the Asian Art Museum where the show 28 Chinese showcasing the Rubells’ collection opens on June 5. “The biggest mistake people make is looking at art out of context.”

Even though they don’t speak the language, they could communicate with the Chinese artists, Mera said.

“We could feel each other,” she said. “We fell in love with them through their art, and you’ll fall in love with them without even knowing them.”

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The artwork the Rubells acquired includes provocative photography, installations, painting, and new media from a new generation of artists — like Liu Wei and Xu Zhen to the internationally acclaimed Zhang Huan and Ai Wei Wei. Highlights include Zhu Jinshi’s monumental installation, the 40-foot long Boat, made from 8,000 sheets of paper that are usually used for Chinese painting and calligraphy. There’s also a screening room with a range of new video works, Ai Weiwei’s Ton of Tea, and a painting from Li Shurui from her Light series, reproducing the look of light in different environments from nightclubs to the Artic.

When curator Allison Harding flew out to Miami to see the collection, she found the Rubells' involvement with the artists and their work evident.

“I was struck by your sense of connection with artists,” she told them. “It shows that the Rubells really know these artists and connect with them. I was blown away walking through by the works’ monumentality and bold power. I was able to take each artist on his or her own terms as I moved through, and I felt a sense of ease about not having overarching umbrella trying to define contemporary Chinese art.”

Harding said as soon as she landed in San Francisco, she got a floor plan of the Asian Art Museum to see how she could best replicate the experience. Mera Rubell assured her she’d done a wonderful job, opening up a whole other window for them onto the art.

The Rubells began collecting a long time ago, when Mera said she realized if she put away just $25 a week from her $100 salary, they would be able to buy a work of original art. Don says his most helpful realization was that all art was contemporary at some point.

He said through engaging with the artists in China and their work, they learned about the social political situation there. It’s through art that people are best able to understand the plight of the AIDS epidemic, for example, he thinks. That’s not all it does, he added.

“If you study art history, you realize about universality pretty quickly,” he said. “Young people learn that people have always been rebelling against the powers that be.”

28 Chinese opens at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, on June 5th and runs through August 16. 415.581.3500

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