Miami's Rubell Museum is a tasteful masterpiece

·5 min read

A repurposed warehouse newly coated in eggshell could be just about anything in post-industrial urban America, and if it weren’t for the vertical banners fluttering in the glossy Miami sunshine, you wouldn’t even know you were looking at a museum. Its entrance, a fencelike metal door so narrow that visitors practically arrive in single file, gives no hint of being the sole public gateway to an art collection the value of which rivals that of entire professional sports teams.

The new Rubell Museum, which opened in December 2019, does everything it can to hide in plain sight, an effort aided by the overhead tracks of the Miami metro rail system and a freight line bordering the south side of the property. At first glance, the biggest art attractions in central Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood are the attention-grabbing murals of tropical fruits or auto parts adorning nearby warehouses that still fulfill their original purpose.

The Rubells' collection would be remarkable in just about any neighborhood, with its walls of Keith Harings, its two Yayoi Kusama Infinity Rooms, and its pair of Basquiats. But the true miracle of the museum’s new home is that it doesn’t feel like an intrusion into its environment or like an elitist beachhead in a neighborhood that’s in the early stages of being ruined. Architect Annabelle Selldorf achieves a minimalist ideal, with her museum fulfilling its core function to the exclusion of seemingly every other factor and concern.

Big-ticket art tends toward maximal conspicuousness these days. It’s impossible to visit the Highline or Renzo Piano’s towering new Whitney Museum in New York, never mind Thomas Heatherwick’s horrific Vessel in Hudson Yards, without reflecting on how often major art projects are revealed to be commercial orgies and real estate plays, whatever their original intention might have been. The Rubell, the work of an architect known for her tastefully unobtrusive design, is too understated and too good at being nothing more than a world-class contemporary art showcase to inspire such cynicism — for now.

The unadorned building primes its patrons for the contemplation of art and nothing more. It is a place completely stripped of ornamentation, aggrandizement, and gimmick, with no Instagrammer-baiting attempts at iconography and no apparent concern over how cool it’s supposed to make its visitors feel. The single metal gate leads to a covered concourse forming one side of a gardenlike courtyard, wild with tropical flora. A pleasant cafe with a shady outdoor bar is set deep into the courtyard, behind the garden. In a welcome change of pace from recent museum design, both the indoor lobby and the gift shop are little bigger than walk-in closets and are connected to the garden through a decidedly unmonumental set of doors. While the hours are wasted in gloriously Miamian fashion at that cafe, the restaurant cannot be seen or heard or smelled from the long, ramp-like gallery connecting the ticket desk to the bulk of the exhibit space. This gallery welcomes visitors with the hundreds of mirrored spheres that form the Narcissus Garden, another one of the museum’s Kusama mind-blowers.

It is a tribute both to Selldorf’s vision and to Don and Mera Rubell’s collecting tastes that the art is the primary reason to visit the new Rubell. A good contemporary art museum should move, thrill, and appall its visitors — above all, it should surprise them. The Rubell delivers: In 2021, one doesn’t expect to encounter nine recent paintings by the superstar Ghanaian portraitist Amoako Boafo in a single room, not under the subway tracks at least. A 12-panel Kerry James Marshall cityscape of Chicago, taken from the vantage of an upper-story apartment in a public housing project, stretches across 50 feet of uneasily radiant yellows, browns, and blues and shows off how seamlessly Selldorf’s building accommodates works of unusual scale. Charles Ray is so unnerving a sculptor that it’s possible to remember every piece of his you’ve ever seen: Certainly his depiction of life-sized, hyperrealistic identical male figures engaged in various ambiguous sex acts, which takes up an entire room at the Rubell, will stick in the mind for a while. The collection includes one of those David Wojnarowicz works that’s so frenetic, it seems like its surface is moving.

Deeper into the museum, which fits roughly 40 rooms of ingeniously varying sizes and ceiling heights into only a single floor, galleries are clustered around a former loading dock that Selldorf left intact. The garage doors are even still there, not far from the Harings. The philosophy implied in the building is almost revolutionary in this day and age: Art should be enough on its own. Its exhibition does not require the looming metallic cantilevers of a Renzo Piano building, and the outer latticework of a Jean Nouvel does nothing to elevate a Cindy Sherman, to name another artist with high-quality work at the Rubell.

Nouvel is the architect of a forbidding, 1,050-foot luxury tower shoved atop the latest expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a cash machine of high-end shopping and dining and a repeated victim of tasteless redesigns. Art has been a status signifier and a moneymaker since long before the Pyramids, and supposedly superficial Miami is about the last place one would expect to find any real resistance to this civilization-old tendency.

One museum might not be enough to stop what’s likely coming. In 10 years, and in part because of the Rubell’s arrival, Allapattah is sure to resemble the garish cluster of brunch spots, high-end commercial galleries, and starchitect-designed condos that characterize both the MoMAplex and the Highline corridor in Manhattan, not to mention Wynwood, the trendy Miami arts district a neighborhood over. The relationship between art and real estate is just about unbreakable in the contemporary American city, but the Rubell will at least pose a brave contrast to any surrounding crassness. Even if it’s destined to become a property value multiplier in spite of itself, it will still be that rare new museum built to reward those in search of the inner experience that art and art alone can provide.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based reporter-at-large for Tablet.

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Tags: Art, modern art, Museums, Miami

Original Author: Armin Rosen

Original Location: Miami's Rubell Museum is a tasteful masterpiece