The Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) is home to a comprehensive collection of art from the Himalayas and surrounding regions. The artistic heritage of this vast and culturally varied area of the world remains relatively obscure. Through changing exhibitions and an array of engaging public programs, RMA offers opportunities to explore the artistic legacy of the Himalayan region and to appreciate its place in the context of world cultures. The RMA collection consists of paintings, sculptures, and textiles. Although works of art range in date over two millennia, most reflect major periods and schools of Himalayan art from the 12th century onward.I wanted in particular to see the Buddhist art in the collection and since there was too much to absorb in one visit, I decided to focus on sculpture. This means that I walked past a great number of fascinating and beautiful objects, but it allowed me to leave the museum after a couple of hours with something like a coherent set of impressions. One of my main impressions, though, was the glorious architecture of the museum itself. The building is nondescript from the outside, looking like a corner office block on W. 17th & 7th Ave. (I took the 1 train up from Tribeca.), the inside has been hollowed out into five mezzanines with an elegant circular opening for a spiral staircase that runs up the center of the building. There are thematically organized exhibition spaces on each level. Here is the official description:
The 70,000-square-foot museum occupies what was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. It was acquired in 1998 and renovated extensively from 2000-2004. [. . .] Many of the most important details within the building have been retained from its previous life, most notably Andree Putman's steel-and-marble staircase that spirals dramatically through the seven-story gallery tower. In addition to spacious yet intimate galleries for featured exhibitions, the museum includes space for contemporary and historical photography, an art-making studio, a state-of-the-art theater for multimedia events and performances, a cafe, and a gift shop.The museum's ambient lighting is somewhat darker than one at first expects, but this has the result of putting each work in a pool of light that encourages contemplation. On the day I was there, the space was busy but not crowded, with a couple of groups of well-behaved school children moving about and whispering to each other. One little girl in particular struck me as the perfect museum-goer: She must have been ten or eleven years old, skinny as a stick, with a big shock of brown hair that kept falling in her face so that she had to hold it back to read the information cards beside the objects she was looking at. And she was reading the cards, unlike most of her cohort, who were flitting happily from one pretty or macabre object to another. She would lean forward slightly, reading the description, then stand back purposefully and look at the object, sometimes returning to the text for more information. Our paths crossed several times during my couple of hours in the museum and this child was always absorbed in steadily looking at the object in front of her. I wanted to be inside her brain -- to see what it would be like to see these things without all my years of education and experience -- to see them "ignorantly" and eagerly, as it were. I left the RMA in a buoyant state of mind and walked south through the Village, where I bought myself a straw fedora from a sidewalk vendor, trying to imagine what these streets looked like forty years ago when they were the haunt of Bob Dylan, Dave von Ronk, Ramblin' Jack Eliot, and all the rest of the folkies I listened to in high school and college. Hell, I still listen to them. On the way back to my hotel, I sat and rested my legs in a little park, then strolled (like any good flaneur in his fedora) south, taking everything in, balancing my rural existence with this intake of the urban air, both literal and metaphorical. Went back to the hotel and had a nap, read for a bit, then began thinking about dinner. When I'm alone in the city -- NY or Hanoi, etc -- I don't like to go to fancy restaurants by myself -- such experiences are best when shared, but I did want to have one snazzy meal while I was in the city. Fortunately, the hotel's own cafe fit the bill perfectly. I had a bar-made soda, a panini and French onion soup, then pie and ice cream for desert, followed by strong coffee. Cash only, but with tip under $30. The next morning I took a cab to LaGuardia and was home in the early evening, even with the long boring drive from Burlington to South Colton.