How I Collect

Collector Don Rubell on How to Make Sense of China's New Avant-Garde

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Collector Don Rubell on How to Make Sense of China's New Avant-Garde
The collectors Don and Mera Rubell (Photo by Simon Hare)

Five years ago, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami debuted an exhibition called "30 Americans" that surveyed the work of black artists who had caught the attention of collectors Don and Mera Rubell. That show, which has been touring the country ever since, had a seismic impact on the art world, introducing to a wide audience such young black artists as Rashid Johnson, Mark Bradford, Hank Willis Thomas, and Xaviera Simmons, and reintroducing important artists like David Hammons and Barkley Hendricks in the context of those who followed in their footsteps. Now, the Rubells are poised to reaffirm their own influence with a new show—this time focusing on the younger generation of artists who are working in China.

Opening during this year's Art Basel Miami Beach week, "28 Chinese" is the latest in a distinguished lineage of shows that have broadcast the latest developments in Chinese contemporary art to Western eyes, going back to the Asia Society's "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" show in 1998—which made a star of Zhang Huan and other artists—and Harald Szeemann's 1999 Venice Biennale, which featured 20 Chinese artist, including that year's Golden Lion winner, Cai Guo Qiang. Now, however, with China's own collecting class on the rise and its artists evolving in new directions, Western buyers are beginning to look past the famous names searching for rising talent—a hunt made all the more challenging by the geographic, political, and cultural gulfs in play. 

With the new show, the Rubells have done a remarkable service for their fellow collectors (as well as artist, critics, and curators), gathering together work by artists they discovered in the course of multiple journeys through China's disparate art scenes including scores of studio visits. The show, notably, also prefigures the Armory Show's much-anticipated "Focus: China" display next March. To find out about the way the country's art is evolving, and to learn about its most exciting young artists, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Don Rubell about the show.

Why Chinese art now?

It’s funny, because Chinese art from the last generation was not as interesting for us. I don’t know whether to call them the “Venice Generation,” after Harald Szeemann's show, but, to us, that art seemed to be made more for Western consumption. The difference now is that we're seeing art made for the new generation in China. The work in our show will absolutely not be recognized by people who are only familiar with the earlier generation. There's a lot more geometric abstraction—there are probably six to eight abstract painters there—and there are about the same number of video artists, and then there are sculptors and performance artists. But, more fundamentally, the subject matter has changed. The subject matter which is very understandable and comprehensible to the Chinese; it’s a strong, internally-based subject matter. It’s not for anybody else. The works are aggressive—they’re bold. They’re exceptional.

Chinese contemporary art first came to the attention of Western audiences in the 1990s, primarily through the work of the so-called "Cynical Realist" painters who addressed the country's tumultuous evolution beyond Mao and into capitalism. Often this work had a distinctly Warholian streak, as if they had sought out the most famous American artist in an attempt to Westernize their paintings. What did you make of that period then, and what do you make of it now?

They’re good artists, there’s no question about that. But we kind of liked the offshoots of that generation, even at that time—artists like Ai Weiwei, Zhang Huan, and Zhu Jinshi. They're in our show. However, our show’s principal generation starts with an in-between group, with Liu Wei—who is fantastic—and with Wang Xingwei, who for a lot of the young painters is probably most important. He has influenced the way they think about painting. The other one is Qiu Zhijie—the piece of his that you're  probably most familiar with is the tattoo piece he did with lettering on his own body.Those three represented the first separation from the earlier generation, with Li Songsong probably somewhere in there too. 

Then you come to a completely younger generation, spearheaded by people like He Xiangyu and Wang Guangle, who leads the whole abstract group and shows with Pace in Beijing—he’s the elder statement of abstraction. There are few others that we’re very excited about. They’re absolutely elegant. You have to understand that this is not an area that we normally collect in, geometric abstraction. But our approach, if you will, is to realize that we’re not artists—we only can look at the most interesting things that are being done, and, in China, the geometric abstraction was just so exciting. It was the artists who generated our interest in it and everything else in the show. We ended up going to over 100 studios all over China; it is a massive place, as you know. And, of course, we went to every major gallery, every museum. But the studios, especially with the young artists, were key. We were thinking about what they were looking at, and what was being done.

You mentioned that Ai Weiwei and Zhang Huan were "offshoots" in the '90s—with their embrace of performance and installation and other means of expression that weren’t so deeply rooted in the West placing them outside the mainstream. How would you describe the broader transition among artists to direct their work at Chinese audiences rather than Western taking place?

China is kind of a funny place. When you ask how that change occurred, you should know that there isn’t that much separation in age between this generation and the earlier generation—it’s probably about five years. So the transition was probably always happening, but it wasn't what the West wanted to see. To a large extent, the gallery system was very weak in China in the '90s, the museum system was weak in China, and the artists and curators questioned their own system. Alliances were formed between galleries and certain museums, but the alliances between the galleries and artists were very loose—I would say as late as 2004 we could go to Beijing and four different galleries would be showing the same artist. There was no gallery loyalty, there was no development of a program, there was no development of a philosophy. 

All of a sudden, now, you’re beginning to have the formation of a gallery system. There are probably a half a dozen really strong committed galleries with these really committed philosophies, like Long March Space, Beijing Commune, Urs Meile, White Space, and ShanghART. All of these are fully developed programs, and because of that you’re getting a lot more communication between artists. They’re communicating in China through Chinese art, whereas in the beginning all the communication was done outside of China. With '90s artists like Yue Minjun, they were not seen, shown, and collected in China—they were seen, shown, and collected outside of China, and that's where their notoriety resided. But now the younger artists are seeing the works of the mid-career artist and seeing the work of other artists of their own generation, so it's natural that they should become more involved in the dialogues of their own art.

The development of a strong gallery system seems very much to be part and parcel of the booming Chinese economy. The art market has evolved there to the degree that, by certain metrics, it briefly surpassed that of the United States in 2011. And that's no longer just when it comes to ancient art—a recent report stated that more than half of the top-selling artists born after 1980 are Chinese, many of them unknown in the West. What effect do you think this economic upswing has had on the country’s art?

Culture follows economy, historically. When Greeks ruled the world, you saw Greek art. When Romans ruled the world, you saw Roman art. As the West controlled the world, you saw Western art. You look at the United States, and as late as the 1960s or ‘70s it was still not a world power in art. As all of these places achieved economic power, they achieved an art power. That only partially answers your question, but it's part of it. 

The Chinese are feeling very comfortable in their own skins, in their own positions, and they are being much more aggressive in all areas. They want the best planes, they want the best highways, they want the best industries, and they’re looking to themselves for a lot of it. Again, when we first went to China, the way people showed their wealth was by wearing Western clothes. Now, there’s much more of an influence of the Chinese on the Chinese. And I think this is reflected in the fact that, before, you couldn’t have a gallery system because nobody was collecting art, so it made the galleries more likely to cater to the tourists.

Now, almost every good gallery has groups of Chinese collectors. It’s still a little bit different from the West in that you tend to have collectors who are a little more loyal to one gallery, one critic, one curator, and they don’t cross over. So when we first went there, the galleries, critics, and artists were always our main sources of information—but if you asked someone from Gallery A, he would only list his cronies. Now you get a sense that there’s a broad agreement there about who is making the most interesting work.

When did you first start collecting Chinese art? 

We started in around 2001, but in a very limited way. We went to China, saw Ai Weiwei’s work, thought that was interesting, bought that. Urs Meile was representing him and still does. We bought Zhang Huan after the “Inside Out” show at the Asia Society. Those were really our first two forays into Chinese art. We weren’t comfortable with it. You can’t feel all art, and we didn’t feel that group of artists. 

In assembling this show, you and your wife, Mera, traveled to China six times over the past dozen years, visiting studios in metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai as well as the provincial capitals Xian, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou. How did the art scenes differ?

The overwhelming number of artists are in Beijing, Shanghai coming in second. But there’s a very important academy in Hangzhou, and some of the early video art apparently came out of Hangzhou. Li Ming used to be based in Hangzhou. In Guangzhou there's a group of artist formed around Vitamin Creative Space. Qiu Zhijie was there for a while. So it wasn’t enough to just sit in Beijing. We had to go and see the studios and see what the artists were thinking. There is such an increased number of artists, and there could have been other artists we were looking for, but since we only show work that we own we had to buy work that was available. As time goes on, our holdings will definitely increase in this area.

There are enormous cultural and historical differences between the cities you visited. Was the art you saw in each art scene also distinct in personality? For instance, are you looking at a different kind of art in Guangzhou than you are in Hangzhou? 

Absolutely. The art doesn’t travel the country—aside from in Beijing and Shanghai, there aren’t even any national galleries. That’s going to change when they build a ton of museums throughout China, which may an opportunity for people to see the work of artists in other places. Qiu Zhijie is an interesting example because he's based in Beijing but studied and has taught in Guangzhou, so he's been a conduit for certain ideas. But Guangzhou is really centered around a group of artists who formed in response to various social ideas. They were very good. But overall it’s sort of similar to the United States in that most of the artists either end up staying where they are or moving to New York or Los Angeles, which would be Shanghai or Beijing.

What were you looking for when you did the studio visits? 

For us, we look in the person. We of course looked to see that the art they were making was interesting too, but when you’re dealing with young artists you’re trying to figure out what their future will be, so we spent a lot of time talking to them and trying to get a handle on what they’re thinking. If they had the means, for instance, what would the be the grand idea that they would try to execute? We’re looking for some idea of continuity. It’s more about seeing what they’re all about—you want to know if this artist has the strength of character to keep doing something great.

How did you manage to penetrate these art scenes? Did you have help on the ground? 

I’m charged with most of the research part of it, so what I initially did was go to the two main magazines, Leap and Yishu, and from there I was looking at who the main galleries were and what they were showing. I was also looking endlessly online and talking to the gallerists, the critics, the curators. But, really, the artists were the best source—artists are the only ones who truly understand. 

A couple of the names in your show are famous, like Zhang Enli and Ai Weiwei—these are artists whom people might know when they go in. But there are so many new artists and so much unfamiliar art. Are there any different strands of art to pay attention to, or movements that have arisen, that might be helpful for making sense of what these artists are doing?

As I mentioned before, I think one major strand is geometric abstraction. There seems to be a growing obsession with it in China. Then the other dominant strand is video. Because of the economics of the situation, video is very widespread because you can make it in a small space. You'll see it all over, and those are the two things that are really new to China. I think that the abstraction comes from a different place than it comes from in the West, because the influence of calligraphy is so strong—the history of calligraphy is so important that their abstraction comes from a calligraphic base. Our abstraction really comes historically from the Abstract Expressionists.

So you can look at someone like Zhu Jinshi and say it's AbEx, but if you really look at it, it’s very calligraphy-generated. Now, the curious thing is that with the geometric abstraction, you don’t look at it in terms of calligraphy. But I think even that hearkens back to it, since almost every artist in China has training in calligraphy. The strongest is probably Qiu Zhijie, who was trained as a calligrapher and has a whole body of work that uses calligraphy. 

So those are the two dominant strands. But the interesting thing is that the rest of the artists are just one-offs. They seem to evolve very independently. Zhang Enli really has nothing to do with any of the other people of his generation. It’s a strange place. You go to Beijing and there are probably 10,000 artists living between the fifth and the seventh ring in Beijing. And so there are communities of artists, but they don’t necessarily communicate always in the sense of art. If you look at people like Wade Guyton, Seth Price, and Kelly Walker, they all came out of Tennessee. You don’t seem to have that kind of situation of artists speaking to each other yet.

There are all these hints of social and economic policies in China being liberalized, but at the same time the country is massively doubling down on censorship and surveillance. Ai Weiwei serves as a warning for artists across the country. What is the character of the avant-garde in China? Is it at all political?

It’s becoming much, much more apolitical and more commercial. I think the earlier generation was totally politically generated. And the new generation is not. There may be social concerns, but the minute you make abstract art, it generally takes away any political and social concerns. These artists are focused on the art rather than the politics. You go there, and you don’t feel the military presence, you don’t feel the politics, but they exist. There is the understanding that they exist. The difference is that Ai Weiwei confronted it directly, and most of the artists prefer not to confront it. 

Is this move toward formal concerns a matter of self-preservation for artists, or is primarily aesthetic?

It’s a matter of fact. The early generation wanted to overthrow the political system. Now there's a great deal of internal pride in China, in what the country has been able to achieve economically. If anything, a lot of artists really object to Ai Weiwei’s criticism of China, which is kind of strange. They say, “China treated him very well. Why is he doing this?”

You mentioned that a lot of the artists in your show are one-offs stylistically, and they're working in a language that will be new to Western audiences. Do you think that any of the artists in the show can communicate across these cultures in a way that will allow them to break out here? 

There are probably four, five, or six, maybe, who I can’t name. Because we always deal so directly with the artists and the galleries, I’d really prefer not to say what my guesses are. And it is just a guess, really, as to who’s going to break out. But there are probably up to six who could really be absorbed into the rest of the world’s understanding of art. 

In March, the Armory Show is going to devote its "Focus" section to China, making Xu Zhen, who is in your show, its commissioned artist. There is clearly a lot of interest in Chinese art that is percolating. Do you anticipate a day when Chinese artists are household names in the same way as  Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst?

Will they become household names in the way Warhol became a household name, or Damien Hirst? That I can’t tell you. But will they become the equivalent of someone like Richter or Bacon, who are enormously respected in the art world? The answer is yes, definitely. Often, there are two ways you get that kind of respect: you’re either worth a lot of money or have a flamboyant personality. I don’t know if they have flamboyant personalities, but they’re definitely making work that is the equivalent of any young work that we’re seeing anywhere in the world today. 

You touched on the way that the country's institutions are changing, with new museums opening across the country. Is there a parallel growth in the number of people who are studying to be curators and to write about contemporary art? 

Criticism in Chinese culture resembles criticism in Italy in many respects. For a long time, there's been an economics to the situation. In the magazines and even the museums in China, there’s a sense that—and this is becoming less and less so—you can buy your way in. And, clearly, you can buy an artist an exhibition. So many people have distrusted the museums and the critics. I think that’s changing, though. I think we're seeing the rise of a professional, critical, and curatorial class. Having said that, it’s probably more popular to get an MBA in China because it’s seen as one of the great ways to boost your success there. Where is the good criticism coming from? Some is coming from artists. But there are a lot of good critics in China, and lot of the critics teach. Curators too—I get the sense that there will be a rise of an independent curatorial class that’s not susceptible to influence. Everything now in China is market-generated, so its important that the criticism and curation becomes areas that ideally are not market-generated.

You and your wife will be celebrating your 50th anniversary next year. For many of these decades, you’ve been collecting art. How do you manage to stay on the cusp of what’s emergent and new?

Probably the luckiest thing is that we have a son who’s interested in art. We collect equally as a team across generations. But also, for us, art is almost a religion. It’s why I have 2 million miles on American Airways—and we don’t go on vacation. We love the art. We travel about as much anybody else, including curators. We have an absolute belief in the new, and we think that everything in history has been through the young ones, and everything in history will be due to the young ones—which means you have to go to the art, since the art doesn’t come to you. Whether you're in New York or London, you're going to have to travel to find the art. But there are different ways to collect. Some people do an incredible job collecting trophies, the very best pieces. For us, we’re committed to collecting not just one piece, but rather trying to collect from an artist’s whole career. For us, it’s the most exciting thing we can do. We love being with artists. I prefer being in the art world to being with my own relatives. When you have the opportunity to be with creative people, how could you not enjoy it?

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