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Rubin Museum of Art Presents Grain of Emptiness: Buddhism-inspired Contemporary Art

The Rubin Museum of Art presents works by five artists of different generations and ethnicities, working between 1960 and the present, whose oeuvres have been influenced by the tenets of Buddhism, including its central principles of emptiness and the fleeting nature of all things. Exhibition open through April 11, 2011.

Grain of Emptiness: Buddhism-Inspired Contemporary Art assembles videos, paintings, photographs, and installations dating from 1961 to 2008 by Sanford Biggers (b. U.S., 1970); Theaster Gates (b. U.S.,1973); Atta Kim (b. Korea, 1956); Wolfgang Laib (b. West Germany, 1950); and Charmion von Wiegand (U.S., 1896-1983). Biggers and Gates will each present new site-specific performance works. The exhibition highlights the continuously evolving nature of art inspired by Buddhist ideas and themes.

Atta Kim; ON-AIR Project 110-2, The New York Series, Times Square, 2005; eight-hour exposure, chromogenic print; courtesy of the artist

“These artists are inheritors of a rich tradition that threads throughout modern and contemporary art,” says Martin Brauen, organizer of Grain of Emptiness and Chief Curator at the Rubin Museum of Art. “The ideas of emptiness and impermanence, embraced by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, have since been taken up by such cultural icons as John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as by conceptual and performance artists and others who have sought to explore in art how the insights of Buddhism intersect with everyday life.”

In the exhibition, the viewer will encounter several paintings by Charmion von Wiegand, an undeservedly little known painter, critic, and journalist. A friend of Piet Mondrian, von Wiegand was influenced by his oeuvre and the ideals of neo-plasticism, and used abstraction to express complex religious ideas. Here, pulsing, prismatic geometric shapes coalesce into the essential Tibetan religious forms: offerings, altars, temples, and chakras. The large scale Triptych (1961), on loan from the Whitney Museum of Art, is a highlight of this section with its circular, rectangular, and diamond shapes locked into the optical equivalent of the mind’s concept of infinity.

The luminous blur of a melting ice sculpture of a seated Buddha and panoramic views of a street in New Delhi and New York’s Times Square are among the subjects of 11 color photographs by the South Korean artist Atta Kim, created as part of his ON-AIR Project. All in different ways remind the viewer of the ephemeral and ‘empty’ nature of things, even those that seem inextricably tied to cultural identity and daily life.

Sanford Biggers is represented in the exhibition gallery by one major work: his Lotus (2007), a seven-foot wide, etched glass disc that, from afar, looks like the blossom of a flower. As light filters through the disc, another image is revealed, etched into each of the petals: a cross-section illustration of bodies lined up in the cargo hold of an 18th-century slave ship.

In subtle installations the German born Wolfgang Laib contributes works that embody simple forms by using natural materials such as white marble, milk, rice, pollen, and lacquer. Rice Meals (2003) and Milkstone (1998-2000) are in part meditations on the transitoriness and interwovenness of all things, an idea parallel to the concept of Pratityasamutpada, the doctrine of dependent arising in Tibetan Buddhism. Each day for the length of the exhibition, milk will be poured into the recess in the Milkstone, creating a seemingly solid, pure white surface.

Urban planner, potter, educator, and installation and performance artist, Theaster Gates will be represented in Grain of Emptiness by a new video work commissioned by the Rubin Museum of Art. The 8-½ minute, high definition, four-channel installation video will follow a handful of African-American Buddhist monks through their morning rituals, which are solemn and private, into a space where their practice becomes an exploration of black music with other musicians and singers.

“Historically, Buddhist art has reflected the concepts of the Buddhist canon,” notes Dr. Brauen. “What is interesting is the manner in which artists today internalize these concepts to create new art forms.”

About the Rubin Museum of Art
RMA holds one of the world’s most important collections of Himalayan art. Paintings, pictorial textiles, and sculpture are drawn from cultures that touch upon the arc of mountains that extends from Afghanistan in the northwest to Myanmar (Burma) in the southeast and includes Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan. The larger Himalayan cultural sphere, determined by significant cultural exchange over millennia, includes Iran, India, China, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. This rich cultural legacy, largely unfamiliar to Western viewers, offers an uncommon opportunity for visual adventure and aesthetic discovery.

Rubin Museum of Art 150 West 17th Street, NYC, 10011

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