Notions of Tibetan Tranquility Are Rattled at Rubin Museum

Sometimes, one’s priorities get misplaced. It’s easy for a devotee of the visual arts, particularly in a city as abundant with museums and galleries as New York, to take cultural riches for granted. Even the most dogged can only see so much during a given week or month or year. Exhibitions, artists and venues end up toward the bottom of the “To Do” list, then are missed or forgotten. The reasons are various, not least of them being (as a friend has it), “you know, life itself.”

My forgotten agenda item—or one of them, anyway—has been the Rubin Museum of Art. Located in the old Barneys store on Seventh Avenue, the Rubin Museum is dedicated to the “arts of the Himalayas and where they lead you.” Having passed by it often on my way to and from Chelsea, I dutifully noted its existence and made a plan to visit at some indeterminate future point. Indeterminate, indeed: It’s now been two and a half years since the place opened. But though priorities can be misplaced, they can also be righted. A recent afternoon’s visit to the museum offered pleasures of a rare order.

Shelley and Donald Rubin’s collection of Tibetan art is considered to be among the world’s finest. Rather than donate their holdings to an established institution only to see them languish in the flat files, the Rubins created their own venue. What might have been an act of hubris turns out to be a gift to the city and a specialist’s delight. The museum’s architectural features—the faceted domed skylight and, especially, the sweeping seamlessness of space—parallel and bolster the tranquil character of the art on view. In that regard, the Rubin is a model for cultural institutions of any stripe.

Yet how tranquil is the art, really? Received notions of Eastern art bring to mind mystical reveries, spiritual calm and a supremely ordered sensuality. But two exhibitions of painting and sculpture at the Rubin, Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas and Take to the Sky: The Flying Mystics of Tibetan Buddhism, posit a worldview more accepting of contradiction and earthliness than the uninitiated might imagine.

The titles alone—by indicating psychological paradox and absurd, fantastic visions—are enough to elicit doubts about typical cultural assumptions. Any exhibition that rattles preconceptions is doing its job and doing it well. At the Rubin, you get two magnificent jobs for the price of one.

Holy Madness explores the role of the siddha—translated from Sanskrit as “accomplished one,” a proselytizer of sorts—in spreading Tantric Buddhism from India to the Himalayas between the seventh and eleventh centuries. “Tantra” is an umbrella-like term encompassing a great variety of esoteric practices concerning ritual, magic and sexuality. The practices were centered on spiritual development but didn’t entirely exclude worldly and political considerations. Tantric practitioners promised kings who looked kindly upon Buddhists that their deities would smile upon them in turn, even during times of war. The siddhas retained some sense of footing in the here and now.

Tantric Buddhism is also characterized by eccentricity and antisocial behavior. Rob Linrothe, the guest curator of Holy Madness, describes the siddhas as favoring “ecstatic bliss” over conventional piety. The flaunting of taboos—including, on occasion, the consumption of human flesh—is a defining aspect of Tantric Buddhism.

Professor Linrothe is quick to mention, however, that the outrageous legends surrounding siddhas have been obscured and elaborated upon over the centuries, and that the particulars informing any one tale may be forever lost. All the same, there are some surprisingly funny—and remarkably human—truths to be gleaned from the art on view. One of my favorite paintings in Holy Madness depicts the nomadic Virupa, a Yoga master and miracle worker, contesting his bar tab. Clearly, some miracles are harder to pull off than others.

Take to the Sky, the smaller of the two shows, focuses on flying as a symbol of spiritual aspiration, of “gradually [transforming] the nature of the body base, giving rise to a physical base made of pure rainbow energies.” Unlike with the outsized personalities dominating Holy Madness, a careful eye is needed to discern the figures soaring through the peripheries of these elaborate scenarios. The flying mystics usually play second fiddle to a deity situated at the center of the composition. Nonetheless, they are crucial as emblems of (to crib a phrase from the Dalai Lama) the “madness of enlightenment.”

The images seen in Take to the Sky are often dauntingly encyclopedic. Staggering assortments of deities, monsters, narratives, fauna and flora inhabit upended worlds of earthly delights and, here and there, unspeakable brutality. Scenes of dismemberment—even zombies!—exist harmoniously with moments of exquisite tenderness. Certainly, there are few images in world art as guileless in their conception of lovemaking as that of Ghantapada and his consort getting busy among the clouds. Learning Ghantapada’s story—he was a celibate monk who was conned by the king into having sex and (as an unintended consequence) discovered true love—only makes the pictures that much sweeter. This is but one of the innumerable and indelible glories awaiting you at the Rubin Museum.

Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas and Take to the Sky: The Flying Mystics of Tibetan Buddhism are at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, until Sept. 4 and Jan. 18, 2007, respectively.

Notions of Tibetan Tranquility  Are Rattled at Rubin Museum