A conversation with Donald Rubinstein

Santafe.com - May 27, 2011

"He was leaving. Amazingly this made me cry..."

I met last night with Donald Rubinstein, a musician and artist so consumed with his creative endeavors that he prefers not to talk.  There is, he said, no time for it.  I sense from him that talking sets free those elusive fragments of imagination that might, if given enough time and pressure, evolve into something new.  For him it is risky to let them loose or drop them casually.  They are like pieces of stars that drown in the atmosphere.

Our conversation was consequently reticent, a halting thing that wouldn’t flow in spite of the wine we shared.  I asked him about his pursuit of the new.  I wanted his help in understanding avant-garde works -- installations where fur grows from cracks in the walls or videos where water drips repeatedly on a circular reel – that are esteemed and celebrated as museum quality art.  He asked me to take notes. He almost left before we started.  He was exceedingly kind.

I fired off my questions:  Is art defined by the artist alone?  Is there a point to making art?  Do artists have a responsibility to society?  And he replied, “I believe in the artists creating the new.  I don't believe in the form.  I do like pushing the boundaries but I don't think the new comes from an obvious place. A great artist defines their approach internally.  It has nothing to do with the format or time.  It has to do with them, with how they turn things inside out from their perspective.  It doesn't matter if you are traditional or avant-garde.  It only matters that you are imbuing a new truth through whatever form you use to express.” I wanted more.  I wanted him to go beyond the surface of the thing, beyond the polished words and well formed thoughts into something deeper, more personal and more profound.

The wine was good, the afternoon light was softening toward evening and the restaurant was starting to fill.  We told stories and shook our heads at things both silly and bizarre.  We spoke some of business, of making a living as an artist, of upcoming travels.  But it wasn’t enough.   

Donald is a bit of a mystery.  His art ranges from sophisticated music compositions to prints reminiscent of the characters in South Park.  He is articulate, accomplished, and driven and he has never stuck to just one thing at a time.  Almost everything he produces is an amalgam of forms and disciplines and they all have a spark.  His works have a tension; a sense of questions asked and seldom answered that hint of the possibilities just outside the boundaries of what we understand.  He is raw and immediate and while not all of his work speaks to me, it is always startling, always honest.

But Donald doesn’t like to talk.  In what I felt was the middle of our conversation, he said he’d had enough.  He was done talking.  Creative process is, for him, private and he had already said more than made him comfortable.  He was leaving. Amazingly this made me cry.  Somehow through this stilted exchange of uneasy dialog, where we skirted around the edges of most things and quipped our well thought convictions, I opened. 

It was embarrassing to cry in front of a man I respect and barely know but I couldn’t help it.  The tears welled and fell and couldn’t be hidden.  I had been so engaged, so challenged and focused that his impending departure was like a slap in the face.

After he had gone, I realized that the experience, for me, was like making art.  In my studio, I start out usually with a question.  I design a form, structure its composition and think I know where I’m going.  I’ve touched on something powerful but haven’t harnessed it.  I go deeper, moving the elements, adding texture here, a line there then all of a sudden, the piece takes its own direction and gives me a slap. Instantly, occasionally tearfully, I am in the throes of myself—hurtling breakneck through a darkened tunnel where shafts of dim light on the walls reveal the tattered scrawling of my memories and the blood inked hieroglyphs of my desires.  It is from this place my art comes and, as in the conversation with Donald, where I learn something I only thought I knew.