Artwork Defiant and Defining

With the countdown to the millennium under way, those looking for a place to ponder the ebb of the Twentieth Century would do well to visit the Rubell Family Collection, where a new exhibition by some of the most important modern and contemporary artists is on display.

For its congruence as well as its quality, the Rubell outshines any local museum collection. Acquired by Don and Mera Rubell, who have been buying art since the early Seventies (and moved here from New York in 1992 with their children Jennifer and Jason), the assemblage is unfamiliar to most of the general public in Miami but well known within the international art world.

"This is a collection that for the past 25 years has been committed to the art of our time," says collection director Amy Cappellazzo, who has selected 78 works from more than 1000 for the exhibit. "It represents what we've all lived through."

Housed in a vast concrete building in Wynwood that was once used by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to store confiscated narcotics, the collection provides an overview of provocative art primarily by Americans and Europeans who have defined the artistic trends of the past three decades. The collection includes works by seminal conceptual artist Joseph Beuys; a pantheon of Eighties pacesetters such as Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, and Jenny Holzer; as well as more recently celebrated young vanguards Damien Hirst (best known for displaying a dissected cow in a formaldehyde-filled tank) and Kara Walker, who explores racial and gender issues in her blatantly sexual cut-paper installations.

A venturesome curator of contemporary art, the charismatic Cappellazzo previously directed the galleries at MDCC's Wolfson Campus, then moved on to the Weatherspoon Gallery in North Carolina before returning to Miami last spring as the Rubell's first director. To involve larger audiences with the works, she plans a series of lectures and performances set to begin in February. The new installation, she explains, is more a rearrangement of many pieces with some additions rather than an entirely different display.

Installations include several rooms dedicated to the work of a single artist. The Jeff Koons room contains basketballs floating in a fishtank, vacuum cleaners mounted on fluorescent light tubes, and other pieces by the artist whose postmodern pop exemplified the material excesses of the Eighties. Another room holds an arresting site-specific installation by Jose Bedia that incorporates a Cuban rafter's boat, Afro-Cuban religious icons, and wall paintings.

Creatively arranged by loosely defined themes, other rooms highlight contemporary German photography from the past decade, self-portraits, or works by young women artists that are viscerally sensual or pointedly suggestive.

Cappellazzo concedes that not every piece will be to everyone's taste, but she contends that the undisputable historic import of the collection rises above any criticisms of individual works. "It's kind of like those greatest-hits collections from the Seventies or Eighties you see advertised on TV," she says. "It's not always about whether you liked those songs or not. What's important is that they really defined a decade."

Although a trip to the Rubell Family Collection can invoke nostalgic feelings or foster contemplative reappraisal for those who frequent galleries and museums, to those largely unfamiliar with contemporary art the works are guaranteed to provide an eye-opening view of Twentieth-Century culture.

"Even if you had not the least interest in visual art, just to know what visual art is about you should look at this collection," says Cappellazzo.

-- Judy Cantor

The Rubell Family Collection, 95 NW 29th St, is open from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Friday through Sunday or by appointment. Call 305-573-6090.