The New Masters: Bruce Rubenstein and his many Inspirations

L.A.M.B. (Lyrical Abstraction Meets Biomorphism) / Acrylic, Oil, Charcoal on Canvas / 78 x 90 in.

What defines a great artist? The individual behind a collection of objectively beautiful works of art? Someone whose work is shown at some of the best galleries in the world? Or perhaps, an inventor of a new genre or technique. To us, Bruce Rubenstein fits every description, yet manages to never fit into a single mold of what an artist should be. With inspiration from some of the great artists such as Picasso and Gorky, Rubenstein’s work is in a league of its own.  

Rubenstein’s work cannot be defined. It challenges the norm of abstract expressionism: the absence of consistent categorization of line, form, and color in his pieces gives those lucky enough to see them no particular expectation of him: the fluidity of the organic shapes and vast range of mixed media used to create the art allows Rubenstein to tell a story, each one different from the last. From an outside perspective, the influence of Picasso is clear on his work. Picasso used color as an expressive element in his works, and the sporadic pops of color in Rubenstein’s paintings work to serve a similar purpose. To say that his work is solely inspired by Picasso’s, however, is to take away the spirit behind it. There is an energy behind Rubenstein’s work—his characters are always dynamic, never static. The vibrancy of his strokes and creatures perfectly contrasts the muted raw background of the canvas. Of course, one can always speculate, but I’d personally much rather hear from the artist himself. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to speak to Rubenstein and get some insight on the driving forces behind his art.  

Forbice/Fiore/Spiaggia (Flower/Scissor/Beach) / Acrylic, Oil, Charcoal on Canvas / 72 x 60 in.

My work is very driven by music. All of these years working so hard at painting—it was harder for me than most. I didn’t have that clarity when I was young, and was always searching for who I am.” There’s an element of exteriorization—the ability to spiritually leave your physical body—in his works. His stream of consciousness is what allows him to have a complete explosion of authenticity and creativity onto the canvas, and I’d argue that this is what draws people in. Sure, the composition is excellent, but composition and technique are what you learn from practicing. It’s passion and something greater than yourself that is what truly makes you an artist.  

Jones Beach / Acrylic, Oil, Charcoal on Canvas / 66 x 96 in.

Rubenstein makes it a point to only work on raw canvas. The raw canvas is extremely gritty, and the layers that he builds on top of it are what makes his work very tactile. His New York roots inspire him to want the work to feel like “a dirty sidewalk.” The grit and realness contrasted with the vibrancy and personality of his characters are what makes his pieces authentically his.  

Rubenstein’s style took years to develop. He describes his work in one word: eclectic. He went on to say that many artists purposely avoid that terminology because they don’t want to be pigeonholed, so to speak. “Eclectic” art becomes difficult to sell. Rubenstein doesn’t shy away from this, though. It is those elements of spontaneity and randomness that make that word, “eclectic,” truly work for him.  

My thing—there’s a familiarity of my work which is what makes it sell. People like the fact that there are elements from famous artists, whether it be Picasso or anyone else. Key word is amalgamation.” That word came up numerous times in my conversation with him: amalgamation. The cumulation of various stylistic influences from all of these separate artists in many genres that work together to support and give structure to Rubenstein’s vision. To say that his work is solely influenced by one artist demeans it—it almost accuses it of being derivative, which could not be farther from reality.  

Diamond Girl Jr. / Acrylic, Oil, Charcoal on Canvas / 48 x 60 in.

I walk the other way from that. I’m so appreciative of so many different styles– the abstract movement of the 60s with Pollock, Kooning, etc. I get little pieces from every artist. Especially Gorky, and the study of organic shapes through a microscope. Those shapes have worked their way into all of my pieces.”  

He’s exactly right. The soft, floating objects that are the focus of his pieces are never based in reality. They’ve been referred to as “whimsical” in the past, but Rubenstein isn’t a big fan of this characterization, seeing as how that descriptor often takes away the gravity from a piece. He does, however, understand why some of his characters have been described in this way.  

They’re non-binary, biomorphic figures.” Genderless and without species, his characters don’t fit into any binary: they’re simply alive. “That’s Picasso,” he continued, “the concept of cubism and taking an object and breaking it down to build it back up. What Picasso did was birth this surrealistic approach to painting, and it changed everything. People don’t think in realistic terms anymore, the world itself is abstract.”  

There are two famous Picasso quotes that have stuck with Rubenstein throughout his artistic career. The first, “I do not paint what I see, I paint what I know.” This idiom is invisibly engrained into all of his works. That is the key to abstraction. The second is in response to when he’s asked how long a piece has taken him: “How long did it take me? A lifetime.”  

The Needle’s Eye / Acrylic, Oil, Charcoal on Canvas / 64 x 86 in.

Having the ability to take my life and tell my story—because I’m a storyteller—this was a different way to tell my story. For many years, to become so good with paint and the products that go together to make a good painting, I’m now so free from trying to figure out who I am and what I’m doing, it’s a joy to create a new story every day. I don’t get stuck on paintings. I don’t think and wonder—to me, that takes away the joy, the spontaneity, the stream of consciousness of making something from scratch. It’s an attack—it’s everything I am. All the energy that’s balled up inside of me, it explodes onto those canvases.”  

Each painting takes him a different amount of time because they come from a very real and authentic place, unquantifiable by a time frame. As what can only be called an “action painter,” his work is spontaneous rather than limited by the genre of abstraction or expressionism.  

Near the end of our conversation, one question burned at the forefront of my mind: Do you think that your artistic gift is innate, or that it is cultivated as a product of your environment? His answer?  

I don’t believe in that—I believe that if nourished, artists will blossom. I don’t believe that doing what I do can be taught.” Anyone, with enough practice, can learn to draw. It is allowing that energy, that aforementioned stream of consciousness to come through onto your works that takes something from being one-dimensional to inherently profound.  

He left me with one crucial piece of advice: “You’re only as important as you make yourself out to be.” To establish yourself as one of the greats, you need to believe in what you are doing. Mr. Rubenstein believes in his work, and we think you should as well.