Artists on Coping: Heather and Raphael Rubinstein

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Heather and Raphael Rubinstein

Heather and Raphael Rubinstein divide their time between New York City, northeastern Pennsylvania and Houston. Heather’s most recent exhibitions of her paintings were at the beginning of 2020 in New York, pre-covid, with a solo in Houston at McClain Gallery. Raphael had two books come out in early March as New York was shutting down: a monograph on artist Guillermo Kuitca, published by Lund Humphries, London, as part of their Contemporary Painters Series edited by Barry Schwabsky; and Albert Oehlen: Spiegelbilder 1982-1990, published by Holzwarth Publications, Galerie Max Hetzler Berlin and Nahmad Contemporary. Planned for 2020 was a new curatorial project of theirs: an exhibition on the topic of Poet+Painter collaborations—scheduled to open at a downtown non-profit in New York (pre-covid)—and in many ways, an extension of their 2019 “Under-Erasure” exhibition that took place at Pierogi Gallery in New York. In lieu of in-person projects, Heather is working on expanding their “Under-Erasure” digital archive, publishing an Under-Erasure image-book, and a virtual Poet+Painter exhibition. Raphael is currently writing The Miraculous: New York—with episodes appearing monthly in The Brooklyn Rail —a sequel to his book, The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014). They are currently working towards publishing The Miraculous: New York as a public art project in New York for 2021-22.

AS: How are you coping?

HR + RR: We’ve been in a state of shock, but it’s slowly starting to wear off. Taking daily walks and staying active with self-created projects has been good for us—though the days still seem to blur together. To be honest, we feel privileged to be able to say something so absurd. In the beginning of March, as we left Houston, our first home project was building an indoor garden system—growing plants from seeds with grow lights and planters—which resulted in Heather writing pandemic-related-lessons-on-gardening. Harry, our fifteen year old son, is building a wood shop in our garage, taking inventory of tools, lumber, nails and screws: his first project was constructing a work table. Now he is planning a new fencing system for our garden plot, practicing for hopeful baseball tryouts in the fall, cooking exotic dinner recipes, and taking classes online. Our daughter, Silvia—also fifteen, and a student at LaGuardia high school—began learning Adobe Creative Suite and make digital art in Photoshop and Illustrator. Silvia has also started an at-home-art-intensive course taught by the both of us. Her first assignment: reading texts on the artists Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston and Cy Twombly, and to make work based on those readings.

As a family, we’ve been baking, gardening, landscaping and bingeing TV shows together: “The Watchmen,” “Game of Thrones,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Euphoria,” “The Morning Show,” and, “Mrs. America,” to name a few. Spending time with the kids has been our best coping mechanism, but Raphael also finds refuge in his poetry books, feeding birds, or attending the Brooklyn Rail’s New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversations, whereas Heather has been working on the house, researching family ancestry, making films of daily life, interviewing Raphael about his life, books, thoughts on art and artists, documentary-style and building her own books. As a highly-collaborative team, we both are really trying to find ways to make work that feels right for this moment: Raphael has been reading books from his shelves he never felt he had time for, he’s also writing about his mother and her death, or her obsession with it, scanning and cataloging family photographs, making paintings, and composing short poems on a manual typewriter. Heather has been concentrating on new large-scale field paintings, small plaid paintings on paper, watercolor studies, sewn works, experiments in crochet, and filling blank books with collage-paintings—she’s on her third one as of June 2020.

{Untitled}, 2020, Book page fragments on {Untitled}, 2020, Book page fragments on canvas with paint (RR) canvas with paint (RR)

AS: How has your routine changed?

HR + RR: The entire family still gets up before 8am, but we are now enjoying the freedom of not having deadlines (for exhibitions and essays) and yet, missing the motivation and excitement of deadlines. In the beginning, we were glued to NPR, our day structured around the news, waiting for Cuomo’s daily briefings. Now we’re supporting our kids as they complete their at-home remote high school, spending a lot of time together as a family, which we feel has been a gift—puzzling complex art puzzles, playing Cards against humanity, growing and planting flowers, reading books, reading poetry aloud, making art, listening to and sharing music, learning to play instruments, learning to cook and bake and dance.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

HR + RR: Philip Guston’s confession about how he felt during the Vietnam War comes to mind: “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” The feeling of being completely helpless, trapped, hands tied, stuck, limited, compromised: feelings we both have struggled with since our mutual divorces and subsequent marriage; feelings made even more present by the pandemic. At first it was more like panic, not knowing when we would see the children again and the worry of them getting sick, or of ourselves getting sick and dying before saying goodbye (Heather has a compromised immune system).

Now it’s more the stress of the unknown— not knowing when we will go back to work, when will it be safe to resume life without having to social distance; when can we see friends and family, when can the kids see their friends, or go back to school? When can we return to New York and Heather to her studio—I guess stress is the best word to describe confronting the unknown, maybe it’s more like worry—living in some kind of limbo is complicated—parenting has entered a new level, as has co-parenting— supporting the kids on how to deal with the new “abnormal,” and to not fear the unwanted and the unexpected.

5/30/2020: Poetry on a Baby Hermes, (RR) paired with (HR) watercolor plaid painting on paper

AS: What matters most right now?

HR + RR: Family. The November election. The Climate. Facts. Attempts at Voter Suppression. Gerrymandering. Getting rich assholes out of government, out of power. Eliminate Citizens United. Eliminate Facebook and FoxNews. Eliminate racism, murder, systemic bias, placating, numbing the masses with television, make lobbying illegal, get rid of our two party system, eliminate the 10 wealthiest people ruling the country, eliminate the law that gives corporations the same rights as citizens. Eliminate billionaires earning billions during a global pandemic. Eliminate the commodification of civil rights and liberties, of human life, of human beings, the commodification of health care, water, electricity, internet.

Before COVID-19 hit, we were watching the impeachment trial — let us not forget how the senate Republicans voted to not have witnesses and testimony come forward, (John Bolton), that would incriminate the President and force an impeachment in the senate. After the trial, we watched as Americans cringed at the word, “Socialist,” when Republicans accused Bernie Sanders of being one, because he used the word to describe his political leanings as a social-democrat.

Post COVID-19, when average Americans had to pay upwards of $1,600 to receive a covid test at their doctor’s office (and even more in medical bills from covid-related hospital stays), Americans cried for help — and received it — highlighting a healthcare solution which in the end sounded a lot like social-democracy; a healthcare plan espoused by Social-Democrats like Bernie Sanders.

What matters most now? Everything. If all Americans do not start thinking and enacting more progressive laws like in European countries (think Germany or France), America doesn’t matter—because America won’t have any kind of future for ourselves, or for our children. Look at the spread of covid in this country over the past six months, and the resulting deaths. Or more recently, the insistence at reopening, and the upcoming planned rallies by the RNC —ignorance begets ignorance.

Say His Name, 2020, Latex on bed sheet, 120 x 90” (HR)

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

HR + RR: Since no one knows how long we will be living under pandemic conditions, making plans of any kind seems foolish, but one of the things we talk about is how the communities we are part of might look different as we emerge from lockdown. Will New York City once again become an affordable place to live? Why does the art world’s economic structure have to mirror (or collude with) the income inequality that plagues the wider world? Maybe we need more Bloomsbury and less Bloomberg. What can we do to remake art schools so that earning an MFA doesn’t require young artists going into debt? Is it time to look back at alternative education models like Subjects of the Artist, Black Mountain College and, more recently, The Bruce High Quality Foundation University?

Perhaps it’s time for artists to take back their work from the clutches of the 10 percent, the same class who mangle our political system, earn billions on our backs, sell and resell our work on our names; those that destroy and corrupt the social and cultural fabric of our country like grifters all while preying on the weak, from their sterile, white-walled mausoleums and celebrity-filled galas above dark, artwork-filled, ice-cold basements.

Pandemic Lesson No Two, 2020, Typewriting poetry in the time of COVID-19, (HR)

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: