22-Aug, 04:14

06:58, March 23 280 0

2017-03-23 06:58:02
This Artist Is Calvin Klein’s Latest Muse

Blue-chip art adorns many suave Manhattan addresses these days: Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Rabbit (Red)” at 51 Astor Place, James Turrell’s glowing “Light Box” at 505 Fifth Avenue, Yayoi Kusama’s giant bronze pumpkin at the Sky building on West 42nd Street.

But few have taken it to the extreme that Sterling Ruby, one of the most dazzling contemporary artists to emerge out of Los Angeles in recent years, has done at the Calvin Klein headquarters at 205 West 39th Street.

Under the patronage of Raf Simons, the brand’s chief creative director, Mr. Ruby has transformed the towering Art Deco building in his kaleidoscopic vision.

The first three floors of the facade have been painted black. An assemblage of pompoms, chrome buckets and Calvin Klein briefs (Mr. Ruby’s own) hangs over the ground-floor space where a runway show was staged last month. The top-floor showroom, once a minimalist white cube, is swathed in hand-painted wallpaper and fabrics with Mr. Ruby’s signature mix of bleach stains and red-and-blue splotches.

“Raf kept saying, ‘I’m getting nervous, there’s so much red,’” said Mr. Ruby, 45, who is ruggedly handsome and has a sweep of long hair tucked behind his round face. “But that’s why I love working with him: Both of us can vent and come to terms with what our differences are.”

And that is only for the office. In a highbrow reinterpretation of Calvin Klein’s iconic ads, the brand’s current campaign features underwear-clad models standing in front Mr. Ruby’s oversize tapestry, “Flag (4791).” But his most visible project will be unveiled this summer, when Mr. Ruby reimagines Calvin Klein’s flagship store on Madison Avenue, as was first reported in a recent article for Surface magazine.

At first glance, it might seem odd for an artist of Mr. Ruby’s rarefied stature (he currently has a show at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, and his works can fetch $1 million and higher) to wade in the comparatively shallow waters of retail architecture.

But for Mr. Ruby, whose multidisciplinary, genre-fluid artworks encompass such diverse mediums as autobiographical quilting and male pornography, Calvin Klein is just one more addition to his toolbox.

“If we’re talking about gender, sexuality, highs, lows, politics — all of those things can be played within the context of this massive corporate American brand, too,” said Mr. Ruby, who typically employs the psychoanalytic method when explaining his art. “Maybe these spaces could be a platform for the hypocrisies of both the art and fashion worlds.”

Mr. Ruby’s foray into the fashion industry is inextricably tied to Mr. Simons. The pair met in 2005 during a studio visit orchestrated by Mr. Ruby’s former gallerist in Los Angeles, Marc Foxx. There was an instant creative spark between the two outsiders who found refuge in punk music.

“I know that I share something with Sterling: an aesthetic sensibility, a thought process, something in our backgrounds,” said Mr. Simons, who is an avid collector of contemporary art. “But I never forget that Sterling is an artist I greatly admire and I am not an artist. He is a separate entity who works in a different way, in a different field.”

Mr. Ruby, for his part, rarely acknowledges any distinction between making art and making clothes. For nearly a decade, his wardrobe has consisted largely of clothing that he makes himself, including paint-splattered black hoodies and bleached denim jackets constructed from salvaged fabrics in his 120,000-square-foot studio in Vernon, Calif. “I am just cannibalizing my own work that I wanted to wear,” he said.

Their shared interests quickly grew into a prolific partnership. In 2008, Mr. Ruby helped design a Tokyo boutique for Mr. Simons’s namesake label, spattering the stark white space with splashes of blue paint. The following year, they produced a denim collection incorporating the artist’s bleach pattern.

In 2012, when Mr. Simons was tapped as the creative director at Christian Dior, they collaborated on fabrics for his debut show. (The project was memorialized in the 2015 documentary, “Dior and I,” which captures the drama behind Mr. Simons’s first collection, and how the atelier struggled with fabricating Mr. Ruby’s color-saturated motif.)

Two years later, they designed a small-batch men’s wear line, Raf Simons/Sterling Ruby, that included a hand-painted canvas parka with a reported $30,500 price tag.

But their latest collaboration is arguably the most involved. For Mr. Simons, who left Antwerp, Belgium, and now lives in New York for the first time, Mr. Ruby not only acts as an unofficial brand ambassador and image consultant for Calvin Klein, but also serves as a kind of cultural translator.

“I suppose I understand what Calvin Klein means from the outside,” Mr. Simons said, “but Sterling understands what Calvin Klein means from the inside — he’s American.”

“It was an invitation for him to imagine something, and I had total trust in what he might imagine,” he added. “That relationship, that complete trust in somebody, that’s what evolves over time.”

Creative marriages between fashion designers and artists may not be new, but they speak to a modern sentiment wary of a celebrity-saturated culture.

Andy Warhol did a silk-screen portrait of Yves Saint Laurent in 1974. Vanessa Beecroft worked with Helmut Lang in 2002 and, more recently, Kanye West. Takashi Murakami created monogram handbags for Louis Vuitton in 2003. Gucci commissioned GucciGhost, a Brooklyn street artist, for multiple collections last year.

It’s rare, however, for an artist and designer to collaborate as exhaustively and continuously as Mr. Ruby and Mr. Simons have. Their current alchemy involving high art with low-waisted underwear gives Calvin Klein, arguably one of today’s most influential (and commercially successful) American fashion houses, a distinctly European flair.

The timing has never been more right.

“The industry is tiring of the Hollywood embeddedness in fashion where you can see the dollar signs all over the actress who was paid X amount of dollars to sit front row,” said Nicole Phelps, the director of Vogue Runway, a part of the magazine’s web portal. “By equating fine art with celebrity, Raf is putting Sterling’s work on the same level as these faces that are so overexposed.”

Mr. Ruby’s fascination with clothing goes back to childhood. Growing up on a farm in New Freedom, Pa., he created his own patchwork fashion inspired by the D.I.Y. look of post-hardcore bands like Black Flag.

In 1999, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago and soon after met his future wife, the photographer Melanie Schiff. In 2003, he moved to Los Angeles to attend a master of fine arts program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., where he was a teaching assistant for the artist Mike Kelley and had also amassed $300,000 in debt. (Mr. Ruby still lives in Los Angeles with his wife, their two children and his daughter from a previous marriage.)

His fortunes changed with his first solo show, “Supermax 2005,” at the Marc Foxx Gallery in 2005. Mr. Ruby’s gritty pastiche of graffiti techniques and allusions to prison surveillance jump-started his metamorphosis into a mercurial art star of the highest order.

Three years later, a solo show at Metro Pictures in Chelsea featuring amorphously-shaped ceramics garnered exalted praise. Roberta Smith, the art critic of The New York Times, in her review called him “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century.”

His works have continued to mutate and turn more wildly imaginative, and have taken such disparate forms as pillowlike sculptures shaped like vampire mouths, dripping polyurethane structures, spray paintings, videos, and monumental works made from submarine parts and other found materials. In 2014, he was included in the Whitney Biennial and his beanbag-size ceramic basins, which resemble deformed ashtrays, were declared best in show by Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine.

As Mr. Ruby’s reputation and the work’s scale grew, so did the value of his pieces. At a Christie’s auction in 2013, one of his acrylic and enamel paintings went for over $1.7 million — about five times its estimate. His anarchic work is now in the private collections of Ingvild Goetz, Maurice Marciano and other notable collectors.

But it hasn’t been all roses. Mr. Ruby is quick to point out that there has been the occasional gatekeeper who scoffs at his entanglements between art and fashion. “There are so many different levels of hypocrisies that are involved in both worlds,” he said. “I’ve never cared, but they have.”

But for the most part, he appears to be exempt from any real snobbery.

“The art world might be suspicious of an artist working hand-in-hand with any kind of industry,” said Philippe Vergne, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (A selection of Mr. Ruby’s sculptures from the museum’s private collection opens on April 2.) “From the commercial side, it will always be someone’s job to make sure that an artist is neither underexposed or overexposed.”

“But everything I’ve seen from Sterling and Raf working together is a creative dialogue rather than using the artist as an added value,” Mr. Vergne added. “It’s not like Sterling is jumping from house to house.”

Serena Cattaneo Adorno, the Gagosian’s director, agreed.

“We’re not making a distinction between his art and fashion practices,” she said.

On a balmy Wednesday earlier this month, three hours before his latest show opened at the Gagosian Gallery, Mr. Ruby was characteristically low key. He had just finished installing the show, which includes new sculptures and paintings — among them a ceramic basin that resembles an ashen dinosaur nest.

With the gallery quiet, he walked to one of the smaller fabric paintings — “CRUX. YELL.” — and spoke softly about how it had taken a dozen attempts to get the forest-green hue just right.

But as always, his work is not confined to just the gallery’s walls.

As Mr. Ruby prepared for the opening night, he wore one of his black hooded sweatshirts and dark denim jeans with a backside label that read “S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA.”

“It’s nice to play a brand,” Mr. Ruby said, before quickly adding, “not necessarily become one.”