On a quiet day, most museums can feel a bit like ancient tombs, cool chambers full of valuables that once belonged to the rich and the dead. Ruby City, opening in 2019, is San Antonio’s newest, most architecturally significant and contemporary-focused art museum. Plus, thanks to its unusual origin story, it’s probably the most haunted-feeling art space in Texas. The new exhibit “Tangible/Nothing,” now through July 2023, plays on Ruby City’s otherworldly atmosphere with an array of conceptual artworks that work on spectral presence and evocative absence.
Ruby City is the only museum I know of based on the dream vision of a dying mega-collector — salsa heiress, art patron, and lucid dreamer Linda Pace, who died in 2007 at age 62. Speed. His tragic family life, art-world friendships, civic ambitions and ways of seeing the world are etched into the collection, if you know how to look for them. As such, Ruby City can feel like a physical manifestation of its strange, dominant spirit.
“Tangible/Nothing” is Ruby City’s second attempt to showcase the breadth of Pace’s collection through a long-running survey program that takes up much of the main building. The museum’s first main-space show, “Waking Dream,” debuted at the building’s grand opening in 2019. Where “Waking Dream” leans more toward surrealism and flights of fancy, the 35 artists on “Tangible/Nothing” are for the most part more decadent, attentive to traces of things left behind and suggestions of things barely there. For example, above the entry staircase hang two simple but resonant pieces side by side: a Mona Hatum piece on wax paper that resembles a grave rub but reproduces the surface of a kitchen colander rather than a tombstone carving, and Willy Cole’s Trance Dance i, a spiral of scorches created by an iron on stretched canvas. Both works reduce painting and printmaking to their ideal form, the physical reality of an object making its mark on a surface. Hatoum’s is subtle and Cole’s is violent, but both suggest domesticity and submission.
Pace was more or less raised to be an upper-crust San Antonio housewife, but she rebelled by following Duckdown as an artist, collector, and patron, eventually moving downtown to an apartment that overlooked the present-day Ruby City site. Art that reflected the subtle pressures of domestic life clearly appealed to him. A more extensive work on similar themes is by Katie Pell Beechen stove. Pell, a vibrant figure on the San Antonio art scene until her death in 2019—like Pace, she died relatively young of cancer—used her Bichen series to playfully imagine a parallel reality in which women “drive” kitchen appliances like cars. -Culture men soup up their rides. Beechen stove The inside of the stove is lined with fur and can shoot jets of fire several feet into the air. A photo of Pell displaying the stove on the wall of Ruby City next to his sculpture in the Smorium.
Nor is it the only posthumous tribute to “Tangible/Nothing”. Inside the wall recesses of the same gallery, the openings are covered with sepia vellum, forming a multiple shoe shape. this work Atrabillarios By Doris Salcedo, who preserved these found footwear items that once belonged to women who disappeared during the country’s late-20th-century civil war in Colombia. Next door, Dario Robleto, who started his career in San Antonio and now lives in Houston, contributed Candles do not burn, sunlight does not shine, death does not occur, which at first appears to resemble a Hubble Space Telescope photograph of distant galaxies In fact, Robletto collected glimpses of light from album covers of live concert recordings by the likes of Patsy Cline, Marvin Gaye, and Bob Marley—talented popular musicians who died young. These long-ago stage lights appear to swirl together in what we perceive as a vast and mysterious universe.
Cosmos is a major thread in “Tangible/Nothing”. There are other star-themed pieces alongside Robleto’s work, including an etching of a mirror of Pace’s birth star profile (a concept used in astrology) by Milagros de la Torre. Then there is Teresita Fernandez Night Writing (Tristan and Isolde), an image of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, with holes in a braille pattern, through which viewers can glimpse themselves in a mirror behind the image. Both works evoke the idea of finding oneself in nature or the cosmos. Fernández’s work is perhaps the most beautiful in the exhibition, and it has a special resonance here. The artist also designed Chris Park across the street in Ruby City, dedicated to Pace’s only son, who died of a drug overdose and whose own birth stars are embedded in the park’s concrete walkway. These “stars” lit up the concrete at night, and Pace could look down from the window of the apartment next door where he lived.
Ruby City’s collection in general, and “Tangible/Nothing” in particular, can feel a bit like a hall of mirrors, where everything is in some sense truly a reflection of Linda Pace. Many work views—eg Bullet-proof piñata by David Avalos, a hanging lead sculpture that greets visitors as they ascend the staircase or by Paul Pfeiffer Miss America, a video of a beauty queen with everything but her crown restored from the photo, removing all possible human error—was an Artpace commission. (ArtPace, founded by Pace in 1993, offers residencies and exhibitions in San Antonio to a growing list of local and out-of-town artists.) Other artists included in “Tangible/Nothing,” such as British art star du jour Cornelia Parker — who contributes here poison And Anti-venomTwo common images—made of rattlesnake venom and its antidote, respectively—former residents whose Paces continue to collect long after their Artpaces are gone.
The deeper one goes into “Tangible/Nothing,” the more the works seem direct about Pace. Pace’s handbag features a “purse portrait” by the late San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez. Nina Kachadourian photographed Pace’s bookshelf. And Adam Schreiber fills a wall with photographs of Pace’s art collection in his otherwise-empty Camp Street apartment taken four years after his death. In these photos, one can see some of the pieces included in “Tangible/Nothing”, but also some that didn’t make it. One of the works you won’t find without Schreiber’s photographs is a colorful Gerhard Richter painting, Abstracts Build (774-4)which the Linda Pace Foundation controversially scrapped and sold in 2014 for $15 million. According to Kelly O’Connor, head of collections at Ruby City and Pace, the entire construction budget for the Ruby City building was more or less the proceeds from the sale of former studio assistants.
In this image of a Richter painting that no longer belongs to the museum, but the museum would not physically exist if it were not sold, we find ourselves contemplating something truly mysterious: the great power of money over art, and the subtle power of art to turn money into monuments and transform the culture of a city. If nothing else, “Tangible/Nothing” will connect viewers to that uneasy, supernatural force that runs through every item of pace and scene. It’s enough to send chills down one’s spine, like seeing a ghost.