November 20, 2005
With artist, entrepreneur, publisher, gallerist, Abraham Lubelski, anything that engages his attention and imagination is possible. Five years ago, not long after I launched Maverick Arts Magazine as an eletter, he was one of the first to respond. Abraham invited me to submit Maverick articles for republication on his website and in the print version of New York Arts Magazine. This continued for some time, until a hiatus of the past couple of years, when, as a result of mutual commitments and schedules, we fell out of contact. He is constantly on the road to global art fairs and commutes to galleries he operates in Berlin and Beijing. The usual response to attempts to contact him by phone is, “Abraham is in a meeting.”
A couple of years ago, however, we discussed the possibilities of an exhibition or project with the program I run for the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University. About a year ago, he wanted to confirm and pin down a date. But when I asked what he planned to show the response was evasive. “It’s too soon to say and I don’t want to lock in as I prefer to be fresh and spontaneous,” would be a typical response. As a curator, I try to work with strong artists, give them room to create, and trust that we will be mutually satisfied with the results. After a number of years of functioning in that manner I am pleased to report about a 90% success rate. While all projects have not turned out as anticipated, overwhelmingly, they have fulfilled goals and projections by providing lively and informative programming, within the freedom and flexibility of a non profit, academic setting.
Abraham was making me increasingly nervous and difficult to pin down. Getting ever closer to the date and deadlines there was still no clear understanding of his project. At one point, there was a conference call that involved my associate and installer, James Manning, an individual of considerable brilliance in that capacity. Abraham wanted to know what media resources would be available including computers and video projectors. A number of possibilities were discussed but with no clear assurances of the actual project. He indicated that he wanted to come and engage with the space, staff, and students and from that energy to configure his project. Yes, that is a bit looser than the norm, but, again, I try to trust the artist and an instinct that they want to represent themselves well.
So Jim and I were floored when, at the last minute, he sent a press release that stated that “The Show Has Been Cancelled.” We were perplexed how to respond to that, literally or figuratively? It proved to be, well, more or less, both. And more. There were exchanges of e mail for clarification. His responses were provocative and dodgey. I found myself cornered into being more avant-garde than I necessarily wanted to be. This is ok if you believe in and are committed to the work. But, frankly, I still not sure. Which amuses the artist as precisely his intention. Was he an artist, I mused during several restless nights of tossing and turning, or a con artist? While I think of myself as a savvy guy, was I being played? And, if so, why? Just what was the motive? Or objective? Hasn’t this all be done before? And, why me?
Weighing all the possible options I called his bluff. But that also entailed a lot of work. First there were two intense weekends of house cleaning, I did my share and Astrid doubled that. She insists on having everything ship shape for guests. I went out and dropped a c note on a nifty air mattress. Several days prior to his arrival we blew it up and gave it a couple of test flops about. Then there was the matter of explaining to colleagues and superiors that the gallery may actually be empty. The artist designated for the Project Space was miffed to be sure. Why was he consigned to the smaller space when the main gallery might be left vacant? There was no way adequately to respond. The press release that I wrote stated what may or may not happen. So everyone was prepared for the non event of the season which just may or may not have happened.
Well, it did all right. Last night actually. Overall, it was less and more than one would expect. Abraham’s best and worst quality is that he is utterly charming, massively persuasive, and completely sincere. Over the past three days of round the clock dialogue I was utterly seduced. Again. Those around us, peers, colleagues, superiors were less so. But he seemed committed to engage with anyone and everyone who had a question or response to his persona, strategy and project. One student, Michelle, among our very best and brightest, responded that she was “mixed.” She sat with him in the gallery while the interview was video recorded and projected on the wall. The dialogue was deep and insightful. I asked if it presented possibilities for her own work. There was a complex but astonishingly meaningful response mostly about her need to establish herself and not having the luxury for such an existential approach.
A number of other individuals- students, faculty, and guests- sat with him on a couch and engaged in the projection/ documentation. On the wall behind he wrote in rough hand “The Show Has Been Cancelled” and under it five lines stating his reasons including, what seems to be an obsession with him “I would rather be making love.” I accused him of being a randy old goat. Particularly since we have both just turned 65. We compared notes on Social Security and Medicaid. I showed him my brand new senior’s pass for the T and he wondered how he might get one for the New York metro.
Truth is the opening was sparsely attended. There was strong competition from the “Drawing Show” at the Boston Center for the Arts and a homecoming for Miroslav Antic at Kidder Smith. I snuck out to say hello to Miro, up from Florida, and to arrange a phoner next week. Some folks trickled in and moved down the hall for the Andrew Tavarelli show of digital prints conflating water colors and Far Eastern photography. Later, Andy sat on the couch for a chin wag with his fellow artist. They compared travel notes and later we all adjourned for take out Thai food in the home of a remarkable collector of Far Eastern tribal art. Roger Dashow and Andy have trekked together in the out back.
Over breakfast this morning, Abraham and Astrid compared memories of World War Two, experiences of refuges camps, and the psyche of being immigrants to America, with its needs for survival. This is a topic that Abraham and I had engaged in and she added insights to the dialogue. Basically, I was trying to understand what drives him and motivates his eccentric and confrontational style that is embedded not just in conceptual performances, such as that he staged in Boston, but that informs virtually all of his many and diverse projects and passions. Just what is the root of the mayhem; the controlled chaos that is NY Arts, and all of its tributaries? So much of what he does defies logic. Which only makes him smile like the Cheshire Cat. The grin remaining as the face fades away.
Truth is he defies logic. Like most artists, if he sat down and figured out answers as to how and why he is doing what he does, well, he probably wouldn’t do it. Because it doesn’t make any sense. Basically, how do you execute a business plan that has no business being a business? Or, as NY gallerist Stefan Stux told him, “Running a magazine (two actually and a website as well as galleries in Germany, New York and China) is even crazier than running a gallery.” And Stefan, who has proved to have nine lives in the art business, knows what he is talking about.
As we walked along the streets of Boston he seemed to press uncomfortably close to my left side. It invaded my space and I found ways to dodge away. It was only later I found the reason. He is deaf on one side. Seems he fell out of a cattle car of humanity as a refugee from Siberia during the war. His father, a Polish partisan, died in Russia just months after his birth. Somehow or other his mother managed to keep him alive under the harshest conditions imaginable. She got to America and remarried so he has a step sibling. He describes trying to break away and find his own identity. Eventually, a BA degree from Hunter College was followed by off and on years teaching English in NY public schools. Marriage, family and the usual ensued until he got fed up but mostly just bored. He describes that as his most terrible curse. For example, if he planned the Boston project months prior to its execution this would have bored him. Better, he says, to plunge in and deal with what results; to explore limitless possibilities, and not be tied down to the predictable.
Ten years ago, almost simultaneously, he started the NYarts website and print magazine. The monthly nut started at about $5,000 and is now more like $60,000. This includes the mortgage on the 5,000 sq ft loft space on Broadway in Lower Manhattan which houses the magazine, gallery, living space for himself, as well as separate quarters for his wife, Anna Maria, an architect, and some space he rents. Today, he states that the website gets a million hits each month or about 50,000 hits a day. He claims a readership of 65,000 for the magazine which he states he prints because he has to. He claims than anyone in the print business is loosing money from the New York Times to Art Forum. But that it is part of the credibility that is demanded to keep all the other projects up and running. Including a presence at the major art fairs like Basel Miami where he will exhibit in a couple of weeks.
Because of the range of his activity he states that he can stay in his NY arts office and receive a constant stream of visitors from writers and artists to curators and other dignitaries. He gets out and about socially to sense what is going on but states that he spends perhaps too much time doing so. As to his status in the art world that’s hard to evaluate. He started NYarts precisely because there was no such vehicle out there that was fresh and open to dialogue. In ten years it has found its niche but Abraham goes out of his way to keep it edgy and unpredictable. There has been a steady rotation of writers, editors and staff. Some of his ideas, like chopping off articles in the magazine to be continued on the web site, are just plain idiotic. I have made that point to him endlessly to no avail. He will drive you into the ground with his counter arguments. Abraham is mendacious to a fault. But perhaps we come back to him precisely because of the madness. If you want something that makes sense read Art Forum or Art in America. Problem is that they are boring. NYarts, arguably, has its share of mediocre writing about second rate artists. Abraham counters questioning my right and authority to make that judgment. He also confided frustration that despite the freedom he offers to writers they are overly cautious. They are inhibited by career ambitions and strategies. He tries to find writers willing to take chances that share his vision, irony and urge for anarchy.
So I view him as the Pied Piper of the art world. Luring us out of the city while dancing to his merry tune. Leading us on to what and where? It is about desperation, the need to be loved and accepted. To get published, seen, endorsed and recognized. Abraham is a conveyor of hope for many. With him anything is possible. He says, “I keep trying, putting ideas out there, engaging in dialogue.”
This morning, after breakfast with Astrid, I offered to show him around Boston’s SOWA or alternative gallery scene. Everywhere we visited he engaged in dialogues with the artists and gallerists. Exchanged cards and information. Promised to follow up on connections. Made arrangements to meet and talk further in Miami. At Samson Projects the young gallerist, Camilo Alvarez, needed no introduction. “I used to work for Exit Art,” he explained. Ah yes, of course. Then Camillo mentioned that Abraham’s daughter had recently shown in Boston. That was news to me.
Perhaps the most fascinating interaction came when I introduced him to Steve Zevitas the publisher of New American Painting and owner of OSP Gallery. They seemed to glom onto each other engaging in a dialogue about printing, binding, chopping, mailing, cost per unit, and other shop talk that had me as an attentive listener. Rarely do you get insights on that level. Abraham suggested that they meet again in NY or Miami and further explore possibilities. Walking back to the car he repeated a refrain heard frequently in the past few days “It is better to collaborate than compete.”
After such intense dialogue it was a relief to drop him off at the bus stop. But I came away energized. As is always the case when I interact with him, lots of mixed thoughts and emotions. But with a tremendous upside for future projects, hopes and dreams. How to explain that to the boss, come Monday morning, when he views the empty gallery with nothing but a raw text written on the wall? Perhaps we’ll just cancel the show.
"This Show Is Cancelled" was on view November 19, 2005 at NESAD/Sufflolk.
All images are courtesy of the Charles Giuliano.