Permanent Installation at Broadway Gallery: 250,000 Works On Paper
Some artists burst then fall. Some burst and persist. Most never burst, meaning they never have their Warholian ten minutes — now ten seconds, soon too be ten nanoseconds. And then again, some edge their way, from here to there, in what used to be called the underground. Underground implies disappearance by choice. Who would choose that? And why? By “underground” I mean what Marcel Duchamp meant when he said late in life way after The Large Glass he had “gone underground,” implying at that point in time a correspondence to the French underground of the Second World War and perhaps the Beat Generation underground of the ‘50s in the U.S. Both involved strategies of concealment for survival, of resistance, and perhaps a little sabotage. But, of course, in Duchamp’s case, it was in the realm of art and in the name of art.
After the convulsive late ‘60s, some of us disappeared but remained in full view, camouflaged by a role-change. Or, using the technique explained by Edgar Allen Poe’s Purloined Letter, were hiding in plain sight.
We may still not be in a position to determine which kind of artist Abraham Lubelski is, but I would vote for a new category: the underground artist now reborn, or the resurrectionist. Lubelski certainly burst on the scene in 1969 with his artwork made of 250,000 dollar bills. That was his ten minutes.
He made it into Life magazine with the headline “A Creative Interest in Cash: Art You Can Bank On.” The occasion was a theme exhibition he had pulled together for the Chelsea National Bank. One of the other artists in the show was Andy Warhol, represented by his drawing of a crumpled dollar bill. We know this because it’s in the background of the Life photo of Lubelski leaning with his right forearm on the quarter-of-a-million bale of dollar bills, his left hand hooked on the left pocket of his jeans, right foot up on the wheeled skid. He, the brief exposition said, “had spent all of 15 minutes assembling the work, had to borrow what he calls his ‘sculptural daydream.’ The bank didn’t have enough cash on hand, so it had to borrow the money from the Federal Reserve. The bank also had to post guards around the sculpture and put it in the vault at night. On exhibit for five days, the sculpture ran up a bill of $300, because of the $60 daily interest on the money.”
This was Lubelski’s Jackson Pollock moment. But what did it mean? Unlike Pollock, he didn’t have Clement Greenberg nominate him, in the pages of Life, as the greatest living artist.
Lubelski’s bail of dough was Found Art, in the tradition of Duchamp; it was Pop and yet it looked like post-minimal sculpture. The clue to the meaning of the sculpture is what Lubelski wrote a few years later:
“Art is not about money!”
A few pages later he types:
“Art is not a commodity. It is not money, power, illusion./ Art is a commodity. It is money, power, illusion. Invariably I have to make art, and occasionally enough money.” 1.
After his money piece, Lubelski became involved with the Streetworks cadre (of which I was a member). “Abraham Lubelski,” I wrote in the Village Voice, arranged for a rag and scrap paper storage and bailing company to leave its ground floor open to the public and one was able to walk around piles of beautiful, anti-formal, condensed mess.” Piles and bails. Later he installed a punch-clock in the lobby of the Architectural League of New York (as part of Streetworks V). And then he solicited background canvases for a zip-in shape. And then he “disappeared.” Actually, like many, he bailed out of America, Inc., living for a while on the island of Ibiza when it was still Bohemian. He began to make paintings again…
Nevertheless, from my point of view his next major work was/is 250,000 Works on Paper; Work in Progress.
Lubelski was born in Siberia. His mother and father were actors in the Yiddish theater and as a baby he traveled with them as they went from one displaced persons camp to another as entertainers. Many years later, in 1991, after a trip to Eastern Europe, he felt he had to respond to the holocaust. He began to make fast, almost abstract-expressionist paintings or drawings on paper. Once he reached the magic number of 250,000 he began displaying them in various ways at different venues: randomly on the floor, on shelves or tables, in neat piles. Viewers are allowed to select and keep one drawing for free. Numbers, like dollars, are no longer abstract:
It began with memories, experiences from childhood. 6,000,000 Jews murdered, a whole nation of 50,000,000 not to be forgiven, not for a single murder, not to forgive a single German past or future. Not to forget a single death of those millions…As a young person I couldn’t imagine so many murders or so many murderers, even after the images of mountains of shoes letters eyeglasses hair or corpses. 2.
In both major works — 250,000 Dollar Bills and 250,000 Works on Paper — the abstract is made concrete. The holocaust notwithstanding (which is a pretty big notwithstanding), both pieces are about art and money and imply an economic critique.
The drawings continue to this day.
But Lubelski embarked on another project: NY Arts Magazine, perhaps better characterized, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the NY Arts Empire, comprising magazine, website, newsletter, book publishing, art consultancy, traveling exhibitions, and presently galleries in New York, Berlin, and Beijing.
In my tenures as an arts administrator, I came to believe that non-profits arts organizations should not only be run like businesses, but in fact — since most businesses, even large corporations are so poorly run —must be run better than businesses.
Behind my back, Lubelski was set on proving the opposite: that businesses could be run like non-profits. By this I mean — and I think he means — not that art businesses (galleries, magazines, etc.) must loose money, but that they can succeed by being even more idealistic than their non-profit institutional opposites.
The problem with my theory that non-profits should be run like businesses is that non-profits are ultimately run by totally unqualified Boards of Directors, who are only rich by birth or luck and not because of any real business talent. The problem with the Lubelski’s theory is that you still have to pay the rent.
Although Lubelski like most artists uses various assistants, the “empire” is a one-man artwork and like all artworks of any relevancy is difficult to parse. The NY Arts Empire is business as an artwork in the Warholian sense but it does not conform to any known business plan or structure. The Empire facilitates art (and in some sense art writing). It is a for-profit operating as a not-for-profit; it is a not-for-profit disguised as a business. Just as his quarter-of-a-million-dollar sculpture can be seen as a de-fetishizing of cash (or maybe in retrospect as a farewell), and his 250,000 drawings as a de-fetishizing of art, his NY Arts project can be seen as a de-fetishizing of business or, perhaps simultaneously, of the non-profit world.
Andy Warhol once said that business was the new art. Was he right? I think only in the sense that business at its most entrepreneurial makes something out of nothing the way art does. Art transforms scraps of paper found in the street (Schwitters), things selected from any hardware store (Duchamp), toothpaste bought at Duane Read or dirty sand found at the beach (Perreault), a pile of dollar bills (Lubelski). Business transforms hopes into schemes; schemes into profit and jobs. Both offer more than meets the eye — or less. Both require imagination, faith, and a wink. In a sense, any system might be claimed as art, but then there is a ranking among systems. Creating your own system like Lubelski has now done has to be placed higher than just fulfilling one or playing one that’s already at work.
A new Warhol would now have much more right to say that art is the new business. Is that really what good old dyslexic Andy had in mind? Since the ‘80s artists have been going at it as if the only way to earn a BMW or a Hummer is to gold plate any goose that can lay a golden egg, is to go for fame, is to make your name by sacrificing your good name. Not all artists. Just most of the artists that a graduate art student might fasten upon for emulation.
Lubelski is a mystery; he has made a new name for himself, not as the money artist, but as the art facilitator.
How many artists have been written about and pictured in his magazine and on his website? How many artists have been given their first chance (or sometimes their second chance) in his galleries? How many art critics have welcomed the exposure and the freedom that Lubelski’s Arts Empire offers? Has the number reached 250,000 yet?