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Fred J. Abrahams: Portrait of the Artist as a Real Estate Developer

Fred Abrahams evokes the excitement of the New York art scene in the early 60’s. 

Jack Klein was an original. Dark and swarthy, he could have easily passed for a Mexican bandit in a Hollywood movie.  When I met him in the early 60’s he had just lost a job selling textiles and was eking out a living peddling art of questionable provenance.  He was the first pot smoker I had ever met and also  made some money selling the weed to black Jazz musicians. In those days the market was very small.  Among other things Jack was a card carrying misogynist.  He referred to women as “snakes” or “Peruvians” and other than the woman who introduced us, who had bought a small landscape from him,  I never knew him to have a relationship with any one of that hated species.  I was stunned, when, years later, I learned that he had married and moved to Paris with his wife.

As a favor to Jack I too once bought a painting from him by a then unknown New York abstract painter named Larry Rivers.  It was tempera on paper, a complex though recognizable image of a Queen of Hearts playing card.  I promised Jack that if I ever sold it, it would be through him.  Years later, when I needed money and he had resold it for me I found out that it had been stolen from the artists’ studio.  Its value today is well over six figures.

Jack was always broke. He was living in an enormous completely empty commercial building within smelling distance of the Fulton fish market.  He had made a deal with the owner — he would take care of the building in return for living space.  He had moved to a fourth floor loft space that had once been a small sewing shop. It had no amenities except for a toilet and a utility sink. The building had no working elevators, no hall lights, no intercom, and no electrical service. He did have a phone  He also had absolute privacy. That mattered in those days, the penalties for marijuana possession then were even more draconian than anything Rockefeller would later propose.

When you went to see Jack you’d call from a  pay phone on a nearly unlighted corner and he’d drop you the keys out of a window. He was living in a small corner of the large loft. The cavernous building was completely deserted, all the tenants, garment shops and small factories had left Manhattan for Brooklyn and the South in a mass exodus that would totally change the economic character of lower Manhattan forever.  But Jack was resourceful, he had hooked up an industrial forced hot air heater and an electric hot plate. Since there was no power in the building,  he had tapped run a line to a street lamp for free electricity.  He had also acquired some large wooden stretchers, the kind frames that artists use to hold the canvases while they are working on them. He  covered them with fabric left over from hisSeventh Avenue days, and used them as screens to break up the factory into living areas. This was a forward looking House and Gardens concept  that would have wowed Martha Stewart. Burning incense masked the odor of the dead rats in the walls as well as his primary diversion. It developed into a nice livable area.

Since he was vaguely involved in the contemporary art scene, Jack realized that this life style was also an ideal solution for the gaggle of young artists who were flocking to NY, drawn by the Abstract Impressionism. This movement had made NY the center of the entire art world.  As a consequence, studio working space was rare and expensive, out of the reach of any but the most established artists. Developing abandoned lofts for use by young  painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic artists was who were being drawn to the city was an inspired and cheap solution. The lofts offered unobstructed space that could be adapted for both studio and living space.  They were well suited for the over-sized pieces that were becoming important in the contemporary t Impressionist genre.  Soon, mysterious  signs reading “AIR 3” or “AIR 4” were appearing in lower Manhattan to alert the Fire department that there were artists in residence in these otherwise empty loft buildings. The number indicated the floor the artist was using. This was an informal arrangement that the Fire department had worked out with Jack and the artists. The city government was way behind the curve when it came to adapting zoning and residential laws to this new phenomena. Jack was breaking new ground and he was still below the radar of established Real Estate interests who did’nt interfere with his budding enterprise.

Jack first began to fill the South Street building where he was living and then others nearby with about-to-be famous painters like Jim Dine, Rosenquist, Max Ernst, Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, Larry Rivers, the deKoonings and many, many others.  Eventually, he would have a hand in finding space for nearly every important abstract expressionist in New York. Growing at warp speed,   the work of these artists had turned New York into the dynamic center of the modern art world. The Artists, Dealers and Jack were all getting very rich.

Typically, a still impoverished but promising  young artist would come to New York and find a room with a room mate in the East or West Village while going to school or working in a restaurant. When these artists began eking out a modest living with their work they would then get a small apartment or move to the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street. At that point they would enter Jack’s circle and, if there was real promise, the artist  would get his first small loft. If they prospered, they would move to a slightly better one, and so on. Then, as often happened, the price of their work would begin to sky rocket in the booming market. These artists were not starving Van Gogh’s. They got top dollar for their work, and the larger the pieces were the higher the selling prices.  Much of this boom had located in SOHO,  which quickly gentrified from a wasteland of empty manufacturing lofts to a paradise of affordable artist studios.

Restaurants, designers and boutiques started to colonize the street level replacing  second clothing machine and fabric shops.  Then, the major uptown art galleries followed their market to SOHO. Gentrification mushroomed as old tenements were converted into pricey duplexes for Wall Street types and new construction sprung up.  Jack made a fortune. The cycle was completed when the artists were forced out by the yuppies who willingly paid multi-millions of dollars for lofts that had once been reasonably priced. Jack didn’t care, he moved on to ever newer blighted neighborhoods.

One day Jack took to me to a former convent that he had bought from  the Sisters of Blessed Obscurity or some whatever. He had obtained the building for Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most successful Abstract Expressionists who was making enough to buy his own building! Jack  was converting it into an Artists House and Gardens dream,  a large town house and studio. He made a fortune on that one deal. While I was there, the demolition team was ripping out an elaborately carved mahogany altar.  It must have been twenty feet wide, fourteen feet high and hand carved in full relief. I coveted it for as a headboard for the most dramatic bed ever made. Of course I never had a big enough bedroom.  No one realized how valuable such artifacts could be and it was junked. It broke my heart.

Jack became the proto-typical realtor and developer.  He took several bites of every loft apple.   He often bought or leased  the space himself and then sublet it to the artist.  This provided a steady rental income. He then handled all the arrangements for turning the commercial space into living and studio space, making a significant profit on all fixtures and appliances.  He sub-contracted the architects, HVAC, plumbers, painters carpenters, etc.  The artists could afford it.  Those were heady days in the art world and even the most despicable art  dealers and galleries were forced to share the wealth with their stables.  But Jacks’ real coup was that he always got a piece of art from every artist he dealt with. This was the tax free capital growth part of the deal. These pieces appreciated so much and so quickly that Jack quickly became a well respected collector and a major player in the art world without investing a dime.

He  took good care of his own needs. He would find a new loft for himself every few years, which he would design and renovate. When he grew tired of it he would then lease it as a readymade studio to an artist. These spaces were increasingly grand. They had to be in order to house his growing personal collection One of the most memorable of these lofts was a space on the top 2 floors of an old 5 story walk-up in the heart of Manhattans’ Flower district.  One of his next door neighbor was the superb comic actor Zero Mostel who starred in the original film version of the “Producers.”  Mostel  was also an excellent painter. Of course Jack had found his studio for him.

Jacks’ place had dozens of windows which provided natural lighting for his museum-quality art collection.  But, the piece de resistance was the roof garden which ran the length of the building.  It was elaborate. He had planted it  with rare orchids acquired from the plant people who had their stores on the streets below.  The roof garden boasted full size trees and ivy covered trellises that formed a screen blocking the surrounding commercial buildings. There was a Japanese area with a gently tinkling fountain, raked sand and carefully placed Zen rocks.  He had the only roof top gazebo in midtown Manhattan. One corner supplied tomatoes and vegetables, and, of course, the herbs that sustained him on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, New York was going  through one of  the worst droughts in its history.  The upstate reservoir levels were so low that plant watering had been criminalized. Restaurants were even forbidden to serve water to customers unless specifically requested.  Jack had had tons of dirt and fertilizer, wooden and stone edging, cubic yards of gravel, a bird bath and, of course the trees and exotic plants and ferns carried up six flights of stairs.  He was not going to let this mid-air, mid-city Eden shrivel and die for lack of water.  So, every morning, he rose a few hours before dawn, put on an a black Ninja outfit, black gloves and black executioners hood and blithely watered his urban agricultural extension with a garden hose until sunrise.

A few years later Jack was living in a building he owned and had renovated in the area that is now known as Tribeca (Triangle Below Canal).  His art collection had grown to the point where part of it was on loan to one museum or another most of the time. This was fortunate because even this large townhouse could not have housed the entire collection. Jack was especially excited because he had just completed an elegant studio loft for the important painter Robert Indiana.  Indiana was internationally famous as the designer of the famous 3 dimensional “LO/VE” device. His bold graphic canvases always contained words that were integral to each piece.

One night, we were sitting at a table in Max’s Kansas City, an artists hangout on Park Avenue South, when Indiana came over and told Jack that he was working on a painting for him and he was going to  “put Jack’s name in it!”  Well, this was an Art World headline and Jack was easily as excited as Pope Sixtus must have been when Michelangelo agreed to do his ceiling.

Time passed, months dragged by, until, finally, after much calling back and forth a big wooden painting crate arrived at Jack’s Worth Street building.  Jack decided to have an unveiling party and invited twenty friends.  The picture, still in its shipping crate had been placed in the center of the double high corbelled living room under the stained glass skylight. Jack himself wielded hammer and crowbar as he attacked the pine slats that covered the five foot tall painting. The picture was a masterpiece, one of Indiana’s best and most famous  works.  In the center of the image, a brightly colored heroic female figure stands holding a brightly colored circular shield. Around the circle are the words,” EINE  KLEINE NACHTSMUSIK.”  One of Beethoven’s greatest compositions… Jack‘s name was there, but not in quite the way he expected.  Jack did not like to be the butt of a joke, especially such an elaborate and public one and he disappeared for several months. He sold the painting.

After he returned, Jack made a deal with the owner of the “Uncle Sam” chain of flop houses on the Bowery, there were about two dozen and he converted them all to AIR  status. Around that time (1971)  I got married and, because of Jacks’ misogyny, we seldom saw each other again.

Years later,  I heard with disbelief that he had married a beautiful French painter, and they had moved to Paris.  Then, about 10 years ago a friend told me that he had died of AIDS in Paris. I never learned the details.


— by Fred J. Abrahams

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged .

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