What It Means to Be Tabboo! in New York
If you walk down Avenue A in the East Village of New York City, you’ll pass a unique brick building at the southwest corner of Thompkins Square Park. The exterior of the building on 101 Avenue A is mostly unassuming. Its red-brick facade is slightly smudged with patches of black soot, and its charcoal roof, while elegant, looks like the roof of many other prewar buildings in the East Village. It isn’t until you let your eyes wander down the black fire escape that you’ll find the first hint of what makes the building unique. Sitting atop the entrance, a blue-eyed pyramid stares blankly onto the street, positioned behind a martini glass brimming with brown liquor. Two words are written across the sign in bashful cursive: Pyramid Club.
The Pyramid Club on 101 Avenue A, New York, New York (Image Source)
Each of the villagers walking past the club, with an iPhone, latté, and French bulldog in tow, appears oblivious to the sign and what it promises inside its doors. When the clock strikes 10 PM, however, the vibrations of the Pyramid Club’s music and its colorful patrons begin to bleed into the street, catching the eyes and ears of those still unsure where the night will end.
While the building may appear like any East Village club, the Pyramid Club has a storied history of hosting many of New York City’s most animated characters. The performers who have taken the stage at the Pyramid Club include drag legends like RuPaul and Lady Bunny and rock gods like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana. Before any of these stars rose to fame, the Club welcomed them and their quirks inside its doors. It has long been a welcome place to the outsiders and unknowns of New York City, in need of a stage, an audience, or just a crowd to drink with. As distilled in an article in Red Bull Music Academy, the club provided a “safe haven for freaks, geeks, weirdos, queers, and dreamers to come together and create” (Source). One of these dreamers was Stephen Tashjian, known by his drag moniker Tabboo!
Tabboo! performing at the Pyramid Club (Image Source)
Born in Massachusetts to an Armenian immigrant family, Tabboo! found his way to New York City in the summer of 1982. At the time, New York promised Tabboo! the splendors of a bustling metropolis, which were particularly alluring when compared to his upbringing as an art student in rural Massachusetts. “I was, like, ‘Take me to Oz!,” Tabboo! said of his move to the city in his recent profiling in the New York Times (Source). In place of a Yellow Brick Road, however, Tabboo! was met with the cracked and crime-ridden streets of the East Village.
It didn’t take him long to find his crowd. He quickly ascended to the heights of Alphabet City’s Drag Community and the Pyramid Club, performing for other creatives like Keith Harring in the audience. Patrons of the Pyramid Club knew Tabboo! in part for the decorative, pop-art style posters promoting his shows, created by fellow East Village artist and club kid Jack Pierson. Roberta Smith wrote in her article on Tabboo! in the Times that “their lavish curlicue lettering echoed, robustly, that of Warhol’s advertising work of the 1950s; their style often evoked German Expressionism by way of underground comics” (Source).
Tabboo! Poster by Jack Pierson (Image Source)
Flash forward forty years from his arrival and Tabboo! is now one of New York’s finest and most sought-after painters, with two gallery shows recently displayed at Karma Gallery and Gordon Robichaux. These shows followed dual appearances in the Arts section of the Times in March. Showcasing his adoration for the city that has raised, influenced, and, at times, isolated him, the featured cityscapes provide unparalleled access to the city as experienced through Tabboo!’s eyes.
Tabboo!’s Cityscapes at Karma Gallery (Image Source)
The exhibits display Tabboo!’s ability to depict the city on both a grand and intimate scale. His large-scale paintings evoke the grandeur of New York with an eye for its historic, luminescent skyscrapers. His smaller-scale paintings, on the other hand, invite viewers to come face-to-face with the buildings and street corners that have colored Tabboo!’s unique memories and experiences over his tenure in the city. With an extravagant use of color and lush, languid brushstrokes, the same city is brought to life in a hundred different ways.
Tabboo!’s Cityscapes at Karma Gallery (Image Source)
Three of his more abstract paintings of similar scale, for example, were exhibited alongside each other to showcase this very range. To the left in Summer 2020 NYC, Tabboo! depicts the city skyline in a simplified palette, translating the physical experience of the muggy summer months into the universal language of heat: yellow, orange, black, red, and white. The heavy brush strokes distort the length and detail of the buildings, mimicking the way heat morphs the foreground and background when bouncing off the city’s black pavement. Tabboo!’s visual distortions convey how all movement seems to slow down during the summer months, even in the city that never sleeps.
Image Detail: Summer 2020 NYC, 2020, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 24 × 18 inches; 61 × 45.7 cm (Image Source)
Peer closely at the building lines and you’ll find Tabboo! has even used glitter to capture the reflection of light on the glass windows. This playful technique is also used in the middle painting, New York City, A Slice of Heaven, whose wintry and subdued palette of blue and white distinguish it from its counterparts. Any New Yorker can look upon this painting and find themselves transported to the throws of winter in the city. It evokes in equal parts feelings of beauty, solitude, and awe. If time slows its gait in the previous painting, it halts entirely in New York City, A Slice of Heaven.
The last in this series, titled Summer NYC, 2020, conveys the same season as the first painting in darker tones. With a saturated orange background, the color scheme of this painting pulls in elements from the other two with a more dramatic, sunset palette and deep, cerulean blues. In some areas, Tabboo! has let the paint drip down and pool to create a vein-like appearance. You can tell that in Tabboo!’s eyes blood courses through this city’s veins just like any of its 8 million inhabitants.
Image Detail: Summer NYC, 2020, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 24 × 18 inches; 61 × 45.7 cm (Image Source)
The same could be said for Big Green Manhattan Skyline, painted in 2021, which transports the viewer back to Tabboo!’s first days living in New York. Once again, Tabboo! imbues the energy of the city using his usual saturated tones. Light is cast upwards from the streets in alternating hues of blue. Red circles are splattered across the bottom to represent the nighttime glow of traffic lights. In a departure from his other paintings, this painting is taken from the vantage of a viewer much lower to the ground. Shifting the vantage point downward leads the city to appear both wider and taller, placing the viewer in the shoes of a newly minted transplant in New York when the scale of the city evokes greater feelings of awe, fear, and hope. Even forty years after his arrival in New York, Tabboo! is still able to capture this feeling of newness expertly.
Big Green Manhattan Skyline, 2021, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 72½ × 111¼ inches; 184.2 × 282.6 cm (Image Source)
You wouldn’t be able to glean from viewing the paintings alone that all four were created during a very dark and unsettling moment in New York’s history–at the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak. Titles from the New York Times during the summer of 2020 included, “These Are the Heartbreaking Items That Covid Victims Left Behind” and “Grave Shortage of Protective Gear Flare Again as Covid Surges.” It was a moment that caused many New Yorkers to pause and reconsider their future in a city whose allure had long seemed unbreakable. Nevertheless, these impressionist cityscapes could simply be from any year in New York in which the seasons pass as quietly as new New Yorkers come and old New Yorkers go.
Tabboo! is far from the first artist to blend color and abstraction on the canvas to capture the emotional energy of our environments. In fact, art historians trace his visual style to the Abstract Expressionist or “Color-Field” painters of the mid-to-late 20th century, which include Mark Rothco, Barnett Newman, and Helen Frankenthaler. Originally coined by art critic Clement Greenberg, Color-Field painting described the departure from traditional techniques and subject matter of the early 20th century by favoring a style defined by spontaneous, seemingly improvised brush strokes and saturated colors (Source).
Concord, Barnett Newman, 1949, 0il and masking tape on canvas, 89 3/4 × 53 5/8 in. (228 × 136.2 cm) (Image Source)
Emerging from the horrors of World War II that exposed the finite limits of rationalism, these artists found inspiration and clarity in abstraction. They relied on colors and shapes to convey the meaning of their art and rejected all Realest depictions of human experiences and environments. By avoiding overt visual associations altogether, this technique denies the viewer the satisfaction that comes from instant visual assessments and judgments. The paintings must be enjoyed slowly and deliberately, like a good dream. And dreams were often top of mind for Rothko and Newman, who each expressed the desire to capture “the sublime” in their paintings.
N 6 (Violet, Green and Red), Mark Rothko, 1951, oil on canvas, 24.5"L x .88"W x 36"H (Image Source)
The thread that binds Tabboo! to the likes of Rothko and Neumann is the ability to map the emotions underlying our visual experience of our environments to the canvas. In particular, Tabboo!’s style shares the dreamlike quality of his Color-Field predecessors but is less wary of using overt visual markers. This comes across in his large-scale paintings that feature the easily identified Freedom Tower and in his more intimate portraits of New York. For example, his depiction of the Pyramid Club in 101 Ave A NYC brings the viewer face-to-face with the space that welcomed Tabboo! well before he was established in the city. He does not adorn the painting with the same expressionist style as his other cityscapes. In fact, it almost feels plain when viewed alongside them. And still, there is a subtle and subliminal charm to it, stemming again from the sign sitting above its entrance.
101 Ave A NYC, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 60 × 50 inches; 152.4 × 127 cm (Image Source)
In all their intricacies and variance, Tabboo!’s cityscapes offer a meditation on the human experience of New York City. In each of them, Tabboo! exhibits a profound understanding of perception, married with a trust in his viewer to digest the material within their own emotional and psychological frameworks. While some visual-emotional connections are universal, most are unique, which means there is an immense abandon that each abstract painter must accept when empowering their viewers to fill in the blank. Tabboo! seems energized by this leap of faith when depicting his favorite subject, deftly throttling between abstraction and realism to create room for his viewers’ own experiences of New York alongside his own.
While many New Yorkers (including myself) fled the city during the peak of the outbreak for wider spaces and better weather, Tabboo! remained in his East Village apartment. It was during this time that the Pyramid Club announced its doors were closing permanently, alongside many other longstanding New York institutions. It seemed like many New York die-hards were turning their backs on the city for good. Lucky for us, however, one New Yorker’s resolve to remain in place led to the creation of many of these transcendent paintings.
The fact that Tabboo! remained in New York is not surprising. Even at its worst, the pandemic was not enough to erode the allure of New York for Tabboo!, who arrived in the city during the peak of the AIDS outbreak. Tabboo! survived the AIDS crisis when many of his peers were rejected by hospitals and turned away from their own families in their final hours of need. Two separate polls showed that “[between] 43% and 44% of Americans in 1987 and 1988 believed that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior” (Source). Thousands of lives and futures vanished, while the majority of the country stood idly at a quiet distance.
Remaining tucked away in his studio apartment for Tabboo! was more than just a statement of his dedication to New York–it was a refusal to be erased. As he said in a recent interview with the New York Times, “Everything before digital, there’s now a push to erase. And I am insistent on not being erased.” Erasure seems an unlikely ending for an artist as transcendent as Tabboo! The attention his paintings are receiving now is well past due, and will undoubtedly lead to a lasting legacy. His art should be treasured as a window into the hearts and minds of the visual artists, playwrights, drag queens, novelists, actors, and poets who came of age in the 1980s but did not live long enough to see their creations appreciated for all their worth.