A Towering Figure in Life, Yitzhak Rabin Returns as a Tiny L.E.S. Gallery

What to make of a new art establishment to be located on the historically Jewish Lower East Side and to be named after Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, shortly after signing the Oslo Accords? Is Yitzhak Rabin Gallery a Dadaist prank? A stunt designed to attract media attention? Or is it little more than the provocative result of an artist’s whimsy?

If it’s the brainchild of Daniel Feinberg, a bracingly earnest young poet, artist, and former editor of lit/theory journal Soft Targets, it’s none of the above, but rather an enterprise as audacious as it is humble, and as serious as it is offbeat. Feinberg, 29, is a tall, soft spoken, genial guy who cites Spinoza among his influences and has an endearing speech affectation — his sentences, even when declarative in nature, end with an upward inflection, which lends them a tentative quality, and produces the impression that he’s perpetually questioning himself — and a contagious sense of enthusiasm. It was this last quality that won over IN THE AIR yesterday evening in MoMA‘s sculpture garden, where, as the crowds for the Matisse opening jostled for drinks at an overcrowded bar, we listened to Feinberg describe his plans for the gallery, or YRG, as he refers to it. From the sound of it, his new space — set to open in late August at 49.5 Orchard Street — promises to conform to the quirky spirit of its founder.

But open is a funny word to use where YRG is concerned, as is, for that matter, space. The gallery, such as it is, occupies a mysterious display space measuring ten feet tall by seven feet wide by an absurdly shallow two feet in depth that stand roughly two feet above the sidewalk. With its minuscule size, YRG is superficially similar to the Wrong Gallery, a short-lived Chelsea project put on a few years ago by curators Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick with artist Maurizio Cattelan. But while the Wrong Gallery simply consisted of a vestibule visible through a locked glass door, YRG has neither windows nor doors and remains entirely open at all times. Feinberg, who professes ignorance about space’s original function, pays no rent for YRG, having simply secured permission for the gallery from “Chinese ladies downstairs.”

“I have a desire to engage with external forces,” Feinberg says. He plans to conduct sales solely during his openings, timing these carefully to coincide with others at the neighborhood’s many full-sized galleries. Afterward whatever artist he is showing will have two choices: leave the work up and exposed to the elements, vandals, and whatever other threats the Lower East Side presents to its integrity — a Duchampian option, if ever there was one — or simply take it down. His schedule so far features a melange of these approaches. Sam Gordon, who will make Xerox copies of drawings in his notebooks and plaster these over YRG’s walls, is going with gusto for the former. (His work has graffiti-like aspects, and he’s hoping local taggers will jump in and collaborate.) Conversely, the late Sol LeWitt’s daughter, Eva LeWitt, will deinstall her paintings, which should serve to create additional drama around her show as very much a one-time-only event.

Despite his cramped quarters, Feinberg will also host dance performances (by a troupe composed of Che Chen and Rolyn Hu, who will also perform music as True Primes) that will presumably spill out onto the street, as well as poetry readings (by Jon Leon, Dan Hoy, Linh Dinh, and Ariana Reines) that will be read from a chair perched precariously in the space. Given the shallowness of the space, these performers will restore literal meaning to the popular art world adjective “edgy.”

Feinberg’s current day job is as artist liaison for Chelsea powerhouse Barbara Gladstone Gallery, but he cut his gallerist’s teeth working for Paula Cooper (in her books department, while pursuing his MFA in poetry a few years ago) and, subsequently, his Lower East Side neighbor, Feature Inc. gallery, whose iconoclastic owner, Hudson, has served as something of a role model. Feinberg intends YRG to act as a foil to the inevitable professionalisation of the downtown art scene — in particular to the gleaming new space of his dealer friend Joel Mesler, former proprietor of Chinatown’s scrappy Rental Gallery, who with business partner Carol Cohen will open a considerably larger and fancier gallery across the street from YRG in September on the ground floor of a pricey new condo building. Taking the bait, Mesler, a former artist himself, has agreed to show his own paintings at YRG.

Feinberg’s romantic, perhaps quixotic efforts to keep the neighborhood real — to remind it of its roots — brings us back to his gallery’s name, which is as aggressively Jewish as Feinberg has been in his myriad other creative endeavors. (His most recent publication was called, simply, Semites; one of his artworks consists of an inverted triangle drawn on a Polaroid of an Egyptian pyramid to form a Star of David beneath a scribbled exhortation to “Let my people ghost.”) Feinberg’s Belarus-born great-grandparents lived on Orchard and Broome — his great-grandfather had a business making Panama hats during the summer — and even today you can discern vestiges of the Feinberg name inscribed in faded lettering next to the coffee shop called 88 Orchard, just down the street from YRG. Following in their footsteps, Feinberg, who grew up in Rhode Island, now lives around the corner, on Grand Street. “Obviously Yitzhak Rabin, being a flaming Zionist, had little to do with the Lower East Side,” Feinberg concedes. “But the name still has to do with my interest in Zionism. And Judaism. And peace.” Feinberg may be, by his own admission, as interested in doing business as any of his peers, but nevertheless the art world could probably do with more of his idiosyncratic idealism. As for his future ambitions, “Eventually I’ll have a door,” he says. “I’m working towards a door.”