By DONOVAN IRVEN, February 2021
Art is a necessity, not a luxury, according to New York dealer, appraiser, advisor, and curator Kourosh Mahboubian of Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art. Art is a part of who we are, a scene of our identity and its expression, a manifestation of the collective unconscious where the cultural symbols that bind us together in community circulate, permeate, and evolve. In other words, visual art, like literature and music, is a necessity of the soul.
When I first met Mahboubian in 2017, we were participating in a weeklong philosophical seminar with Oscar Brenifier at the first brick-and-mortar location of Filo Sofi Arts on the Lower East Side. I was a newcomer to the art scene, and I was putting on a brave face, hiding my anxiety as I waded into a world of money and prestige that in many ways remains foreign to me. In the taxi from JFK airport, I felt very much the outsider.
My first encounters with Mahboubian were welcoming, which went some way toward dispelling the assumption of arrogance and snobbery I had braced myself to experience as I dove into what was, for me, the deep end of the art pool. He was introduced to me as an experienced art advisor, hired by Filo Sofi Arts to help develop its artists and market. I would learn, talking with Mahboubian that week, that the shape of the art world is rapidly changing. He had been involved with an art market in flux before, and was among the first non-Black galleries in New York to show now-prominent Black artists in the late 1980s.
What I learned from Mahboubian, who counts “educator” among his many hats, is that partnerships are key to success in life. I say “life” here, and not “business,” because it comes across that Mahboubian doesn’t think of art as a business, but rather as a way of life. Perhaps this is why I had felt a sort of early comradery with him. His view of and approach to art resonated with my own way of thinking about philosophy – philosophy is a way of life. As Pierre Hadot has argued, it should be transformative, it should engage your whole being, and leave you changed afterward. It is, in Hadot’s words, “a method of spiritual progress.” Helping people become more closely familiar with art, and share their experiences of art, is a key aspect of Mahboubian’s business ventures and made him a natural partner for the galleries that hire him.
Someone might say that it is obviously important to network. That who you know is vital to success. But that is not what Mahboubian means when he talks about the importance of “partnerships.” I’m familiar with the schmoozing, elbow rubbing, who-do-you-know type of networking from academia and hold it in a fair amount of disdain. What Mahboubian is talking about is forging relationships on which you can build something. Relationships of mutual support that promote the work, that are themselves creative, that forge new paths to success for everyone involved. There’s a level of adventurousness to Mahboubian’s idea that is an extension of his person, rooted in his history, expressed in a parallel career as a deep-sea diver and underwater explorer.
Mahboubian comes from a family of art dealers. His paternal grandfather, Benyamin, was an autodidact who became interested in archeology and threw himself into the wild frontiers of early-20th century excavations in Iran. He married a woman several decades younger, who eventually gave birth to Mahboubian’s father. It was the family’s background in archeological excavation that helped establish Mahboubian’s background in antiquities and his eye for fine art.
His maternal grandfather, also an Iranian-Jewish archaeologist and antiquities dealer, was living in Paris in the 1920s when, by chance one evening in a pharmacy, he met the Lutheran German woman who would become his wife. When marriage was proposed between Mahboubian’s Persian Jewish grandfather and his German grandmother, it was people who mattered. The couple had the blessings of their families, but not without the warning that their lives might be harder, that others might not approve of their union.
Unfortunately, such caution proved warranted, and the couple had to flee Paris as the Nazi’s advanced in the summer of 1940. They returned to Iran, to Mahboubian’s family where his maternal grandmother was welcomed, affectionately accommodated, and became an inseparable friend to her mother-in-law. This unlikely confluence of cultural identities goes some way, perhaps, toward explaining Mahboubian’s decidedly cosmopolitan outlook on life and his accepting approach to the people with whom he works.
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has theorized cosmopolitanism as “universality plus difference,” which entails an ultimate respect for people from which it follows that we ought to respect different cultures because cultures matter to people. Thus, there is a limit to how much ethical leeway we might extend to different cultures based upon how well they serve the dignity of people, who hold ultimate value.
These family histories help explain the love of adventure and exploration that infected the young Mahboubian, who dreamed of emulating Jacques Cousteau and James Bond as he learned about the exploits of Benyamin, the archaeologist, already 96 when Mahboubian was born.
Mahboubian’s father, Mehdi, lived a semi-itinerant life as a young man, travelling for business that took him to the rural forests of northern Iran and ingratiating himself with the old set of Iranian folk musicians who toured the country. Mahboubian recalls being regaled by stories of his father’s adventures during this time – narrowly escaping the jaws of wolves in the hinterlands of the country as he made his fortune.
But fortunes change and Mahboubian’s father alternatively lost and gave up his wealth, abandoning success in Iran to migrate to the United States so that he could marry Mahboubian’s mother, who had herself immigrated in 1948. Putting himself in a place where he had to start over, Mahboubian’s father turned to antiquities – a business in which he had unique and much sought-after knowledge given the careers of his parents and in-laws.
The love of culture, a love that centers people, shapes Mahboubian’s devotion. In 1970, a younger brother, Shahriar, was born into the household who suffered from a heart defect that would shadow the family as long as the brother lived. The siblings formed an intense bond very early, with Mahboubian thinking of himself as a sort of surrogate father to Shahriar, a role he adopted with enthusiasm. The flourishing family business kept his father and mother at a distance, when they weren’t otherwise preoccupied with his brother’s medical care. By the time Mahboubian had reached adolescence, his father had amassed a fortune that included a lavish mansion in London, where they took up residence.
As a boy with undiagnosed ADD, combined with his emotional absorption in caring for his brother, and the loving but hands-off way of his parents, Mahboubian didn’t excel in school. He made passing grades in excellent schools and cultivated his love of exploration and art through the use of his father’s Nikon camera. It was through photography that Mahboubian discovered both himself as an artist and the world of art beyond antiquities - including a strong interest in underwater photography. These histories set the stage for an abrupt transformation, another confluence of culture and history that would reshape Mahboubian’s fortunes.
1979 was not a good year. The Iranian Revolution erupted, severing family ties between London and Iran resulting in the sometimes very public deaths of close friends and family. The Mahboubian’s were targeted in London. Their home was firebombed as the family wealth vanished. Mahboubian began attending school with a bodyguard. His brother’s health got steadily worse. Eventually, he was admitted to the hospital. That same year, after everything else, Mahboubian’s brother, Shahriar, died at the age of nine.
The realization of mortality that accompanied that tumultuous year, painfully accentuated and realized in the death of his brother, solidified Mahboubian’s philosophical outlook on life. It was his awakening to the spiritual journey Hadot writes about, roots in family and community taking hold as he entwined his parent’s hands, one in another’s, committing himself to being strong, to see the family through.
The family returned to New York and, at first, Mahboubian threw himself into sports and the sleaze aesthetic of the city in the early 1980s. In the work of photographers like Joel Peter Witkin and Hermann Nitsch, he learned that one person’s ugly was another’s beauty and began to distance himself from antiquities, becoming more involved with and enamored by contemporary art. He had been passionate about diving since childhood, and took advantage of the time he was left to his own devices to cultivate skills as a diver that would serve Mahboubian’s varied business portfolio. He would eventually become an elite Arctic diver and elected a fellow of The Explorers Club.
Throughout his life, he remembered a vow he had made at the time of his brother’s death, that he would live for the both of them. That he would fill his life with enough love and beauty and friendship to make up for the promises they had made to one another that could never be fulfilled. Friends, Aristotle reminds us, are our other selves and necessary for life. What good is art, that necessity of the soul, if we have no one else to share in its dream?
It is this vow, perhaps, that most clearly directs Mahboubian’s approach to art and the artworld. It is not a self-serving endeavor. Of course, we would all like to make some money. But isn’t it possible to make it by building something in community with and for the other?
Mahboubian’s first attempts came in college. Hoping to impress a girl, he became involved in re-establishing the school’s art gallery, which had been closed down and its spaces appropriated for other uses. Though his initial motivation may have been shallow, he soon found himself completely absorbed in the work – and good at it. Good enough to convince the university’s Trustees and student government to open a new gallery.
After graduation, wanting to establish himself for his family, to fulfill his promise to his brother, Mahboubian decided to take an adventure with his father. They risked the remaining family resources together, on an art gallery, something Mahboubian had not foreseen for himself while still in college.
In 1988, the Cyrus Gallery opened its doors at 11 East 57th Street, between Madison and 5th Avenue. As a young, inexperienced gallerist fortunate enough to occupy such a prestigious and well-regarded location, Mahboubian set out to distinguish himself and discover artists that were not showing in other up-scale galleries in the city. His commitment to making deals that worked for artists was part commitment to principle, but also a way to show that he was worth taking a chance with. After all, the then 22-year-old Mahboubian had no track-record at the time, despite his sharp eye and attractive location.
He was soon showing Black artists that were not being featured in the mainstays of the New York art scene, like Howardena Pindell, Maren Hassinger, and Tyrone Mitchell, with whom Mahboubian maintains a relationship. These are the type of long-term partnerships that have made Mahboubian successful on the whole, even when his career goes through times of trial, hardship, and frustration. Despite all of his success, all the favorable reviews in the New York Times, Cyrus Gallery was spending too much money, and so Mahboubian, at the strong recommendation of his father, turned to antiquities.
This return, this cycle, these ups and down, reflect a character that is at home in risk – that takes chances that pay off, but who doesn’t hoard what good fortune comes his way. It is the history of a person who does and does not live for himself.
Mahboubian has told me on several occasions that if the work is good, he is happy. What makes the work good? Is it working for everyone? Is it expressing even a little bit of that shared dream we’re all participating in?
These might sound like romantic notions today, but I think they are notions that we would all do well to reflect on. The art world is rapidly changing. As Mahboubian can attest, fortunes can pile high quickly and then evaporate before you feel you’ve even got a handle on it. It is clear that sustaining an art scene will increasingly rely on partnerships that are creative on several different fronts, as Mahboubian himself has argued. Perhaps we are facing another kind of frontier, not entirely unlike those faced by Mahboubian’s autodidact grandfather and free-spirited father in Iran. Though these frontiers may be more virtual, more interpersonal, the historical moment in which they manifest is itself just as ripe for discovery as those ancient tombs in the deserts of the early 20th century.
We still need intrepid explorers, but the archeologists of our immediate history need a new ethics that does not value culture for the material wealth it produces, but rather values culture because it is valued by people it belongs to and who belong to it. It is the people that matter, in their difference, yes, but, more importantly, in the universality communicated by them through their production of art, that shared dream whispered through the unconscious into our waking ears.
After all this time, Mahboubian remains an explorer.
Speaking with him, learning with him over the past few years, I was reminded more than once of the great philosopher Immanuel Levinas, who proclaimed ethics as the first philosophy. It seems to me that the partnerships Mahboubian hopes to proliferate throughout the art world demands what Levinas calls a “face-to-face” encounter.
In such an encounter, we do not live only for ourselves. We cannot just look out for “number 1” and to hell with the rest. In the face-to-face encounter, we are held firm in the grip of the other as we realize their infinite and transcendent nature – that very wellspring of art and culture that we can never fully possess, but in whose gaze we feel ourselves possessed. It is a vulnerable position, a great risk, but the foundation of truly authentic relationships with others. Here, we might learn with Mahboubian to live for two, and through this plurality, embody in each of our own-most particularities the universal promise that is art. WM
Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.
Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.view all articles from this author