In a vast Williamsburg warehouse overlooking the East River, the young painter set aside a canvas propped against the studio window. Canvases leaned against every inch of exposed brick like oversize baseball cards. All of them are vibrant, deliberate and unfinished – and one day – will sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
David King Reuben is a bit of an anomaly in New York’s famously impermeable art world. The 29-year-old artist radiates positivity, commanding attention with the buoyant facility of a talk show host; gracious, cavalier, humble, doling out such effusive gratitude to each person it’s hard to separate his actual family from potential buyers.
“I’m going to play you something,” Reuben announced to the room, his voice full of the moment. His yellow-tinted glasses and the brown chest hair escaping his button-down shirt gave him the ironic appearance of a 1970s drug kingpin. But beneath the lenses, his soft, boyish eyes endearingly betrayed his bravado.
Reuben cleared the windowsill revealing a postcard view of the Manhattan skyline. The glow of the sunset saturated the room, where a couple of dozen people sat on squares of cardboard, quietly confident they were about to love whatever Reuben had in store.
Photo credit: Max Montgomery
At age 19, Reuben left his Orthodox Jewish community for a lonely apartment in Queens. It was far from ideal. He had cranky, elderly neighbors who complained about the noise from his apartment. Professionally, he was a complete unknown. But it takes a lot to discourage a person like Reuben. Plus, despite what it looked like on the outside, he’d finally attained a childhood dream: a haven to express himself freely instead of the path carved out and waiting for him back home, becoming a rabbi.
Reuben’s star rose improbably fast. Over the last decade, his work has been featured at prestigious affairs like the Frieze Art Fair in London, the SoHo Arts Club and Miami Art Basel. Last year, Sotheby’s named Reuben one of art’s most promising new talents. One of his paintings was not only the auction house’s second-highest selling piece; that night, it beat out a Chuck Close.
Reuben, lifting his thick veil of self-assuredness, said with utter disbelief that he just sold a painting to a private collector “with more Picassos than I have fingers and toes”.
And yet, after all this profound success, Reuben is trying to pull off another pipe dream. This time, there are lots of people waiting in anticipation. The expectations are higher.
In his studio, Reuben debuted three original piano ballads; each imbued with a melancholic search for validation. In the first song, “Little Soldier,” Reuben sang evocatively about a child remembering his mother’s words of faith. While “Rain or Shine” echoed the notion of perseverance with brusque production. And then a sharp right turn with “Beautiful” – the crowd favorite.
Against the other songs, “Beautiful” has a serene, ruminative, almost yogic quality in the way Reuben elongates each vowel. It’s a song about awe. When you experience Reuben in person, you find awe is the state of mind in which he spends most hours of his day.
“He just has it – that star power,” says Stewart Lerman, a two-time Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer, whose credits range from Patti Smith to Charli XCX, and soon, Reuben. Lerman has the slightly gritty veneer of an avid New Yorker and the requisite appearance with a baseball cap and blue jeans. He said he instantly gravitated to Reuben’s charisma – no matter that he was unsigned, unknown and had never properly released a song in his life.
Music played a role in Reuben’s life in other ways. Though pop culture eluded him growing up in a deeply conservative religious community, Reuben played piano and hosted sing-alongs every night of the week at his home when he was a teenager.
“All the little Jewish boys in the area who wanted to explore a world outside of becoming a rabbi started coming to see me,” Reuben said. “They’d know all the songs by heart.”
But the parents of those boys grew skeptical. “They thought I was a bad influence,” he said with a laugh. And even Reuben knew his ad hoc performances were about something for more than socializing. Music was a reprieve for him; an amenable way to subvert the rigid social constructs he felt stifled by. And as that realization became clearer to him, so did his plan to move to New York City.
Two years ago, Reuben was introduced to Lee Foster, the manager of Electric Lady Studios, the fabled Greenwich Village recording studio Jimi Hendrix designed just before his death. At their first meeting, Foster invited Reuben to play a few songs. Reuben remembers approaching the piano in the historic Studio A with cautious familiarity, remembering the joyous music sessions of his youth.
Photo credit: Max Montgomery
“My mind was exploding at this point,” Reuben says emphatically. “I just thought, ‘what am I doing right now?’ But I went in and spilled my heart all over this piano. I looked up at [Lee] and he looked back at me and said, ‘Give me another.'” Seven tracks later, Foster sat Reuben down and proposed he manage his music career.
“Those songs are, in some ways, David listening to and thoughtfully deconstructing people like Van Morrison and Ray Charles,” Foster said that night in Reuben’s studio.
Later, people began trickling out, thanking Reuben for the music and casting long glances at paintings they might like hanging in their own homes someday. Reuben, though, looked like he’d just finished a marathon. The stakes for the evening had been high in his mind and he was finally able to come down. [For those not able to attend the performance, Reuben is readying his first official EP for a late summer release.]
“Like painting, it’s taken a long, arduous amount of time to get the songs where they are right now,” he said. “I’d sit at the piano for months and nothing would move. A year and a half, I’d be tearing my hair out. Nothing was coming to me. And then it came,” Reuben said with a mirthful laugh, politely waving and mouthing goodbyes.
“I wish it was as easy as I’m saying now,” he said, pausing to clarify. “It just took a lot of honesty.”
Photo credit: Max Montgomery