Abolafia died 18 years ago today. But in May 1967, he was kicking off his run for the presidency at the Cosmic Love Convention at the Village Theater, where he said, “We should be a country of giving and giving and giving. The way we’re going now, we’re all wrong. We could be giants; we should be 10 times above what the Renaissance was.”
Abolafia would receive almost two million votes in the 1968 election won by Richard Nixon. Lost in his brilliant self-promotion was the fact that Abolafia was a serious painter and activist who established one of the East Village’s first runaway centers in his storefront studio at 129 East Fourth Street.
Abolafia moved to San Francisco in the 1970s; he died in Los Angeles in 1995. We talked today with his brother, photographer Oscar Abolafia, about the man whose candidacy could only have been born in the East Village of the late 1960s.
As an art student and a painter, Louis always thought that America didn’t appreciate the arts. He started off in 1964 when he hung one of his pictures next to Rodin’s “The Thinker” at the Metropolitan Museum and was arrested. That was a protest to say that the museums do not help young artists.
Louis got a storefront space on Fourth Street and got involved with runaways; kids would run away to the East Village from all over the United States. A lot of people would send money to him asking that if you run across my daughter or my son, see that they have a meal. And Louis would have pictures of all these kids up on his wall. And sometimes he would run across them and have them call their families.
So this runaway headquarters worked very well as a little studio where he was painting and where he lived. That was the beauty of living in New York on the Lower East Side.
At one point, Bob Dylan wanted to know what he was all about. He came over to see him. And then the Village Theater, which became the Fillmore East, was trying to get something together and they gave him a day there. The New York Times ran a big layout on my brother’s Cosmic Love-In.
The whole East Village knew about it and there was no charge if you wanted to go in. It was a marathon and people like Dick Gregory and a few other comedians would come up and sit on a stool and tell jokes.
At that point Louis was going to run for President in 1968, so he stood in the nude, he had nothing to hide. Remember the paper, the East Village Other? He was on the cover of that, behind a desk nude. I think that was the start of that.
Then he was on the Johnny Carson show. Carson asked him, “What would you do if you became President?” Louis said, “If every person in the United States gave one dollar, we would have enough money to feed all our poor people.” And Carson said, “That’s a good idea. What else would you do?” And he said, “I would change the color of the White House to purple.”
Louis decided to run for president because he understood that to be an artist, you have to do something a little outstanding. Even today, don’t we look for people who are a little off the wall? I think my brother started that whole movement, doing something that’s off the wall so people notice you.
Banksy and all these other people got the idea, I believe, from the way my brother used to promote himself. They all want to be on the edge and promote themselves because it’s a very difficult life to be a painter.
Oscar Abolafia is an renowned photographer who has covered the celebrity world since the early 1960s. His photos of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Salvador Dali and John Lennon have appeared in The New York Times. Abolafia today lives in New York City, where he is working on a book of his memoirs as photographer of the world’s biggest stars.