In a rarefied Manhattan club where annual membership costs as much as $400,000, Victoria’s Secret models leaned against leather furniture and chatted about runway struts in Shanghai while sharp-suited investment bankers sipped flutes of Dom Pérignon.
They were ostensibly there for a basketball game — a losing Knicks effort at Madison Square Garden against the Portland Trail Blazers unfolding a few hundred feet below.
A dark-haired man with groomed stubble arrived in a blue-and-red shirt whose top button he had chosen, after much internal debate, not to close for fear of appearing “too hipster.” He greeted a hostess as Joanna. She gently informed him that her name was Gabby. Walking away, he cringed. “Was that really bad?” he asked, looking back over his shoulder.
He made his entrance into the members- and invite-only suite shortly before tip-off (though he was just a guest), and let it be known that he rarely shows up to games before the second quarter.
The man was Joseph Anavim, who goes by Jojo. Anavim is not yet a household name, but his pop-art paintings — a mishmash of vintage magazine ads and Playboy pinups, acrylic paint and silk-printing — have become a preferred acquisition of N.B.A. stars. His pieces sell for anywhere from $5,000 to $45,000.
He’s the Andy Warhol of the 2017 pro basketball set. The likes of Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis — not to mention Selena Gomez and the rapper Big Sean — own an original Jojo, as people seem to call them. Paintings for D’Angelo Russell of the Nets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers are in progress.
Last summer Anavim met Porzingis, the budding Knicks star, at a mutual friend’s house in the Hamptons. They made a swap: one painting of a lion for multiple pairs of Adidas shoes.
“I really didn’t know him before,” Porzingis said. “But then I looked up his art on Instagram and he’s the real deal.”
Anavim credits the former N.B.A. star Amar’e Stoudemire with sparking the buzz. Stoudemire first spotted Anavim a few years ago on Instagram, when the artist was hanging his work at Decor Framing in Midtown.
In 2015, Stoudemire commissioned Anavim to paint Moses carrying the Ten Commandments. It is now one of Stoudemire’s favorite works of art. “Very abstract with so many beautiful colors,” he said.
Anavim, 33, grew up in Roslyn, on Long Island. His father, a jeweler, and his mother, a marketing manager, emigrated from Iran before the Islamic revolution of 1979.
“I’m very close with my family,” Anavim said. “My mom was always the logistical person, very organized, making sure I handed in my homework on time. My dad taught me everything I know about how to love and adore.”
Anavim studied business at Hofstra University for one year before transferring to Hunter College and majoring in psychology. After graduating, he worked as a contract graphic designer and was making a “comfortable six figures” before his friends tagged him in the comments of Stoudemire’s Instagram posts.
Frequenting parties at Stoudemire’s West Village penthouse, Anavim met art collectors and celebrities — new clients. Before long he had stopped his graphic design work to focus solely on mixed-media art.
The dozens of paintings on Anavim’s apartment walls convey the Jojo worldview. Blond women blow pink chewing gum into gleaming juicy bubbles. A rainbow-colored astronaut floats above the Paramount Pictures logo. Coca-Cola bottles, Marlboro cigarette packages and Marilyn Monroe are recurring images.
His coffee table has been transformed into a Jojo original, spray-painted with an American flag design. All of this, he says, is inspired by his childhood — down to the Life Savers his grandmother used to pull out of her purse.
“Jojo’s art is the style of street art without the thorny content and political questions that street art addresses,” Carlo McCormick, a New York art critic, said in a phone interview. “It is benign. It’s hard to get theoretical or conceptual about a pretty girl on a cigarette package putting on makeup. It is not super complicated, so what’s not to like? It’s pure pop: candy-coated, pure sugar stuff.”
Katelijne De Backer, the former art director for the Aqua art show in Miami, which has featured Anavim’s work, agreed.
“Jojo is one of the artists who shows, ‘Why does it have to be incredibly difficult?’” De Backer said. “Why can’t it just be, ‘Wow this is smart, playful and clever’ and therefore, maybe it appeals to a wider audience?”
Anavim lives five blocks south of the Garden in a second-floor walk-up with two bedrooms and a bachelor pad vibe. The refrigerator contains 34 Bud Lights, bottled lime juice and condiments — and nothing else. A dark-stained wood cabinet nearby holds perfectly aligned bottles of vodka, whiskey and tequila.
He has some Matzo and an unopened box of Cheerios. Milk, though, is not available.
People frequently stream through the apartment: friends, relatives, clients, his two assistants. Twice a year he hosts a Shabbat dinner — a Friday night Jewish holiday celebrating a day of rest — with 30 people, including restaurateurs, models and the Instagram-famous. At the most recent Shabbat gathering, Anavim only knew half the people on his guest list.
“For Shabbat, it is not about business,” he said. “It is about getting people together and sharing a meal and being around people you like and meeting new people who have good souls.”
Anavim said that if someone asked about buying one of his paintings during a Shabbat dinner, he would invite them to come back another day. But be forewarned: To purchase a painting, Anavim has to get along with you.
“There are certain people that I don’t like and it doesn’t matter how much money they have or what they do — I just find them off-putting, and I don’t want them in my orbit,” Anavim said, seated in his living room as service staff covered folding tables for the most recent Shabbat dinner party.
“I am not afraid to approach people,” he added. “If they don’t like me — which doesn’t happen often — but if it does happen, that’s fine also. It rolls off my shoulders.”
In this club on this night at Madison Square Garden, though, Anavim appeared to like everyone in the luxe Suite Sixteen. While ordinary Knicks fans elsewhere in the arena ate $10.50 mini pizzas, the suite’s guests dined on lobster tails.
A brief fourth-quarter surge by the Knicks fell short. The hot chefs and D.J.s of the moment who mingled in Suite Sixteen draped their arms around women clutching Valentino and Gucci bags and exited. Anavim said goodbye to his host and put on a black peacoat. Untroubled by the Knicks’ loss, the N.B.A.’s fast-rising artist du jour kept it moving.
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