Though extensive research informed the far-reaching work of performance artist Danielle Abrams, her own complexities provided the most important foundation for her creative life.
“I always say to my students, ‘Art keeps you honest,’ " she said in a 2018 interview with Big Red & Shiny, a Boston-based art and ideas online magazine.
Honesty, for her, meant constantly interrogating society’s failures and triumphs, and her own rich mix of heritages that traced back from her teaching position at Tufts University to what she saw during visits to Coney Island while growing up in New York City.
“The divided realities I witnessed were a map that showed me how to traverse my biracial and queer identity: Black, Jewish, and a butch dyke,” she said. Those experiences would later lead her to perform, in one piece, “the idiosyncrasies of my white, Jewish, and African-American grandmothers adjacent to a butch entrepreneur and a teenage self that longed to pass for Greek.”
A professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, Ms. Abrams was 54 when she died in her Boston home on April 21. Test results completed in June showed that the cause was complications of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, her family said.
“She was very skilled at giving a lot of agency and power to her students,” said Mary Ellen Strom, an artist who is a professor of the practice in media arts at the school.
“You could say that she was paving the way for younger artists of color and queer artists and artists of mixed-race identities,” said Strom, who collaborated with Ms. Abrams on “Rights Along the Shore,” which examined the impact and legacy of segregated public swimming areas in South Boston, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, and opened earlier this year at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Ms. Abrams “demonstrated and embodied so much courage in her work to talk about difficult, complex subjects,” Strom said. “She has been a great inspiration to a lot of younger artists, and that’s an important part of her legacy.”
As a person of color who at times was perceived as Black or as white or as neither, depending on who was looking, “my light ‘passing’ skin defies the assumptions that society uses,” Ms. Abrams said last year in a Boston Art Review interview.
“I’ve spent my life vacillating between white, Jewish, and Black access, privileges, speech, and cultural codes,” she said. “Because of my racial ambiguity, I frequently bear witness to racism and antisemitism. I am grateful for this evidence. It is fodder for my work.”
As Ms. Abrams delved into books, film, paintings, music, and stand-up comedy, she “had the rare ability to bring historic research and her own experiences together,” said Jeannie Simms, a colleague who is a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. “The breadth of her work was so wide and deeply American.”
In her performance piece “Routine,” for example, Ms. Abrams appropriated the persona of a male Borscht Belt comedian with “his barrage of conventionally sexist, homophobic, and self-deprecating jokes,” she told Big Red & Shiny.
“In between the jokes, I submerged myself in a 25-gallon bucket of borscht, turning my face beet red. The penetrating stain of the beet-based soup could be understood in many ways — as the embarrassment of this Jewish legacy or as a kind of bloodletting or cleansing — a mikvah.”
Born on March 30, 1968, Ms. Abrams grew up in Flushing, Queens, a daughter of Stephanie Belkin Abrams, a teacher and guidance counselor, and Eddie Abrams, a furniture mover and motor vehicle operator for the post office.
“I lived across the street from a zipper factory and a polluted creek, down the road from an amusement park that was submerged in high weeds, and less than a mile from the monumental ruins of the 1964 World’s Fair,” Ms. Abrams recalled in a 2018 interview posted on the BostonVoyager website.
“I have not yet lost my taste for city lots of epic detritus and the rusting emblems of American hope and valor,” she added.
Ms. Abrams graduated from John Bowne High School in Flushing, and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Queens College before graduating from the University of California at Irvine with a master’s in fine arts.
Along with teaching high school art in New York City, she had taught at the University of Michigan, Goddard College, and City University of New York before joining the faculty at Tufts, where “she really was at the pinnacle of her career,” her mother said. “It was exciting to see her thriving in the arts.”
In the Big Red & Shiny interview, Ms. Abrams said a professor at Irvine had encouraged her to explore “the possibilities of expressing contradictions in personae-based performance — particularly when those contradictions are embodied by the same performer.”
In recent years, an era when race has become an ever more important political focus in the United States, “Danielle had become more and more committed to expanding research efforts to include policy-makers, and to create projects that had the potential of enacting change,” Strom said. “It’s interesting to be at this moment in 2022, with the passing of a very important American performance artist, and to consider her legacy.”
Simms said she was “so grateful to have known her and to have been exposed to her way of thinking and her way of working and to see her perform. Her profound commitment to using her own body and her identities to expose the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the dominant culture took a lot of courage and energy.”
In addition to her mother and father, Ms. Abrams leaves her younger sister, Lauren, who also lives in Flushing.
A celebration of Ms. Abrams’s life and work will be announced.
“There’s a loss beyond her amazing legacy as an artist and a teacher. There’s a loss of her love and her generosity and her embracing spirit for the many people whose lives were illuminated by Danielle,” said Ryn Hodes, a teacher, writer, and social worker in Florence who formerly was Ms. Abrams’s partner for five years, when they lived together in Brooklyn, N.Y., more than a dozen years ago. Since then they have remained part of each other’s chosen family.
“Danielle was one of the most observant, penetrating thinkers that I’ve ever known,” Hodes said. “Her ability to put pieces together in ways that were hysterically funny, deeply moving, startling, and relevant never ceased.”
At a student-led vigil after Ms. Abrams died, one of those she had taught recalled that she had “absolutely the kindest listening ear,” according to a Tufts publication.
“She gave each and every one of us a voice,” said another student, “especially when we felt silenced, when we felt belittled, we felt ignored.”
In a 2020 interview posted on the Artistic Fuel website, Ms. Abrams said that “teaching is a performance. I utilize all the same skills I ask of my students. I remind myself to breathe; stand behind my words; and present a range of gestures, voices, personae, and methods.”
“As a professor,” she added, “I presume that every student that enters my class has grief, confusion, inner conflicts, rage, and myriad responses from which I will learn. We are coming together with the imperative to make art.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.