New York Then and Now

For the first time in nearly 10 years, New York-based artist Anton van Dalen will show his most recent works, which chronicle the evolution of Manhattan’s East Village over the past five decades. Van Dalen, who worked alongside and collaborated with the likes of David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, and Keith Haring, has lived in the same apartment on Avenue A since he first rose to prominence as a street artist in the’70s and ’80s, continually creating paintings, drawings, and collages that document the neighborhood’s changes.

The period of time when van Dalen moved from Holland to America was a seminal moment in recent art history as well as cultural developments. These decades saw the rise of pop art, blue-chip galleries, and collectors, but simultaneously gave way to the outbreak of AIDS and an immensely impoverished creative community. It was also a time when women were not yet readily accepted into the art world.

Tonight in New York, van Dalen’s recent works will go on view at P.P.O.W. and later this month, the gallery will host a performance of van Dalen’s one-man puppet show, Avenue A Cut-Out Theater, which has previously been shown at the MoMA and New York Historical Society, addressing topics that range from drug culture, prostitution, and the East Village riots, to the area’s eventual gentrification. P.P.O.W.’s booth at the ADAA Art Show in early March will also include van Dalen’s historical works.

Before the show’s opening, Van Dalen spoke with his friend and peer, Martha Wilson, whose pioneering venue for activist art Franklin Furnace will be recreated in Performing Franklin Furnace at Participant Inc. later this month with live works by contemporary artists like Michael Smith, Coco Fusco, and Clifford Owens. —Emily McDermott

ANTON VAN DALEN: Oh it’s Martha! Hello Martha!

MARTHA WILSON: Hello, Anton. How are you?

VAN DALEN: [laughs] It’s like we’re on different planets.

WILSON: I didn’t realize you were cranking out so much new work.

VAN DALEN: That, for me, was so important. All these people that were part of our world in the galleries and elsewhere are gone. It’s like a whole new world out there. We have to reintroduce ourselves because we also want to participate in this debate, you know? What art can do?

WILSON: Did you like [Interview’s] questions?

VAN DALEN: I like that it lays it out like a biography. Where did we come from, what did we find here, what do we think about it now, and how did we artists respond to it? These are very basic issues that I think about everyday and I’m sure you do as well. I think our work is more socially-politically directed, so these larger questions nag at me all the time: What is an artist? What way can we still participate, and how to do that, in what arena? And how to change the discussion that’s not often in the artist’s best interests? Martha, when you first came to New York, what did you find here? What brought you here?

WILSON: I was dumped by my boyfriend…

VAN DALEN: Where was that?

WILSON: In Halifax.

VAN DALEN: At the art college?

WILSON: Yes. Luckily for me, I had met Lucy Lippard and she looked at what I was doing and said, “Yes, this is art and I know other women around the planet who are doing similar stuff and I’m going to put you in a show.” So she put me in a show, the “c. 7,500” show.

VAN DALEN: That woman is amazing. She did that for so many people.

WILSON: She did! Before the internet, I was alone in this male-dominated art school environment. The college painting teacher told us it was the coolest art school in North America and we had to move there, [but] when I told him I wanted to be an artist he said, “Women don’t make it in the art world!”

VAN DALEN: I’ve heard so many women say that and to me it’s so shocking because a lot of guys thought of themselves as very politically alert and sensitive, and they were not.

WILSON: Yeah. They gave me an honorary PhD many years later, in 2013, and someone came up to me after the graduation ceremony and said, “You know, Martha, you were a model for us back in the day when you were creating art in Halifax.” I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me?” There was no community. The community was here. When I got to New York, we were inventing consciousness-raising; we were creating organizations that were women-centric and creating the feminist movement of the ’70s. It was completely the opposite of what I had imaged from the boonies, like New York was a cutthroat place where everybody was cruel to each other. It was just the opposite. The women were completely great and lovely. Do you remember Judy Segal? She started Artist News, I think? She took me under her wing and took me to all these consciousness-raising groups.

VAN DALEN: How old were you when you came to New York City?

WILSON: Twenty-six. I started Franklin Furnace when I was 28.

VAN DALEN: Wow, what a woman you’ve been all along.

WILSON: [laughs] How did we first meet? We met through Peter Hofstee, right?

VAN DALEN: Yeah, Dutch artist friend.

WILSON: It took somebody from another continent to…

VAN DALEN: Well, there were also all these alternative spaces where a lot of artists met because these spaces were very different from galleries. When I came to New York in the mid ’60s, I began showing in a gallery on Madison Avenue that’s still there today—the [Richard] Gray Gallery—I had two, three shows there, and then another gallery also on Madison Avenue. So I was in the world of the galleries, except my work did not really belong to the work that was made largely by men, like what you were speaking of. It had to be conceptual, it had to be minimal, it had to be impersonal. It could not have any human touch on it. So here I was making what was very different in that it was very involved with time and place.

WILSON: The work that we were creating at that time was explicitly trying to undermine the commercial gallery museum’s access with ephemeral performance art and posters on the wall and posters for the rat population of New York—stuff that undermined the pillars of values that were established in the art world. That’s what we were doing all that time. We have a lot of nerve, you and me, Anton, by working with a commercial gallery, right?

VAN DALEN: Yeah, well, you have to remember that these artists who were then these very large names were really my age, except that where I’d come from as an immigrant from Holland and as a child growing up during World War II, was that I very early saw a very social-political perspective on everything. When I stumbled into these alternative spaces in 1980 on Rivington Street, I was suddenly welcomed as an inspirational figure because I’d been dealing with subject matter of a social-political nature for a long time. So in a way it solidified their feelings. They felt from the galleries that they didn’t belong. They had no interest in even going to SoHo and seeing what was being made at the time; they thought it was all cheap nonsense. Here I suddenly found a community of artists that emboldened me in a way I had not received from my own generation, largely shaped by women’s thinking about art that is social and political, but also has to be grounded in reality of people’s lives and community. There should be a sense of responsibility to the larger world that we all share. Artists shouldn’t be standing aside from it but should be part of it. What I got from these young people about 20 years ago was a comfort with working directly with the people that live, that are your neighbors, your community centers, all of that. For me, that was a crucial trade off.

WILSON: Tell the story about Penny [Olsoff] and Wendy [Pilkington] when they moved to the Lower East Side.

VAN DALEN: Yeah so P.P.O.W. Gallery… They opened a gallery—when, I’m not sure, probably the early ’80s—but they had not liked what they saw with galleries moving in. They saw it as an invasion, in the way that artists saw it, so they came to talk to me because they had seen I was working with these alternative spaces and they were wondering what it would mean for them to open a gallery in the neighborhood. They worried this was an improper, insensitive act, given what the neighborhood was about, which was still at that time, very damaged—plenty of drugs and the destruction that it caused. Many artists, like me, wondered what our role in all of this was, the way in which this would change the neighborhood and put the local population in a place that didn’t seem to connect. I just said to them, “This is another audience of people you can deal with and it’s another space you can [use to] respond to the neighborhood,” which is what they did. They brought people like Sue Coe in, who made art very much connected to the world we all share, the cruelties and abuse of it. She soon became a very pivotal artist to make that art acceptable, that it could be very vivid, moving, and change people’s hearts. That’s sort of where people like us fit in.

WILSON: Yes. What have you seen in the last 30 years? How has the art world changed?

VAN DALEN: You’re talking about the galleries or in general?

WILSON: I think in general. I think the not-for-profit sector has had a huge influence—PS1 is now MoMA PS1, the Clocktower, the Idea Warehouse, the Institute of Urban Art and Urban Resources. Alanna [Heiss] is credited with having started the alternative space movement and it caught on like wildfire after the [National Endowment for the Arts] was established. All over the country there are alternative spaces, and now even a place that keeps track of the archives of alternative spaces, the Art Spaces Archives Project at Bard College. Franklin Furnace just moved to Pratt in an effort to take the ideas that were created in the last 30 years and make them pedagogically useful to the current, future generations of art students.

But I think the answer to this question, is that it’s dispersed. [laughs] You can have galleries in Bushwick, East New York, and Pennsylvania and Westchester, whereas it used to be, before the Internet, you had to be on West Broadway, and preferably 420 West Broadway. There was a bellybutton in the art world and everything emanated out of that spot. I don’t think we have lost our place in the art world, I just think the art world itself has gone crazy and dispersed all over the place. Also in terms of style and values, there’s still the blue-chip, minimalist style going on, but then there are these other painters, people who are knitting—totally wild communal efforts going on at the same time.

VAN DALEN: Yeah. When I stumbled into that whole alternative spaces beginning in 1980, somebody told me, an artist friend, “You’ve got to go over to John Evans, they’re doing what you’re doing.” I didn’t know what he was talking about so I went there with a pile of my stencils that I made for the street. And Chritsy Rupp was there putting a show together, and she totally fell in love with everything I was doing in a way I’d never received from my own generation. So suddenly I met all these people like Kiki Smith, Tom Otterness, you name it, and they all treated me like I was a messiah of some kind.

WILSON: [laughs]

VAN DALEN: which was kind of an interesting change. Most people in my generation didn’t know of any of that stuff that was going on, then it slowly bubbled up via The Village Voice to a larger public, but I tell young people now, “You’ve got to go to Detroit!” Because Detroit today is what New York was when I came here mid-60s. I talk to these young people because I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and they live three, four people to a tiny apartment. They’ve got hardly any money; they’re working three, four jobs. They don’t have any time to think, just looking at a wall and thinking, “What am I going to put on it?” I fully believe the next revolution will come from Detroit, and places like that—Cleveland, Baltimore—that give us a configuration of the next century. We’re facing a time that’s totally foreign to everyone. It feels like, “Where are we in all this?” When I came here in the ’60s, even the idea to have a TV was considered kind of gross. Everything that had to do with mainstream culture was cheap and not good. Even Frank Sinatra was laughed off. I think until young people decide, “You know, this thing we were handed by parents is all a bunch trash,” not much is going to change. If I was 25 or 26 today, I think I would probably go to London or Berlin. The spaces that people had in the ’60s or ’70s, like what happened in SoHo, where these large abandoned industrial spaces made pop art possible, for people to do these large works, or where you could put anything on the wall, like flyers because nobody cared what anybody put on the wall, graffiti, you name it—that all is illegal now. So all this experimentation that’s happening on the fringes, I presume it has moved underground so we don’t know about it. What do you think about that, Martha?

WILSON: What I wanted to add to what you said, which I agree with, is that the networked world is going to change everything. It already has changed everything. For example, in the art world of the past, the social demarcations were very clear and very steep. I was at a cocktail party and Maxwell Anderson was there. I introduced myself and he turned his back on me and walked away. He didn’t know who the hell I was. Then some years later, the internet comes into being and we have email, so I emailed Maxwell Anderson and he writes right back to me, because the playing field is now more level. We can approach each other through email where we couldn’t really approach each other at cocktail parties. We’ve seen massive revolutions happen in Egypt and Tunisia with the help of the networked environment that we’re living in, which is critical to our lives now.

Our world was more black and white. In our time, you could say, “I’m not going to have a TV,” and you could just dismiss the whole TV thing. But nowadays, you buy toilet paper and it’s made by the Koch brothers. You live in a much grayer, less black and white environment. The micro-decisions that you’re making about your social life, your behavior, your spending habits, and your political views are much more nuanced then they ever were in our day, and I think that is one of the big changes during the last 30 years. The black-and-white world has become grey.

VAN DALEN: Yeah, I certainly struggle with it, because I grew up in Holland and this protestant culture that I think was very much shaped by the Reformation. The idea was that we all had to find a community where we lived, respond to that, and find meaning and grace in that life. Not that I’m a church-going person at all, but conceptually, for me, that’s a very important idea, and certainly a Dutch heart. That’s what happened to Rembrandt—making all these pictures about the very humble street and also the high-end fancy hat—and even more starkly seen in the work of Vincent Van Gogh. He worked in a mining community and went to London and worked with the most impoverished people and made work about that. His whole life was very much shaped on some sort of social piece within that larger, very troubled world. As an artist I have to come out of this ivory tower that I was—and still am—living in on Avenue A and step down into the street and draw the neighborhood, beginning in the early ’70s, which then was a very radical thing to do. I decided, “Well I don’t see anybody else doing it. Somebody’s got to do it, so I guess I’ll do it.” I felt I could no longer make art that still referred to art history, which is what you still see in galleries a lot. It doesn’t really come to terms with the world that we are actually living in.

I think, as artists, we have an obligation to document or give an understanding of the world we live in as an individual, as a culture, in the way that you have done through your work as a woman. Now I’m calling myself a documentarian, because I feel the word “artist” is so loaded with corny stuff that I cannot get it across my lips. “Documentarian,” which is what I’ve been doing for 40 years about this neighborhood, seems like a more honorable way of addressing what I’m trying to do. I still struggle as to whether the term artist is the appropriate way to be seen and the role we play, because the galleries are dominated now by super wealthy people. Here I’m working, making this stuff in this neighborhood for years, and if I look at the list of the people who have bought the work, more then half of them are people from Wall Street and places like that. There’s this enormous disconnect that I can’t do anything about and there’s no answer to find peace with. Do you worry about that Martha, now that you’re more visible in this commercial end of the art world?

WILSON: I thank my mother for raising me a Quaker. We were talking about the influence of our backgrounds on our contemporary lives. The Quakers were thrown out of England in the 1700s because they were so weird, and when they got here, [Peter] Stuyvesant and the Dutch were not happy about these people who would shake when they were being possessed by the spirit. When I was a girl, we went to Quaker meetings, we learned about Quaker history, I went to Quaker preparatory schools, and I went to a Quaker college. Being a weirdo, being slightly outside of regular society, felt perfectly normal to me.

VAN DALEN: You talk about many of the same things that I experienced in the church I grew up in, the Calvinist church.

WILSON: When I graduated from college it was the height of the Vietnam War. My boyfriend didn’t want to be drafted and I didn’t want to be American anymore, so we moved to Canada and lived in Halifax. I lived in Halifax for five years. Once again, I was outside of the center of the art world but it felt alright, it felt okay, to be stuck out there. The punch line is: it’s the job of the artist to stand slightly outside and look in the window and critique what the rest of the society is. That is our job description.

VAN DALEN: But I think it becomes more difficult when there are these gatekeepers, which are the museums and collectors. I know that I felt far greater freedom working in these alternative spaces. It also gave me the courage not to worry about these galleries too much, to just make what I make. A lot of amazing artists that we live with today, I think it would have been interesting if they did not have this constraint that’s put on them by galleries. Even though it may not be directly told to them, there is a kind of hemming-in of the nature of the artist that can easily happen, where they find one way of working that becomes recognizable and they are afraid of wandering off into other areas.

WILSON: Yeah, the gallery system is very quick to learn. Do you remember when Leo Castelli started selling videotapes by Bruce Nauman in 1978 or something? We thought that was an incursion on our territory, but really what he was doing was valuing the ephemeral practice that we were doing. Temporary installation work was being shown by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, and now every commercial gallery shows temporary installation work because they’ve figured out that that’s where the value lies, in performance. Museums are collecting performance art. The alternative spaces have contributed these genres to art history and I think we can be very proud of that.

VAN DALEN: There was this whole world on the fringes. They were like barking dogs that weren’t let in.

WILSON: [laughs]

VAN DALEN: Many of them were immigrants and some were less welcome than I, certainly. There were a lot of people that were just not able to participate in this larger discussion. In the end I think all of this is a discussion, you know, “What does art mean, what does it do, what is it for? What value does it have?” Now a lot of these artists, like David Hammons, are part of the discussion and I think that’s really increased a much larger tableau of what America actually looks like and what America is thinking than it had before.

WILSON: I agree.