Anton van Dalen represents a lesser acknowledged artist archetype: the non-heroic, civic-minded observer and chronicler.
Anton van Dalen is one of the few people in New York to keep pigeons. His pigeons, all of which are white, live in a hand-painted coop on the roof of his building on Avenue A, on the Lower East Side near Tompkins Square Park. The word “Peace” is stenciled on the front of the building, where he has lived since 1971, making it a familiar sight to anyone walking around the neighborhood. If you go to his website, you can live-stream his pigeon coop.
I first met van Dalen in 1984, when I worked with Roger Deutsch on a documentary film, The View from Avenue A (1985), about van Dalen’s life on the LES. I don’t believe I ever had a copy of that film and wonder in what form it might now exist.
I first wrote about van Dalen when I reviewed his exhibition The Memory Cabinet: Paintings, Drawings, Objects 1950–1988 at Exit Art. This is how I ended the review:
Van Dalen’s approach is informed by his belief in functional beauty and the need to communicate information. In his paintings and drawings he uses a fairly neutral, graphic style that ranges from emblematic abstraction to simplified representation […].
Van Dalen uses this approach to document his family life, dreams, interest in animals, imagination, and his neighborhood. He makes no bones about who he is—he is an artist and a civic-minded person with a family. (Artforum, December 1988)
That was more than 30 years ago, when van Dalen was 50, married, and had two young children living at home. I remember chickens running around the house, along with cats and a dog. He told me he raised chickens so his children could have fresh eggs in the morning. Today, he is 81, a widower who lives alone in the same building I first visited more than 35 years ago. The last lines of Robert Creeley’s poem “The Rhythm” come to mind: “light at the opening/dark at the closing.”
What does a man in his early 80s do with his time, especially during this time of self-isolation and social distancing? Some people might feel he should be ready to exit this world so that his grandchildren can have a better life. A few days ago, van Dalen sent me an email, which contained this passage:
Then the Coronavirus / Covid-19 blew up and unleashed its poisonous cloud everywhere. At once my hesitation vanished, the subject found me, our entire fragile world of today. Have always worked from the perspective of starting with home, then street, neighborhood, city, world. We came to learn that Covid-19 envelops every dimension of our personal and public life. It rudely stirred up my still scarred emotional childhood memories, most of Holland WW2. As military language has come to be used more and more to describe our naked vulnerabilities, I wanted my visuals to center on the East Village, began my drawings at my Avenue A home. But then my children and friends thought, because of my age at 81, I should get out of the city. I came to understand that I should listen to my children and retreat to the countryside of Long Island. Through their generosity I was able to turn my scribbles into accessible drawings.
As someone who has known and followed van Dalen’s work, I see him as one of the central figures chronicling life on the Lower East Side, from its days of street gangs, drugs, abandoned buildings, and shootings, to its galleries and gentrification, to the current COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
It was during the 1980s, while stenciling on neighborhood walls his graphic images of dogs humping, drug addicts shooting up, skulls, the Puerto Rican flag, and guns, and showing at ABC No Rio and other alternative spaces, that he met two younger artists, Martin Wong and David Wojnarowicz. If each of them embodies an artist archetype, van Dalen represents the least acknowledged: the non-heroic, civic-minded observer and chronicler.
If we use Paul Klee’s definition — “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk” — van Dalen’s line has been walking around the same LES neighborhood for more than 40 years. Yet the artist has also made meticulous drawings in service of his idiosyncratic imagination. Through drawing, painting, sculpture, and performance, he has merged civic-mindedness with imaginative flight, such as walking in New York with the looping flights of his pigeons in the air above, as well as setting down his response to B. F. Skinner’s experiments with pigeons or to imagined aliens rescuing animals from the Central Park Zoo.
A diarist by nature, van Dalen has been making daily drawings collectively titled COVID-19, Drawing While in Lockdown. All the drawings are done on sheets of blue-lined white paper, with the first one dated “Wed. March 18, 2020.”
How does an old man living in relative isolation deal with what’s coming and what cannot be avoided? This has to do with mortality, which I think might be the art world’s least favorite subject. Or is thinking about one’s impending demise just a fiction about one’s “inner life” — which some art theorists (for instance, Hal Foster in his well-known 1983 essay “The Expressive Fallacy”) have claimed is fake news?
Let’s face it: the subject of growing old is not high on the art world’s must-see list. We prefer stylish artists who never grow old, especially if they can turn their sunny optimism, cool detachment, or snarky cynicism into a marketable product. We like children’s disposable entertainments made big, shiny, and seemingly permanent — a tower of Play-Doh as cheerfully colored shit. We prefer John Currin, who mocks his subjects, which evoke “those disjointed monsters” that Charles Baudelaire describes in his poem “Les Petites Vieilles” (Little Old Women),” “[who] were women long ago.”
Van Dalen’s personification of the COVID-19 virus walks a dog and wears a crown. His skull-cum-head is surrounded by a corona projecting appendages around its circumference. Van Dalen gets that it is seemingly present everywhere in New York, walking among us, one could say.
A few days ago, while I was waiting to cross a street, a car pulled to a stop as the light changed. The driver, seeing me about to cross in front of his car, rolled up his open window. This is the world that van Dalen is in touch with — one in which heightened anxiety and fear accompany us on every step of our walk.