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Next time you’re walking through the East Village, take a moment to look up at the skies over Tompkins Square Park. You might just spot Anton van Dalen’s flock of snow-white pigeons. The artist, who first learned to rear the birds at the age of 12, is one of the few remaining pigeon keepers in Lower Manhattan.
Born in Amstelveen, Holland in 1938, van Dalen emigrated to the US and settled in the East Village in 1966. His home on Avenue A, which is emblazoned with the word “Peace,” has become one of the neighborhood’s most recognizable landmarks. Van Dalen’s pigeons reside in a hand-painted (and live streamed) coop on the roof of his home.
A core component of the artist’s iconography, van Dalen’s birds have primarily stood as symbols for migration, freedom, and community. Other works such as “B.F. Skinner with Project Pigeon” (1986) focus on humanity’s fraught relationship with nature. B.F. Skinner, the father of radical behaviorism, attempted to devise a pigeon-guided missile during World War II. Dubbed “Project Pigeon,” the program sought to harness positive reinforcement techniques in order to train birds to peck at images of military targets.
During the 1980s, van Dalen was active in the alternative arts scene, collaborating with groups and spaces such as PAD/D and ABC No Rio. The artist began his career as a graphic designer and worked as a studio assistant to Saul Steinberg for over 30 years, a relationship he kept secret until after Steinberg’s death in 1999.
Van Dalen’s most popular work is arguably the Avenue-A Cut-Out Theatre, an ever-expanding collection of mounted models that double as props for spoken word performances on the history of the East Village. Van Dalen first presented the project at University Settlement House in 1995 and has held performances at institutions and spaces such as the Museum of Modern Art, The Drawing Center, and Exit Art.
Van Dalen is represented by P.P.O.W. gallery, and last year, the gallery held New Works and the Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre, an exhibition that included a display of the artist’s newest paintings. This past May saw two concurrent exhibitions of the artist’s work; Inside Out, Home and Place at Sargent’s Daughters, and The Devil’s Veil at Romeo gallery.
The following interview was conducted at the artist’s home.
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TM: When did you move to New York City?
AvD: My whole family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, in 1954. I arrived there aged 15. I was born in 1938, so when the war broke out I was very young. From Toronto, I came to this neighborhood – Rivington Street in 1966, and then Avenue A in ’71. At that time, the East Village literally looked like a scene from World War II. Drugs were so prevalent. Urban flight had happened. All these people who had grown up in the city for generations fled to the suburbs. Those who were left behind were mostly poor and immigrants – the people who in one way or another hadn’t succeeded. It was amazing for an artist like me, because I had grown up in Holland, which is entirely a Protestant, blonde, blue-eyed country. I was then living as neighbors with people from places such as Puerto Rico, who are totally unlike any Dutch people. Dutch people grow up and live their entire life in a closet, whereas the Puerto Rican people live entirely as a community – outside the home, sharing space on the sidewalk.
TM: It’s a more extrovert culture by comparison.
AvD: Yes. I think it really helped me to sort of turn myself inside out and become more open to the world.
TM: What are some of your memories of World War II?
AvD: We lived very close to Schiphol airport. It’s huge today, but back then it was tiny. You could hear the bombings. Bombs fell all around us. A plane almost crashed on top of me. In the Holland that I grew up in, people didn’t want to talk about the War. It was too painful.
By contrast, artists like to dwell on these things. They don’t worry about the dark. It’s all beautiful and interesting. Being in this neighborhood that was more embracing of life, it really helped me to delve into what was happening here – the junkies, the shooting galleries, the confrontations between the police and the homeless. For me it was easy to think of the police as the Germans and the homeless as civilians. I’m not saying they are, but for me it was a way of translating those experiences into the present.
TM: I understand that the Nazis seized your family’s property?
AvD: Yes. My father was the principal of a small school. We lived in a very protestant, Calvinist community. Everything was centered on the Bible. I compare it for New Yorkers to Williamsburg and the Hasidic Jews. It was very much like that. I grew up in an environment that was incredibly skeptical of the larger world. In time, that world beyond made me more of a whole person.
TM: You have previously described how you sought out Weegee and Saul Steinberg upon arriving in New York. What drew you to their work in particular?
AvD: I saw them as artists who had really captured the energy of our time. Both found it on the street and in the culture. It turned out that they also knew each other. Steinberg was in the phone book, so I called him. I told him I’d like to meet him and he said “call me back in a year.” I called him back a year later, and he said “call me back in two months.” Then he said “call me back next week.” This went on for 2 to 3 years.
Their work had an incredible energy for me. Part of the reason I wanted to come here was to be part of that energy. I went to all the galleries. I saw everything. I realized that there were many artists who were on the fringes. I wasn’t starving for recognition, but I wanted to feel that I was participating in some way. That’s something I learned from Leon Golub. He wrote it somewhere, and then years later when I asked him about it he had no memory of ever having said it. At one point he felt that he wasn’t “participating” in the debate, which is an interesting way to frame it. It’s not about the work, it’s more about the discussion; what art does, can do, or needs to be – rather than talking about the work itself. For me, that’s more interesting.
TM: Why did you feel the need to keep your professional relationship with Steinberg a secret?
AvD: Stravinsky had an assistant, Robert Craft, who was a great composer in his own right. I saw that as an example to steer away from. [Steinberg] was one of those epic figures, especially among literary people. He was a writer who knew how to draw. He was drawing writings. One day I ran into him on 57th Street. He said he was looking for an assistant. Without hesitation, I said “let me do it. I can do anything.” I think more than anything he was looking for someone to talk to. He was a storyteller, a monologist. That’s why the people who knew him, loved him. He would sit at the table, go into a monologue, and make all these cross-references that were kind of obscure but interesting. People were fascinated. It was like someone pulling out a violin at the dinner table. I think he was testing ideas on me. I know that was so. Sometimes I’d ask “what about this?” or “when…” or “what…” and he would stop and just walk away. One day he wanted to sit down with me and have me ask him questions. He was going to write down the questions that he wanted me to ask him. It was like he was interviewing himself. By about the third question I thought maybe I should back up a touch – get deeper into this question – and he just turned the whole thing off and walked away.
There’s this thing in Dutch culture that you’re supposed to leave room for people to be who they are. In other words, for me to be crazy, I have to leave room for you to be crazy too. You make a deal with other people in order to be yourself. It’s not said like that, but it amounts to that.
TM: You believe he shared that sensibility?
AvD: Well, it helped me to sit there and listen. One day I said to him – and I had thought about what I wanted to say for a long time – “you’ve been a big influence on me, but nobody’s asked me ‘do you know Saul Steinberg?’ ‘Do you like Saul Steinberg?’ No one has said that my work ‘looks like Saul Steinberg’s.’” He said “that’s the best possible influence.” The guy was fucking brainy.
TM: I don’t think your work resembles his. If there’s an affinity, it’s that you both share the same appreciation for visual legibility and economy of form.
AvD: He was in a very elevated intellectual world and I’m closer to the sidewalk [laughs]. I think he had a very hard time understanding working people. He liked having me around because I could chat up anybody and make them feel comfortable, which he had no language for doing. He was like Mr. Spock in Star Trek.
TM: What inspired you to make the East Village the subject of your work?
AvD: Around the time that I moved to the neighborhood, I was producing drawings that were partly inspired by Surrealism. From my studio, I could hear the constant noise of fire trucks. There were a lot of empty buildings and fires. It was suddenly as if I was in World War II, except it wasn’t Holland, it was here. It was like I was living in a German occupied community again. I saw it in the abandoned buildings, the fires, the stabbings, people openly shooting up heroin, cops and firemen being very brutal to the community. I thought, what I am doing up here? I’ve got to go down onto the street and make drawings. I stepped out with a little notebook and started making sketches of the most basic things; the bodega signs, the “Jesus Saves” signs, the storefronts, the fire hydrants, the dogs shitting – the whole neighborhood had fallen into total neglect because the city didn’t keep up. I felt more and more like I was a sort of journalist. That was the best thing that I could have possibly done, except that it was the most difficult thing to do in terms of being an artist. At that time artists like Frank Stella ruled. These characters were like the Taliban. You could not have any kind of imagery. Your art had to be repetitive and serialized. It could not have any signs of human touch. It shouldn’t have a signature or a narrative. There were all these rules and if you did not work within them, it was if you didn’t exist or that your work was from another age. Today you can do anything. It’s totally the opposite. Now, at least for me, every young artist resembles an outsider artist. They’re not interested in any art history.
TM: It sounds like you were somewhat conflicted. That you knew you would be swimming against the current of the art world.
AvD: Well, I saw all these exhibitions by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Carl Andre. You name them, I saw them. I took it all in. But I felt that the galleries weren’t interested in what I was doing. It wasn’t until I went to these alternative spaces where I met other artists who also felt like outcasts — and most of them were women and people of color — that I found a community.
In 1980, a friend of mine, John Evans — who makes these incredible collages — told me “you got to go to [ABC] No Rio. They’re doing what you’re doing.” So I went there and took a lot of my stencils with me. They acted as if a god had just walked through the door [laughs]. It was the total opposite of the galleries. What was so amazing about those places was that anyone could just walk in and participate. They really opened a big door for me. Group Material, Carnival Knowledge, PAD/D … there were about 4–5 collaborative groups. Usually they were little clusters of friends that had a common idea and would then put on programs. I worked with all of them [laughs]. It was a lot more interesting to me than the galleries because they were dealing with topical issues. It gave people room to think. That’s how I met Martin Wong and David Wojnarowicz. Before I met all these people I felt like a dog that that its tail tucked between its legs. They made me feel that what I was doing wasn’t some sort of a side-show.
TM: It links back to what Leon Golub said. You finally felt you were part of a conversation.
AvD: Exactly. It was only after I put those stencils in front of Rio, that suddenly, out of total obscurity — since there was no way you could do that work in a gallery — they began to receive attention. There was a whole younger generation who thought it was a masterpiece [laughs].
TM: Where did the idea for the stencils come from?
AvD: I don’t know whether this is my own exaggeration, but during the war people disappeared suddenly. You would notice that someone’s belongings had been thrown out onto the street. It was obvious that people had been taken away. One day I found a box of stencils. I think that must of stayed with me.
TM: You must have been very young.
AvD: Yeah, I would have been about six. These things can matter at a very early age.
TM: The stencils represent an interesting departure in your work. You started out with incredibly intricate drawings, which I imagine took many hours of labor, and then you developed these stencils which you could execute very quickly by comparison.
AvD: The point that I’ve made, and one can say it about anybody, is that you’re part private and part public. There’s a side of you that will go out on the road, and a part of you that will stay at home and write a poem. All of us have these different sides and they show up in the work. There’s work that I do about my home or my immediate memories of things, and there’s also work borne out of conversations with my neighbors and the world.
The art world of the 1960s was crazy for serial art. You had to have one idea and keep chugging along. What I liked about Warhol and Steinberg, is that they had a million ideas. There was a part of Warhol that was incredibly public. He contributed enormously toward changing the sensibility and attitudes toward gay people and artists. He had a magazine and a band — a whole family of lost and found people. He was really an amazing guy.
TM: So you feel that the stencils are the public face of your work?
AvD: Yes. I realized that if I was going to put something outside then it had to be like a street sign. You don’t even have to look at it. You can see it from the corner of your eye. It’s there and you know what it means. I wanted to make these stencils completely self contained; readable to the point that you don’t even need to read it. You just know what it is. I went through all my work, right back through to when I was a kid, and asked myself, “what are my strongest images?” I picked out the ones that were the most telling about my personal life, my public life, and my interests. It was sort of like hieroglyphics. I was trying to make a picture language. That’s how I came to understand it. You begin to tell a story as you put images together. Before you know it, you’ve covered the narrative of a short story or a poem. Like Coca-Cola or a traffic sign, there’s art out there that takes you whether you’re looking at it or not. I was interested in how to hit the brain like a bolt of lightening.
TM: In that sense, do you also consider the Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre to be part of your public facing work?
AvD: I don’t know. I feel more and more that we as artists have disappointed the world that we try and address. That we really haven’t spoken clearly enough and that these ideas haven’t seeped beyond this little conclave of ours. That’s why I like to be in touch with these alternative spaces where you can share ideas and work with your community.
I think it’s still true that the people who buy my work — and it can be said for most artists — are the people who work on Wall Street. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for the lower and middle classes to acquire art. The 1% have driven prices to a point where no one else can afford it. What can one do about it? It’s a predicament. I don’t know if there’s an answer for it. I want to get the work out of the house because I don’t want to live with it. I don’t want my children to have to worry about it later. I’m open to anyone who wants my pictures, and I’ve always done anything I can to make it possible.
TM: And you’re still adding to the Cut-Out Theatre?
AvD: I keep adding to it. It was much more sparse when I first did it. I do it differently each time because I don’t want it to feel scripted. The cuts outs had started as these little shadow boxes and were shown on Madison Avenue at Graham Gallery. It seemed wrong to lock them up in a space. It was like putting a dog in the corner and nailing its tail to the floor. I felt it needed to breathe, move around, and do things. It became an oral history of the neighborhood with graphics.
TM: Have you ever sold individual parts of the series?
AvD: I haven’t. I’m trying to keep it together. Perhaps one day an institution would want it. I like that idea. I didn’t set out to make a record of the neighborhood except now it is. When I first came here, I thought, “here I am from Holland. What right do I have to make any kind of comment on this neighborhood? What do I know?”
In time, I thought, “this is amazing. Someone’s got to do it.” It wasn’t easy. As I said, I didn’t feel like I had any models from the art world about how to do it. When I did it for the first time at University Settlement House, about 50 people came. When it was over, people started applauding. That’s when I thought, “oh my god, I’ve got something.”
People told me it was special and that gave me the confidence to keep going. I took it across the country and to Holland. I performed it in Sante Fe, and I worried about what they’d think about this grim, dark, Lower East Side scene. But when I went there, I saw homeless people sitting on the curbs. People were talking about drugs and gentrification. People are dealing with the same issues everywhere except they look different. It turned out to be a universal story.
TM: It’s not puppetry, since there are no strings attached, but it has that feel to it.
AvD: Right. Well you’re animating objects. The moment I move this glass [picks it up from the table], it takes on more life than when it was sitting there.
AvD: I’ve had to force myself to open up emotionally because it’s not something that you’re taught in Holland. We grew up in a culture where you didn’t have to worry about your neighbors because they were miles away. What I like about New York is that if you resonate with another person, you can make a friend in five minutes. I grew up in a culture where everyone wore the same thing. Everyone had a suit, shoes, and a tie, and it all matched. That was the predominant culture of the 50s. Today, certainly in this neighborhood, there are no two people who look alike.
TM: Your recent exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters included “Bird Car” (1987), a pigeon coop in the shape of a car. How often did you have to tend to the pigeons inside?
AvD: I went there every other day to feed them and change the water. I called the gallery every day. I think they liked it better than being here with me! Especially with all these different faces showing up.
TM: Did you choose those particular pigeons for a reason?
AvD: I was beginning to breed my birds, which you do in the Spring, and it turns out I had a lot more females than males. And so the pigeons [in the gallery] were all female. There were eight of them. If there had been one male in there, it would have been pandemonium. They’re constantly driving after the females. So it worked out very well.
TM: The show also included your painting “B.F. Skinner with Project Pigeon” (1986). What drew you to Skinner as a subject?
AvD: I saw his pigeon experiments as a metaphor for how we live with nature. It’s screwy, brutal, and kind of weird. On the one hand, we have this totally sentimental relationship with nature. On the other hand, it’s totally fucking brutal, cold blooded, and horrible. We devour and eat animals, killing them every which way. I saw his pigeon guided missile as the supreme example of our relationship with nature — how conflicted and strange it is. I keep between thirty to forty birds on my roof. I let them out. I feed them. They have lots of space. At the same time, they’re sort of at my disposal. I pair them up, guide their lives. I make a judgment about how well they fly. So I myself also have a suspect relationship with nature. We all do.
I knew that Skinner was teaching at Harvard. I wrote him a letter to see if I could meet him and make some drawings. He was very friendly. I spent about an hour with him.
TM: Did you discuss the philosophy that informed your image of him?
AvD: I hadn’t yet figured it out. The strange thing is that he kind of looks like me. He has a similar forehead, a squarish head, and a small nose. I even recognized his stance and the way he stands as familiar.
TM: What did he make of the final painting?
AvD: He never saw it. I didn’t follow through and now I wish I had [Skinner died in 1990]. I was concerned about what he’d think about it. As an artist, you’re appropriating someone else’s story. You live with the responsibility of having made an observation about them and whether it’s a fair one or not. The picture is very personal. It’s the one picture that I wouldn’t be happy about selling. For me, it was an important step within that larger subject matter.
TM: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about your coop. How many chicks do your pigeons produce each year?
AvD: About a dozen youngsters. Fewer survive these days because of the weather conditions. There are also predators, primarily the peregrine falcon. They’re amazing sky hunters. I’ve seen them do it. They show up in pairs and try to trap the birds. They just dive into the flock. It’s amazing when you see it. The economy and the speed of it. You’re kind of awe-struck by it, even though your own birds are under threat. My birds are very good about it. They know what to do. They just scatter. It reminds me of when you hit a strike with a bowling ball. That’s what it looks like when the falcons show up. They don’t stay in a group. They re-gather, but some of them will drop like a brick out of the sky and land directly on top of the coop.
TM: How often do these attacks happen?
AvD: Potentially everyday.
TM: I didn’t realize that there are that many falcons in the city.
AvD: Actually there are. They had almost been totally wiped out. They were brought back to the cities sometime around the 1970s or ‘80s, because they had been so devastated by fertilizer poisons. Their eggs would break and so forth.
TM: You also mentioned that the weather conditions can take a toll on the coop.
AvD: New York is on a weather front and on a migratory path. A lot of birds travel North-South along the coast here. My birds also benefit from the air streams. The weather pounds in from the South-West and then sort of cuts across Manhattan and Long Island into the ocean. A lot of weather passes right over the house. It’s amazing to watch. When I am on the roof, it’s like you forget that you are in the city. Interestingly enough, I have found that sometimes on a totally beautiful day, when the weather is just right — not too hot and very clear — they go so high that they lose their bearings. People have seen them all the way down to Canal Street.
TM: Do they often get lost?
AvD: You lose two or four on the odd day. Then they just dribble back in the days after. It kind of comes with the territory, right? I work with them as a sort trade off. I feed them and vice versa. In exchange they do this beautiful thing.