I met Anton van Dalen more than 30 years ago and first reviewed him in Artforum (December 1988), when he had a retrospective survey, The Memory Cabinet: Paintings, Drawings, Objects 1950–1988, at Exit Art.
That memorable exhibition included a childhood notebook on pigeons, which has been a lifelong interest. In 1995, I included his work in a group show, Murder, which traveled to a number of alternative spaces across the United States. And yet, as well as I know van Dalen’s art, his current exhibition, Anton van Dalen: Junk Kulture at P.P.O.W. (March 21–April 20, 2019), surprised me because the installation showed me another way to see the work.
High on the wall, in two of the exhibition’s three discrete gallery spaces, van Dalen has affixed long horizontal sheets of matboard filled with graphic images done in gouache against a solidly colored ground. The graphic images are of flowers and plants, birds and birds’ heads, and arrows indicating the flow of an unspecified material or power. Beneath these “Runners” (all of which are dated 1980), van Dalen is exhibiting oil paintings, painted wood cut-outs arranged on tables, works on paper (in graphite, colored pencil, India ink and graphite, and oil pastel).
These works — many of which are part of various numbered series — are dated between 1966 and 2019. In terms of subject matter and method, there are two obvious constants. For more than 50 years, van Dalen has been exploring the relationship of humans to technology, and how that bond shapes our behavior. Using simple means, often just pencil and paper, he has made careful, painstaking images that incorporate pattern, shading, invented machines, and schematic views.
Done in India ink and graphite on paper, the selection of nine numbered Bird Portraits — drawings from a larger series, all dated 2019 — show an artist at the top of his game: meticulous draftsmanship in service of an idiosyncratic imagination merged to civic-mindedness. This is only one side of van Dalen’s sensibility.
Whatever their basis in reality, the Bird Portraits struck me as something I might see on the wall of a classroom — if I were a character in a science fiction novel. Juxtapose this group with four colored pencil drawings from the series, Science Fiction (all dated 1983), and this side of van Dalen’s approach becomes multi-faceted.
In Science Fiction, the artist merges faceless, mannequin-like figures with their own war machines, such as planes and tanks, to create lethal hybrid beings. The jaunty colors and unexpected details — a large M that reminded me of the McDonald’s golden arches logo in the background of one drawing — complicate our reading of these works. Van Dalen is able to merge boyish enthusiasm and visual inventiveness with a communal consciousness.
Van Dalen’s deeper interest is in the origins of human behavior: what makes us act as we do? Is all behavior the result of external factors, of positive and negative reinforcement, as the behaviorist B.F. Skinner hypothesized? Like Skinner, who taught pigeons to do all sorts of things, including playing ping pong, van Dalen’s relationship with pigeons goes far back, starting when he was a child growing up in Holland. A longtime resident of the Lower East Side — he moved to the East Village in 1972 — he has raised high-flyer pigeons on the roof of his building for many decades. He can list the different breeds of pigeons and he did a painting for the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, which died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 (not in the exhibition).
I was reminded of this aspect of the artist’s background when I saw the painting “B.F. Skinner With Project Pigeon” (1986) from his Space Flight series, which I first encountered in his Exit Art exhibition. In addition to his interest in the intersection of technology and human behavior, as well as nature and animals, van Dalen is an astute observer of neighborhoods, especially the East Village, and its daily events. In his painting “Evangelical Christian Church” (1983), which was also in the Exit Art exhibition, we see an abandoned car, stripped of its tires, in front of a church, whose brightly colored windows in this largely black and gray painting recall Piet Mondrian’s abstractions and van Dalen’s Dutch upbringing. Van Dalen’s painting seems to be asking if Mondrian’s utopian vision is still useful, especially since next door to the church there is an abandoned building with its ground floor sealed by concrete blocks. We see the silhouette of a man climbing into a hole in one of the block walls, presumably to score drugs inside.
The Mondrian reference got me thinking about van Dalen’s interest in human behavior, what we believe in and why. Individually and collectively, we have been programmed to want better lives. But what does that mean? Is technology the answer? What possessions do we really need? What can we do without? I remember my first visit to van Dalen’s home in the early 1980s, where I learned that he raised chickens so that his children could have fresh eggs in the morning. In “Evangelical Christian Church,” the abandoned car sits between the church and the hole in the wall where the man goes hunting for drugs, forming an inverted triangle. Neither form of salvation, religion or opiates, strikes me as fulfilling, a feeling which is reinforced (to use a Skinnerian word) by the abandoned car. “Evangelical Christian Church” belongs in a New York Museum.
The point of a retrospective survey is not simply to look back; it is also to point forward, which is exactly what his show at Exit Art did. In the current 50-year survey, I was particularly struck by three drawings he made in the last few years. One of them, “Crusade” (2019), is of a plane/animal flying overhead, its cruciform bomb bay doors open as crosses fall out. Above the plane, van Dalen has spelled out “CRUSADE,” isolating the middle three letters, USA, in black, calling attention to the Christian imperialism of America’s foreign policy, its hatred of the other. But there is nothing preachy about the drawing. What is most unsettling is that its imagery could be viewed as a positive thing. He has channeled the propagandistic rhetoric of posters and sloganeering and made something that challenges us to reconsider our ideologies.
In the other two drawings, meticulously done in India ink and graphite on panel in one piece and on paper in the other, van Dalen’s merging of draftsmanship and inventiveness is unrivaled. In “iPhone Girl with Mini Dog” (2019), he depicts a ubiquitous sight in the gentrified East Village, where he still lives — a young woman holding a cigarette and staring into the phone’s eerily lit screen while cradling a small dog, oblivious of the darkening world around her.
In the India ink and graphite drawing “After the Hunt” (2018), which measures 84 by 54 inches, he depicts an emaciated nude man — his ribs are showing through his skin — strung up by his feet in a shadowy room where three pigeons are strung up by their necks. A table with a vase of flowers is placed between the man, in the foreground, and the pigeons in the background. The precedent is 17th-century Flemish still-life painting, except that a human being has replaced the usual hunted game. Nothing in the drawing indicates why this has happened. The attention to shading, light, form, and detail is astounding. This is one of the things art can do – invite the viewer to pay attention, and in doing so, reflect on what is being looked at. This is something that van Dalen does time and again in this exhibition.
Anton van Dalen: Junk Kulture continues at P•P•O•W (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 20.