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Don Leicht outside his studio in the Bronx.
Don Leicht outside his studio in the Bronx.

Don Leicht (1946–2021)

Pioneering Bronx street artist Don Leicht, aka The Original Space Invader, died on January 22 at the age of 74, according to his longtime friend and collaborator John Fekner. Active since the 1970s, Leicht was part of the first generation of New York street artists and culture jammers, and was best known for his stencil works and for his brightly colored metal, plastic, and cardboard cutouts, many centering around the seminal video games of the era, and often bearing an ideological message regarding politics, gentrification, and advertising, as well as issues of race and class.

Leicht and Fekner met in graduate school in 1973, in a crit class where they both presented what Fekner described as “invisible work,” and in 1976 the two began sharing a studio at P.S. 1 (now MoMA PS1). One of their earliest collaborations was the 1978/79 outdoor project Post No Bills/Post No Dreams, which was inspired by Leicht’s having been rejected by a gallerist who told him, “It’s not possible to get a show on Fifty-Seventh Street.” Fekner recalled, “It was then that I decided to surprise him with a ‘street show’ on Fifty-Seventh Street. For several months, the pair spray-painted the work’s titular phrases, among others, on the plywood construction walls surrounding the site of the future IBM Building.

Their ongoing project Space Invaders, begun in 1982, placed the character of Nishikado’s eponymous arcade game in the context of social commentary; one of their best-known early indoor works featuring the digital icon is titled Your space has been invaded. Our children are fighting a terrible war. Whole families are being sent to the battlescreen. Using a stencil, Leicht spray-painted the character all over New York over the ensuing decades, rendering it especially synonymous with the city in the 1980s.

Leicht was closely aligned with Stefan Eins’s South Bronx art space Fashion Moda, one of the first galleries to present graffiti and street art, and a fundamental force in the emergence of hip-hop, initially exhibiting in their 1982 South Bronx Show alongside arists including graffiti writers Toxic (Torrick Ablack) and Crash (John Matos) and sculptor Rigoberto Torres. Writing in Artforum, Glenn O’Brien described Leicht’s work in a 1983 show there as embodying “leisure demons” that had been “abraded, scratches in the enamel showing the metal underneath.”

Leicht continued to make both indoor and outdoor work, much of it in collaboration with Fekner, until the end of his life. This past summer, in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, Leicht and Fekner reprised their 1987 work Hymn, originally created in response to the death of Michael Griffith, a Black man who was chased by a gang of white youths to his death in Brooklyn traffic in 1986.