PRINT Summer 2003


Colin de Land

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT, and I was standing, freezing, outside American Fine Arts, Co., when a shiny new purple pickup truck arrived with its ferocious cargo: The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Naked save for a coat of brightly colored body paint, seven band members leaped from the vehicle and paraded into the packed gallery for their performance. Inside the space, visitors were greeted by a photo in which bandleader Kembra Pfahler was seen prancing on a bed with another naked body—that of Colin de Land, the proprietor of American Fine Arts, painted completely blue and topped with a huge shock of artificial black hair. With characteristic humor and intensity, Colin had joined his new lover to create what looked like a nightmare version of John and Yoko. With Kembra, he had entered a new period of his life after the devastating loss of his wife, Pat Hearn, in 2000, one that abruptly ended with his own death from cancer on March 2, 2003, at the age of forty-seven.

What the art world risks losing with Colin’s passing is described by American Fine Arts’s Christine Tsvetanov as his provision of a “working studio for artists.” For some, Colin was a champion of art’s radical promise, for others their nagging conscience. Given that he was a cofounder of the Armory Fair—where he could be seen sporting a trucker’s cap détourned with a simple piece of tape to read, DON’T BOTHER ME UNLESS YOU’RE BUYING—it may have been hard to understand the importance he placed on tweaking the moneymaking side of dealing in art. But Colin’s politics turned on a single word: gallery. Opening in 1980 as a small spare room in a photographer’s uptown studio before moving through the Lower East Side, the East Village, SoHo, and finally Chelsea, Colin’s space never officially took that name. More than a gallery, it was, he said, his attempt to “reenter society,” and Colin knew better than anyone how art turned on the creation of social value. As ArtClub 2000’s Danny McDonald (to whom Colin vouchsafed the “company,” with Christine) puts it: “Colin’s ability to create a dynamic social space in his gallery was legendary. There was always a great mix of artists, animals, art-world veterans, and a few brave collectors to be seen there at any hour of the day or night. We all showed up to run into each other, but really everyone was trying to get ahold of Colin, who generously directed the flow by simply never saying no.” What follows are the recollections of some of those who passed through that space.

Gareth James


Probably we’ll hear the term “cutting-edge” applied to Colin by a lot of people, which is silly because it implies that he was anticipating the next big thing. His project was more perverse, more in the spirit of having satirical fun with the notion of showing art. There was always some component of a joke in his relation with the art world, of just seeing the humor in the whole Vanity Fair aspect of this funny place where people make ridiculous things that become incredibly valuable and where overbearing rich people park their money. I don’t think Colin had the gene for calculation; he had the gene you find in gamblers. The scandal of our generation is that so many of us died young, and continue to. Living through the ’80s and ’90s with people popping off from AIDS, you never stop feeling scandalized by it in some way. Losing Pat to cancer and now Colin—it just seems incredibly excessive, I mean really too much. It’s like something Truman Capote would invent.


A guy comes up to me on the street and asks, “Where’s American Fine Arts?” and I say, “You mean the Colin de Land show?” “No,” the guy says. “American Fine Arts. It’s a gallery.” And I say, “No, it’s not a gallery, it’s a t.v. show and it’s in the back of the gallery . . . the back room. Like the bar in Cheers. The living room in All in the Family. The apartment in The Honeymooners.” So he says, “It’s a sitcom?” And I say, “Well, it’s a situation.” See, you don’t go to American Fine Arts to see a show . . . you go to see Colin, in the back, that’s where the show is. You walk in, he’s on the phone, he’s got a John Deere baseball hat on, and he’s saying “yes” a lot . . . and Peter Fend is in the corner making Xerox’s and Jack Pierson is working on the mailing list and John Waters walks in as himself. “Oh,” says the guy . . . “so who are you?” “I’m John,” I say. “John who?” “Just John,” the rest of me, the other half, the one who thought it all up, he’s in the back, ask him, he’ll tell you, the reality has no door, the camera is always on and man’s best friend is spelled dogg . . .


Before I met Colin in the late ’80s, I would get calls from art dealers. They would ask for a studio visit, and I would say, “I don’t have a studio.” When I tried that on Colin he said, “I don’t care. If you have an idea you can do a show next month.” I remember once going to see a movie with Colin. We were driving around in the AFA truck, and he pulls up in front of a fire hydrant. Colin had quite an accumulation of parking tickets, so I didn’t ask. Without missing a beat he throws a garbage bag over the hydrant, props a few pieces of drywall against it from the back of the truck—it’s a trash heap! It’s a sculpture! And off we go. But my best experience was a lecture he gave in Vienna. He was extremely nervous about the text, a critical reflection on the way nostalgia and historical amnesia legitimize regressive forces in the art market (somehow by way of Fried’s “Art and Objecthood”). Don’t Look Back was projected behind him while Rambo III, Female Trouble, and Andy Warhol’s Dracula played on three monitors to the side. Periodically a Joan Baez song came up and drowned him out, so he would sit down for a cigarette break. Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t quite put it all together, but when I edited his video documentation, I realized it was one of the most brilliant performances I’ve ever seen.


I think that initially I couldn’t stand him. I knew Pat, but I couldn’t quite figure Colin out—he had that downtown New York quality, an unnerving willingness to suspend ordinary pleasantries. But then I wound up being seduced, and we had a real brotherly relationship. I would have read him as a sort of snob, very cool, but he had friends far and wide who had no prestige. Ultimately, he needed the charge of people around him. I could imagine him as a filmmaker, but his inability to suffer fools gladly made it easier to be the boss of an art gallery and make the world around him like a film. It reminds me of how he was supercompetitive on the tennis court, which I found so shocking! There’s a certain point where you just want to keep the ball going, but he’d do whatever he needed to do to win that point—the whole time smoking on-court. You know, you don’t smoke on the tennis court! Of course, he was doing it to be picturesque. And so it tricks you into thinking he doesn’t care. He was a study in contrasts.


Around ’86 I was showing with Pat and often hung out at her gallery. She started getting these bouquets of roses, and I asked her who had sent them. Some guy called Colin de Land. I always wondered if Colin de Land was a made-up kind of identity—he was such a film noir character. Both Colin and Pat were great selling people, and they were so sexy and attractive. People just wanted to buy something to make them happy. I remember being at one of Colin’s seminars for collectors. He had a great sense of play but also helped them understand the importance of keeping art edgy. It made sense when Kembra and he got together (I’ve known her since teaching at SVA). She was always pretty radical, with that contradiction of really strong, sexy-transgressive work alongside a very holy and spiritual aspect, and Colin obviously loved that.


Colin always had a great look, and the look was alarming—he even scared my parents (I loved that!). He would buy a piece of clothing for a nickel and pull it off. What other art dealer had that style? I mean, no one wore bags under his eyes with such panache. When he got sick you couldn’t even tell: Sometimes he had looked worse when he was healthy—I couldn’t tell when he had chemo, because in Provincetown he’d occasionally wear ludicrous dime-store women’s wigs for no reason. I loved to have meetings with him. He’d write stuff down on bits of paper and would look disorganized, but somehow, underneath it all, he was way more organized than anyone knew. He had a desk but hid in the cellar or bathroom to work: Every collector who came in wanted to talk because he had such a strong personality.

Colin had protégés, an army of followers: the smartest, cutest art kids in New York. He was a great father figure—a cult leader, actually. And certainly Danny and Christine were Tex Watson and Susan Atkins to his Manson, and I mean that in a good way—let’s just say if the Manson family had been artistic . . . You know, it’s hard for me to say how I remember him: “Remember” is the past tense. Do I remember him? He’s still in my life. My speed dial still says “Colin” on it. I can’t imagine taking it off there to call the gallery. Colin was such an important person in my life, and in many, many people’s lives. He’s irreplaceable. You can’t say someone else is going to come in and we’ll say, “He’ll be the new Colin.” Nobody’s going to dream . . . dare try to be the new Colin.