PRINT October 2017


Alan Vega

Alan Vega, Stars, 2016, graphite and acrylic on canvas, 36 × 24".

AS THE 1960S DISSOLVED into the ’70s, the late Alan Vega made two transitions: from painter to light sculptor, and from visual artist to rock vocalist. After an epiphanic experience witnessing Iggy Pop in concert in 1969, he teamed up with Martin Rev to form Suicide. The notorious New York duo was equally provocative and prescient, setting the pace not only for punk but for the electropop and EDM movements by stripping rock instrumentation down to a keyboard, drum machine, and vocals. One of Suicide’s first gigs took place at Lower Manhattan’s OK Harris gallery in 1970, alongside an exhibition of Vega’s light sculptures; he also showed at Barbara Gladstone gallery in 1983 and Deitch Projects in 2002. But despite the interest from high-profile gallerists, Vega’s art career has remained obscure, while his music, particularly Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut LP, achieved legendary status. This summer, marking the first anniversary of his death, two exhibitions opened in New York—a show of recent works at Invisible-Exports and an immersive memorial retrospective at Jeffrey Deitch gallery that mixed his drawings and sculpture with photographs, concert videos, and interviews—alongside the release of Vega’s last album, IT (Fader), in an effort to shed light on his myriad artistic pursuits.

With a veritable force field of classic industrial drilling electronics blasting behind his vocals, IT is starkly abrasive compared to Vega’s other solo albums, in which he frequently strove to modify the Suicide sound into something commercially viable. Notably having dropped his trademark “Elvis from Hell” slap-back echo and other vocal effects, Vega here comes across more as a poet than as a singer. Though partly a knowing farewell statement—in “Stars,” he sings, “It’s your life / It’s your given hand, your final hand”—the album is dominated by his characteristic vignettes of American death and destruction, featuring the clipped phrases and blood-and-guts imagery that are typical of his lyrics.

It was the 2016 paintings at Invisible-Exports that truly showed an artistic departure—a final turn—for Vega, who had not painted on canvas for decades. Each was an eerie portrait of a faceless figure from the waist up against a turbulent, brushy monochromatic backdrop, echoing IT’s combinations of Vega’s voice and droning noise. The paintings seemed to have evolved from dozens of similar untitled drawings of street people exhibited at Deitch, and all were a step away from the iconographic Pop-trash workings of Vega’s mixed-media sculptures, though one could still make out vague traces of Elvis, Buddha, the Elephant Man, and Jesus in them. The gallery’s use of footlights to illuminate the canvases was apt—they intimated stage lighting, and if viewers moved toward a painting, they would cast shadows that further shrouded the portraits in mystery. (Ironically, Vega initially began fastening lights directly to his color-field paintings in order to keep them evenly lit regardless of the viewer’s position; he ultimately removed the paintings altogether and focused on the light bulbs as material for sculpture.)

It’s no coincidence that the Invisible-Exports show was called “Keep IT Alive”—the seven paintings all shared titles with tracks on the album. (The 2002 Deitch show was also named for a Vega solo album, 1981’s Collision Drive.) But there is little apparent relationship between the songs’ lyrics and the paintings, or the paintings’ titles and their voided subjects. Rather than serve an illustrative purpose, the doublings reinforce the idea of his music and artwork sharing a unified aesthetic. In the sculptures at Invisible-Exports, Suicide songs like “Ghost Rider” and “Rocket USA” were evoked by the Ghost Rider and rocket stickers on Holy Ghost, 2016, and Magister Ludi, 2007; the flickering Christmas-tree lights in American Supreme, 2016 (also the title of a 2002 Suicide album), have the same unrelenting pulsation as Suicide’s rhythm box; and the chain attached to Bill Dee, 2013, recalls the bike chains Vega wielded onstage in Suicide’s confrontational early concerts. Vega seized on crucifixes as a motif in the ’80s, and a correspondence can be gleaned between the structures of his sculptures (lights, electronics, and sundry debris attached to an invariably chewed-up two-plank cross) and his songs (streetwise lyrics over a distorted, two- or three-note repeated figure and a similarly obsessive, hypnotic beat). In a video interview withfilmmakerPaul Tschinkel on display in the Deitch show, Vega said that he conceives of a cross as two parallel lines that meet at the point of infinity, which could also be seen as a metaphor for the intersection of his art and music, or the durability and remarkable chemistry of his partnership with Rev.

There is also a very faint cross in each of the 2016 paintings, two barely detectable thin lines that extend to the edges. This nods toward the influence of Ad Reinhardt, Vega’s art teacher at Brooklyn College in the late ’50s, whose legendary “black paintings” feature monochromatic crosses that hover near imperceptibility. Vega was also an admirer of Jackson Pollock, and compared the numerous electric wires dangling from his sculptures to Pollock’s splashes. As the dramatic juxtaposition of Vega’s blown-out sculptures and a larger-than-life video projection of a still-startling 1980 Suicide concert in the Deitch show’s main room made abundantly clear, of all the artists who sought to propel color field and action painting into new forms beyond the picture plane, Vega was surely the only one to take these as far as assemblage, performance, and the catharsis of rock.

Alan Licht is a writer and musician based in New York.