New York

Anton van Dalen

Exit Art

Anton van Dalen is a 50-year-old Dutch-born artist who emigrated to America in 1966. For the past two decades he has lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and made art that addresses the changes in both his own life and the neighborhood’s. Not surprisingly, as someone who moved there and addressed the place in his work long before it became either a fashionable place to live or acceptable subject matter, van Dalen has gained a certain stature among a generation of younger artists.

This exhibition, titled “The Memory Cabinet: Paintings, Drawings, Objects 1950–1988,” was a retrospective survey covering the whole range of van Dalen’s art—paintings, drawings, sculptures, dioramas, stencils, notebooks from various periods in the artist’s life, toy cars he made for his two children, a decorated rabbit hutch, a large dollhouse, and a large sculpture/pigeon coop in the shape of a car. The exhibition also included tokens of the artist’s lifelong interest in birds, particularly pigeons. There were, for example, various birds’ nests from his collection as well as a childhood notebook on pigeons. That van Dalen has been able to sustain and deepen these interests is one of the more compelling aspects of this poignant exhibition.

There is a selflessness and innocence to van Dalen’s work that was particularly evident in this revelatory installation; it was unlike anything I had encountered before in the art world. At one end of the larger of two viewing spaces was The Auto Aviary, 1987, a carlike coop filled with different kinds of live prized pigeons. Rather than making the animals part of his subjective intention, van Dalen had made a place for them to live in. In doing so, he revealed an ongoing interest in peaceful domesticity.

It could be said that van Dalen does not distinguish between the activity of making art and that of making a toy car for one of his children. Moreover, by including such sculptural objects as Black Automobile, 1974—a clever grid-oriented toy car—van Dalen breaks down the hierarchical distinction between functional and esthetic value. Van Dalen’s approach is informed by his belief in functional beauty and the need to communicate information. In his paintings and drawings he uses a fairly neutral, graphic style that ranges from emblematic abstraction to simplified representation, while his sculpture seems to extend from an obsessive patterning and repetition that recalls “tramp art,” among other outsider styles.

Van Dalen uses this approach to document his family life, dreams, interest in animals, imagination, and his neighborhood. He makes no bones about who he is—he is an artist and a civic-minded person with a family. One of his accomplishments is the gentleness with which he represents these two modes of being.

John Yau