Alan Vega–the singer for the influential punk duo Suicide who passed away last week at age 78–was also an important visual artist, albeit with a slightly quieter persona. Vega was in fact an artist first and a frontman second. He studied with Ad Reinhardt at Brooklyn College, and he showed work at the OK Harris Gallery in New York in 1974, three years before Suicide released their first record. Suicide were aggressive Minimalists, pioneers in both punk and electronic dance music. Vega’s art was similarly intense and understated. When the dealer Barbara Gladstone, who currently represents artists including Matthew Barney and Thomas Hirschhorn, moved her gallery from 57th Street to SoHo in 1983, it was Vega who inaugurated the space.
“You know, I was going from uptown to downtown,” Gladstone said in a phone interview. “And I thought he was a perfect way to express that.”
Vega showed neon crucifix assemblages, made of pieces of found metal that were “kind of put together in a sort of arte povera manner,” Gladstone said. The gallery had no overhead lighting, so the only light source for the exhibition was the sculptures themselves. “It was very moody,” Gladstone said. “It was beautiful. It was very much like him.” She said working with Vega was a “wonderful” experience. “The only problem for me is that I’m a daytime person and he wasn’t awake in the daytime.”
Vega was, to use Gladstone’s word, an “elusive” artist. She never saw his studio, and wasn’t totally sure if he had one. (At the time, “he lived in a hotel,” she said.) That show in 1983 was for many years his only major outing in New York.
Jeffrey Deitch attempted to revive Vega’s artistic career with a show at his gallery in SoHo in 2002. (Suicide performed at the show, as well.) Deitch had seen Vega’s OK Harris show in 1974 and, “I thought it was some of the most radical work I’d ever seen,” he said. “I thought it was extraordinary. Assemblages of all kinds of electronic parts, discarded TVs, radios, fluorescent tubes—he just plugged it in and whatever lit up, that was the piece.”
Not long after encountering Vega’s art, Deitch saw Suicide perform for the first time, which he viewed as the musical equivalent of Vega’s sculpture. Suicide’s sound was so new, they endured catcalls and rioting audiences in their early years. The response to Vega’s art was slightly more muted. (“The collector response was kind of nonexistent,” Gladstone said of the ’83 show. “But the artist and kind of general hip response was great.”) Decades later, when Deitch reached out to Vega about doing an exhibition, he recalled the artist had to be talked into the idea. “The art world and all the politics of the art world—that was not something that was relevant to him.”
This has certainly not helped the public knowledge of his art. Deitch’s show introduced Vega’s art to a new generation–he remembered how Dan Colen and Dash Snow, two Deitch artists, asked Vega to perform inside their so-called hamster’s nest installation at the gallery in 2007–but Vega mostly kept quiet. An extensive exhibition in Lyon, France, in 2009 led to a solo show in 2015 at Invisible-Exports, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Vega’s first show in New York since Deitch’s.
“The funny thing about Alan is I think he was always making stuff, but he never really cared whether it was seen or not,” said Benjamin Tischer, a co-owner of Invisible-Exports. “It was just something he did.” A major component of the show was a series of portraits of the same face at the same angle with slight variations throughout. Tischer said he started doing these merely to build up his dexterity after a stroke. (Tischer did see Vega’s studio, though. It was a small, blocked-off section of the Financial District apartment he shared with his wife and son.)
Deitch is hoping that a Vega exhibition like the one in Lyon will eventually come to the States. Whether Deitch himself will lead this charge is unclear, but his fall show at his gallery on Wooster Street (which has been closed since 2009 and is reopening this September) will feature Walter Robinson, an artist who also worked on a video for Suicide’s song “Frankie Teardrop.” (The video is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.)
Deitch called Vega “one of the great, radical cultural figures.” He’s had a wide-ranging impact on music, but in the art world, Deitch said, “It’s not fully understood yet how important and radical his work is, and how essential it is in the contemporary artistic dialogue. I think it will become more and more important.”