Currently reading : SB5 Archive (2010): Alan Suicide Vega in Discussion with Mathieu Copeland, New York, December 2009

SB5 Archive (2010): Alan Suicide Vega in Discussion with Mathieu Copeland, New York, December 2009

12 September 2017

Words by Mathieu Copeland

Alan Vega, exhibition view at Gallery Marc, Washington, DC, 1972. Photography by Alan Vega, courtesy of Alan Vega

A seminal figure of the New York alternative art scene, and a pioneer of minimalist electronic rock as co-founder of the mythical band Suicide, Alan Vega is one of the most influential artists and musicians, turning punk into the manifesto of a reason to live.

In 1969, Alan Suicide (born Alan Bermovitz in 1938 in New York City, where he still lives and works) is one of the founding members of MUSEUM; a Project of Living Artists, one of the first alternative artist-run spaces in NYC. Open 24/7 and dedicated to all forms of art–music, visual arts and cinema, the place instantly becomes a showcase for many artists and musicians. In this saturated context, the one who from 1977 was to be called Alan Vega finds an ideal environment to achieve his musical and artistic goals.

Anti-aesthetic, anti-formalist and equivalent to some sort of an Arte Povera un-made in the USA, Vega’s work embraces the contemporary reality in which he is immersed. Ignoring any preciousness, he recycles both his own works and the waste that surrounds him.

This fundamental work reminds us of the need to accept an art that is not the production of fetish objects, to embrace the transience of all things, and to deny all affectation and idolatry.

"I love the element of not knowing. I love accidents. They take you to the next place, and you have to be open to them."

Alan, from the very beginning, you combined the fields of music and art.
I don’t intellectualize what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I am often asked if the music relates to the art. The answer is yes, it’s always going to be mine. When I work, one similarity between music and art is that I start out with an idea of what I want to have and by the time I’m finished with it, I wonder how it happened. I love that feeling, you finish 2/3rds of whatever you work on, and then it starts telling you what to do.

And yet you always follow a process, for instance with the light sculptures there will be a string of lamp-sockets, and the piece is made according to the lights that you add one by one.
That, and how I place the wires and wrap things. There’s no rhythm. Sometimes I’ll spend hours arranging wires and sometimes I’ll spend 2 seconds. I love the element of not knowing. I love accidents. They take you to the next place, and you have to be open to them.

Could you tell me how you met Ivan Karp, Director from OK Harris, where you held your first solo shows from 1971 until 1975?
Ivan first came to see my work in 1969 during my first group exhibition at Museum, when it was still on 729 Broadway. After my first solo show at OK Harris, as I had no space to keep my work, Ivan let me store it in his basement. A year later I had another show at the gallery, so I took all the work out of his basement and hung them from the ceilings onto the walls. Again after the show I stored the work in the basement, and for the third show in 73 I did another installation with still the same pieces, installed in a third way!

So you re-used the same sculpture, recycling your own structures into different exhibitions?
Ivan only sold one piece, to a guy down in Washington who ran Gallery Marc. I had a show there in ‘72. But you see, I had no place to work, I was broke, I had to store the work, and year after year I changed things around.

It reminds me of your fourth solo show at OK Harris in 1975, when you brought TVs and material off the street into the gallery, worked with them making these into artworks, and when the show was over you brought these back onto the street. Recycling your own work over 3 years was the first step; and next you would recycle found materials, transform these into art, and then bring these materials back to where they originally belonged.
From dust to dust, from creation to death, the whole cycle.

Indeed, your work has a very ephemeral and transient aspect.
It’s interesting, as when I look at my work I see it as something that’s very “New York”. For the Lyon retrospective of my work, it was a chance to step back and look at all that I’ve done throughout the years. The impression it brings forward is very radical and so beautiful.

Looking at Infinite Mercy, the altarpiece that you created for the retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, this piece appears to be a summary of your life’s work: lights, neons, crucifix, wires and of course the street, your political engagement, and your desires.
Nazi soldier of the ‘30s and ‘40s, aliens from a distant future, boxers of the ‘80s and ‘90s…all these time periods. The piece for me is also a time sequence.

The centerpiece of Infinite Mercy is made of a very large image of a plastic figurine of Jesus.
That cheap little figure creates such a powerful mental image. It becomes this most beautiful thing. You have to let those things happen. In the same way that the image had to be red to contrast with the blue from the TV screens; the Christ above the sky. And the photographs became like nothing I’d ever seen before. Blowing them up changed the nature of these images.

It is part of the visual vocabulary that you have developed over the years. The pictures of the Nazis taken from TV are similar to the one you used in the book Deuce Avenue that you realized in 1992, and again in the 16-page piece that you created in 2009 to conclude your first monograph book that accompanies the retrospective. Again, you recycle!
It’s never ending. We become the Nazis and the interrogators and the torturers.

Alan Vega, IGGY, 1976, exhibited at Project of Living Artists, NYC lights, bulged plastic, wood, 112 x 167.5 cm. Photography by Alan Vega courtesy of Alan Vega
Alan Vega, AL’S BAR, 1994, lights, electric wires, wood, plastic, metal 122 x 190.5 cm. Photography by Alan Vega courtesy of Alan Vega

The Second World War, although you were very young then, left you with a great impression.
I was always fascinated by the war and all the stories I heard. I was sick a lot as a child so I would read all these books on WWII at home. The Nazis, it was the uniforms, the atrocities, the concentration camps. It was partly fascination, partly horror. It’s like when I saw the World Trade Centre a couple of days after it happened, only the structure was left. It was the most beautiful and also the most horrific thing I’d ever seen. No artist, no human being, could make a sculpture like that. It looked like it had been done from God’s hand and yet it was a site of death. A sculpture fashioned out of insanity turned into something beautiful.

Beauty and revulsion is the core of your work. As we worked on the altar piece in Lyon, with the Nazi photographs and the American flag, you told me that the last thing you wanted was people to read 'America=Nazi'. It looked simple, but it wasn’t simplistic. And to pursue upon your political engagement against the Vietnam War from the ‘60s and ‘70s, this piece is a violent statement against the Iraq war.
That’s the point I was trying to make. Who is attacking everybody in the world right now? Us, the US. We talk about all these other countries killing people but we’re the ones dropping all these bombs on the Iraqis.

Social commentaries run through your music too, we could simply mention your song 'Frankie Teardrop'.
Yes, Frankie Teardrop is a guy who doesn’t have enough money to feed his family, and we are living in the same world now that we were in ‘74/‘75 when I wrote the song. All these years later, nothing has changed.

You synthesize all these thoughts in Suicide’s first record, your feelings, your anger, and yet this album is full of hope. You often told me that Suicide is an appraisal of life.
Yes. It was a political statement, we were going through Nixon, Vietnam, New York was collapsing. It’s like a Dickens statement, the best and the worst of times. That’s what New York was in those days. We had no money, nowhere to stay, but we made a party out of our misery. And we had a hope for the future in music and art. Suicide was about America killing itself, and also about killing yourself to become another person. That’s what I did in my life, a shy person who became a front man. I had to transform myself into something I never thought I would be.

I now would want to talk to you about your drawings.
Drawing started as my main thing in art school, I never considered myself a painter. Drawing for me was something to do. Painting was a pain.

Alan Vega, Untitled, 1969, exhibited at Project of Living Artists, NYC, in 1971, light installation. Photography by Anne E. Hubbard courtesy of Alan Vega
Xxhibition view Alan Vega, Infinite Mercy at Musee d’art contemporain de Lyon, May 15 - August 2, 2009. Photography by Blaise Adilon
Exhibition view Alan Vega, Infinite Mercy at Musee d’art contemporain de Lyon, May 15 - August 2, 2009. Photography by Blaise Adilon

How did you approach reality through your drawings?
Brooklyn College, where I studied in the late 1950s, was a very interesting place, full of Abstract Expressionists and Geometricists who shunned everything realistic. So I studied with the Swiss-American Surrealists painter and engraver Kurt Seligmann, and with him I mainly did drawings, etchings and lithographs. He lived in upstate NY where I once went to visit him, and unfortunately he died a couple of years after I left college in 1960. And I also studied with Ad Reinhardt.

This must have been such an experience. And as a professor he was famous for showing the slides taken during his trips.
He used to travel to Japan, he loved the Orient, and he’d take all these pictures. I remember him once saying say that white is the colour of death and black the colour of life. His pictures were beautiful. But above all he was a great philosopher, and when he spoke you’d listen.

Many saw his late work, the ultimate paintings, as the death of painting.
It wasn’t but it was. That’s what got me later on to sculpture. As a young artist what do you do after that? He took everything out of it, or put everything in, in one grand gesture.

Coming back to the drawings, for the past few years you have mainly depicted faces, could you discuss these?
I always loved people and I love drawing old people. They have the picture of life etched on their faces.

You often told me that in order to write you have to draw.
Doing drawings is a daily obsession, like writing lyrics. It’s a way of putting ideas down. Doing a drawing comes to you fast, like writing. But I am frustrated writer who can’t put together more than three words in a line! I see myself rather as a poet. I’ll have hundreds of pieces of paper with one line or one word on. I’ll take these words and lines, and spend weeks combing these together. Gradually it starts making sense. In the early days I was probably more patient than I am now, I was also trying to develop a skill. Now I want to destroy the fact that I have a skill, I want to make it look totally primitive. If you look at all my drawings they are so much a part of my sculptures. Look at the wires, they’re all drawings. The wires are the lines of my drawings.

And we should talk of the intensity of drawing.
I don’t know how hard I’m doing it sometimes, and then there’s a big hole in the thing, I love that. When drawing I go into this mental zone. There’s no thinking involved. When working with the sculptures so much goes into it, it’s very much like a chess game where you do this first and that second…With drawings you have to get to another place, somewhere I don’t give a shit. I’ll sit down, out of my mind and at peace. I’ll often write lyrics like that too, and out of your mind I’ll string together words.

At present, what are you writing?
When you start you always have an idea for what you want to do, but when it comes out sounding nothing like what you anticipated at all then you know you’ve done your job. I love to get to this place where I can’t sing to my own music, that’s when I know I’m on the right track.

You mentioned singing, and I wanted to discuss how you are not dealing only with words, but also with styles of music. For instance, with Jukebox Baby, you are abusing rockabilly.
Yeah, I was trying to make it avant-garde rockabilly. I’ve loved that music all my life and no one ever tried to do something avant-garde with it, to take it to a new place without losing the rockabilly.

What strikes me is that for you there seem to be no distinction between art and music, the stories always goes from one to the other.
There is a separation to some degree, but it’s all the same fingerprint. It’s Alan Vega to Alan Suicide to Alan Bermowitz. And yet I’m not the same person I was 20, 30, or again 40 years ago. It is hard to believe that I became what I am. I don’t know how or why Marty Rev came into my life. You need these miracles. A friend of mine who went to art school with me told me about going to the meeting of the Art Workers Coalition. It changed my life. I got on with these people, and within the Project of Living Artists I suddenly found myself part of a scene. There was so much in the air in those days about revolution. I decided to change my life but had no idea how to do it. I still can’t tell you why or what for. We survived whilst starving and not having a place to stay, and at the same time Suicide was creating a revolution that’s still ongoing.

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