Very few spaces break from the normal definition of the gallery as a glorified shop. American Fine Arts, Co. was something different: a breeding ground for talent, energy, ideas and fun. Its founder, Colin de Land (pronounced “dee land”), transformed his space into a social hub that pushed cultural boundaries and became a hangout for an entire generation of bohemian New Yorkers – people like John Waters, Johnny Depp, Richard Prince, Mariko Mori and Chloë Sevigny. His personal charm was part of it; he was sexy in a black-haired, hooded-eyed 1980s New York way, with a trucker hat and laconic voice, often accompanied by coffee and cigarettes. By the time of his death in 2003, he was, in the words of John Waters, “a cult gutter-couture icon.”
Born in New Jersey, de Land’s early life is blurry. Writer and artist Dennis Balk, who put together Colin de Land: American Fine Arts, a touching book of photographic ephemera and stories about the gallerist, recalls him being close to his mother, who had a penchant for gambling. “He was certainly a New Yorker from an early age,” Balk notes. De Land came to art from an academic background – his first brush with art dealing came when he offered to sell a Warhol painting for his Lower East Side neighbour who needed money for drugs. His first space was the raw Vox Populi, opened in 1984, on East Sixth Street in the then-vibrant East Village. It focused on artists on the art-world periphery whose approach clicked with his own training in classic philosophy. Art about ideas and dynamic concepts.
De Land renamed the gallery American Fine Arts, Co. in 1986, but it was when he moved the space to 40 Wooster Street, just south of Soho proper, that it became a serious part of the art scene. “American Fine Arts became the space for ongoing projects that occupied the gallery for an exhibition duration but would not necessarily be completed or resolved,” Balk says. “The whole exhibition calendar was a work in progress.” It was 1988, and Soho was entering the era of big, white expensive art spaces. De Land deliberately chose somewhere off-centre, a hard-to-find building next to a lumber supply store and opposite a parking lot. The gallery didn’t have a sign for a month and advertised only in Artforum, where de Land worked occasionally as an electrician to avoid having to make money through selling work.
The space started a number of serious careers – Nils Norman, Mariko Mori, Mark Dion – and is remembered for off-key events such as the annual arts and crafts Bee-In. De Land even occasionally exhibited fictional artists, including John Dogg, whose work is said to have been created by de Land and Richard Prince, and would constantly hold seminars to educate local collectors in contemporary work. All this was achieved through managed chaos with no clear-cut approach to documentation. Photo-graphers were given loaded cameras when they came in, and de Land was always snapping things.
“The exhibitions and artists were interested in the political economies of the object and theatricalising the worn-out, habituated roles of the artist and the studio,” Balk says. “The walls were white but the floor was beyond repair, giving the shows their own edge. De Land was open to humour and youth. Artists loved him. Money wasn’t his focus. His approach was haphazard – artists would still be installing when shows opened – but somehow his energy always held things together.”
One of American Fine Arts, Co.’s best-known artist projects was Art Club 2000, a group of seven Cooper Union students who had studied under German systems artist Hans Haacke. In 1992, de Land invited them to form a collective focused on institutional critique. One early project was a tongue-in-cheek take on the bland ubiquity of The Gap, its effect on New York’s landscape, and the fetishism of youth. De Land passed a box of photographs to the publisher of Artforum, who printed the staged images of the group lounging in a furniture store in matching Gap shirts and khakis and standing in Times Square in identical “Gap grunge” denim.
“De Land was open to humour and youth. Artists loved him. Money wasn’t his focus. His approach was haphazard – artists would still be installing when shows opened – but somehow his energy always held things together” – Dennis Balk
John Kelsey of art collective Bernadette Corporation cites de Land as a formative influence. “I must have met Colin through Danny (McDonald) and Patterson (Beckwith) of Art Club 2000,” Kelsey says. “I wasn’t much a part of the art world back then. I was doing film, and it was young, clubby people who lured me into Colin’s orbit. It was a social thing.” De Land was excited by a series of weird, low-budget, wooden ads Kelsey had made for a Japanese shopping mall, and invited him to be in a group show. “It was a time of raves in New York, and DIY art, collective stuff, drugs, fashion. The Japanese shopping mall wanted to use this fantasy to promote their mall back in Hiroshima. Colin was interested in my distortion of that situation, and saw it as video or performance art, which I guess it was.”
The space became a social centre for downtown New York cool, a scene that also included rave/skate shop Liquid Sky, Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery and the Matador Records crowd at Max Fish. “AFA pretty much was the beginning, end and middle of the art world for me at that time,” Kelsey remembers. “De Land was open to humour and youth. Artists loved him. Money wasn’t his focus. His approach was haphazard – artists would still be installing when shows opened – but somehow his energy always held things together” – Dennis Balk
“The shows were aggressive and strange and funny and poor, plus all my friends were there. It felt possible to invent your own world in that context with people you wanted to be around, and it wasn’t just art people. In the midst of economic recession it felt very strong, like AFA was really in its element in crisis. Colin had no money, so it felt okay that nobody else did either.”
The backroom at American Fine Arts, Co. had sofas, chairs and desks piled high with papers, books, art and general clutter. De Land welcomed anyone – uptown money, European artists and dealers, celebrities and dropouts. His own personality was part of the draw. “What constitutes charisma?” Dennis Balk asks, rhetorically. “Who knows, but Colin had it. He was masculine in his mannerisms and his body language, but ask him to put on a wig or a costume, he wouldn’t hesitate. He had an outward self-confidence and an inner need to be around people. A gifted conversationalist, he could go as deep as time would allow when engaged in a conversation about the fine points of an artist’s project. He was the sounding board. Collectors and others in the art world of that time relied heavily on his opinion. He knew what he was talking about and could spot a fake from a mile off.
When German gallerist Christian Nagel met de Land in 1986, the latter’s chaotic approach stood out against the advertising-style false grins of the art world Nagel had encountered elsewhere in the city. “There he stood,” Nagel remembers, “American trucker hat, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth and a cheap jacket, often with a thin tie and diverse trashy jewellery from Canal Street.” At that time de Land was working with artists everyone wanted to steal – Cady Noland, Jessica Diamond, Jessica Stockholder, later Mark Dion and Andrea Fraser. “Colin was an underdog,” Nagel notes. “He was often unable to pay his bills but preferred to work as an electrician rather than make compromises. We collaborated a lot.”
In 1992, de Land came to Nagel’s native Cologne to show as part of Unfair, an alternative art fair. “He showed an empty booth with a video showing a chimney fire, the place where the collector can relax,” Nagel says. “By hour and day by day, artworks by American Fine Arts artists were installed during the fair. He showed up three hours before the opening to install his booth and finished it shortly after the opening.” At another art fair the works arrived late, so de Land filled the space with stuffed animals bought at the airport until they arrived.
De Land’s partner for much of his life was dealer Pat Hearn, who also had a space on Wooster. He would have shows at the same time as her and they would block the street. In 1993, the same year American Fine Arts, Co. moved down the road to 22 Wooster Street, the pair launched the Gramercy International Art Show with two other dealers at the Gramercy Park Hotel, persuading gallerists like Hauser and Wirth, Pat Hearn, David Zwirner, Jay Jopling and Nagel himself to exhibit. “Colin was an excellent thinker, a brilliant talker,” Nagel says. “His gallery was his studio, and he understood it not only as an exhibition surface but also as a social space. Colin de Land was one of the last avant-gardists of New York City.” The event started a trend for big art fairs, but had lost a sense of freedom and fun by the time it was reincarnated as the Armory International Art Fair in other hands.
De Land discovered he had cancer after fighting to save Hearn, who died in 2000 from the same disease. Three years later, his town hall memorial was rammed. “Colin de Land was the last survivor of the underground when everything around him became surface,” mega-curator Francesco Bonami says. “He was a one-man band.” But Nagel is pessimistic about de Land’s legacy: “Most of his ideas and beliefs don’t really exist nowadays. The people who pseudo-imitate him do it because they want to be regarded as avant-gardist but they only want to make profit. I don’t see a gallery which could be compared to American Fine Arts.”
“Colin de Land was the last survivor of the underground when everything around him became surface” - Francesco Bonami
But younger artists and curators are discovering his work, and not simply to imitate him. De Land’s library is now available in a semi-public way, archived and travelling internationally. Sternberg Press published Dealing With – some texts, images and thoughts related to American Fine Arts, Co. in 2012 to accompany a show at Halle für Kunst Lüneburg near Hamburg. Art Papers editor and artistic director Victoria Camblin sums up what his work symbolises to a younger generation: “A potential, even imminent ‘fuck you’ – to the art establishment, to whomever – seemed to hover in the air around American Fine Arts.It was exquisitely branded, or rather, anti-branded. He never sent out press releases. De Land’s hands-off approach to promotion may well have freed up a space for unmitigated engagement with the work. It was also just classy.”
In a contemporary art scene in which money, branding and finance are all-important, de Land – haphazard, heroic and truly engaged with art – could just become a pin-up for an alternative way of being.