The Daily Heller: The Assistant, Anton van Dalen

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Anton van Dalen (b. 1938, Amstelveen, Netherlands) moved to New York City's East Village in 1966. And he has not moved in the six decades since. He's become a landmark of this now-gentrified former Beat Generation bohemia and hippie psychedelic haven. The neighborhood, once the epicenter of alternative culture (and trained pigeons) today retains some of its past grungy glory, with the exception of super-high real estate prices.

Van Dalen has painted the paintings, collaged the collages and made the graphics that were and are emblems of the East Village. He was a founding member of the painting scene at the legendary P-P-O-W Gallery, and if you walk south down Avenue A, his monuments to the city can still be seen.

He is still going strong. But I have another agenda in posting this piece. For 30 years he was the cine qua non of artist assistants. In that time, while creating a name for himself, he was the assistant to the very private artist Saul Steinberg, which, out of respect, he kept secret until Steinberg's death in 1999.

I conducted this conversation with van Dalen for the catalog of his exhibition STEINBERG: An Intimate View of His World, held Feb. 9–March 13, 2004, at the Visual Arts Museum of the School of Visual Arts. When planning the next installment of "The Assistant" for PRINT, I couldn't think of a better way to continue the series. (The work shown here is from van Dalen's website.)

Upon arriving in New York from his native Holland, there were two men that the young artist Anton van Dalen was determined to meet. One was Weegee, the New York street photographer, and the other was Saul Steinberg, the cartoonist and artist. Unannounced, van Dalen called upon Weegee at his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, and to his surprise was invited to spend about an hour. Conversely, Steinberg, who he blindly telephoned (as he was listed in the phonebook) proved a bit more elusive, but persistence paid off and van Dalen was eventually invited to his apartment for a two-hour visit. With these goals achieved, van Dalen was content to follow his artistic career, but fate intervened.

A few months after their initial meeting, van Dalen ran into Steinberg on 57th Street and was invited to the opening of his exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery. It was here that Steinberg asked van Dalen if he could recommend someone to work as his assistant. To which the young artist said, “Let me do it, I will do anything.” And so began (at his studio at 33 Union Square West, the same building as Andy Warhol’s “Factory”) a 30-year working relationship that would have made van Dalen the envy of many artists, if only they knew. Instead it was a closely guarded secret. Given Steinberg’s want for privacy and van Dalen’s need not to be totally overshadowed as an artist, only a few confidants were ever told about his daily whereabouts. In turn Steinberg so trusted van Dalen that he became the beneficiary of certain artifacts and his one-on-one tutorials (although van Dalen’s artwork shows no overt Steinbergian characteristics).

After Steinberg died in 1999, van Dalen inherited his entire library and some of the tables and chairs from his studio. Last year, after keeping this secret for so long, he decided that it was time to tell all, to celebrate his employer through a showing of books, drawings, sketches, printed matter and other work that sheds more light on Steinberg’s passions. Yet rather than exhibit at a museum or gallery, van Dalen decided to mount the show at The School of Visual Arts in order to introduce Steinberg to a brand-new generation. In this interview, van Dalen talks openly about the role Steinberg played in his life and the intimate side few people have seen or read about.

You were born and raised in Holland. When did you become aware of Steinberg’s work?

I was introduced to Steinberg’s art at 13 by my older brother, who studied at the Rietveld Academy of Art in Amsterdam. The innovation Steinberg brought to us was the idea of drawing with a single line, no shading, etc. We were struck by the graphic clarity of his art and the worldly use of various drawing techniques, but mostly by the exuberance and boundless curiosity of his mind. In 1954, when I was 16 years old, my family immigrated from Holland to Toronto, and it was there that I saw his just-published book, The Passport, which revealed the breadth of his thinking. Also The New Yorker, for which he had begun to work in 1943, projected the enormous unequaled power of American ideas and influence. Steinberg was for many of my generation a representation of America. His art epitomized the post–World War II optimism—an optimism that in the 1960s grew dark, as it did in his art, and reflected the cultural shift and loss of innocence.

Did he employ other assistants during your 30-year tenure?

I was the only one who worked regularly for Steinberg at his Union Square studio and then at 103 E. 75th St. He did occasionally have a carpenter who built his tables. These tables, beginning in the 1970s, were an integral part of his work, upon which he attached his art. At his Amagansett summer house and studio he had a second assistant, also a carpenter, which worked for him on a regular basis. He built for him many tables and glued upon them Steinberg’s drawn, painted, cut and carved wood elements. Steinberg always did his own drawing and painting. No one ever did that for him.

Steinberg was quite a private artist. Did he demand confidentiality from you? How did you earn his trust?

Steinberg was extremely private, but I also sought to have our relationship private. Whereas he revealed his privacy on his own terms through his enigmatic art, for me privacy was a matter of survival as a person and an artist. Because of his powerful personality, renown, and his 23-year advantage over me, I kept a certain distance with him to keep my identity intact. Also, I was self-conscious that people might think that either I was shaped by him or advantaged through him—I would not
allow either. So few people—only close friends—knew of my relationship with him. During the 30 years I never went public with it.

You are an artist and you are Dutch. Was there any connection between you and Steinberg’s work?

In Steinberg’s complex art there are several layers that derive from his affection for Dutch art. The skies of his watercolors (with rubber-stamped figures) are clearly taken from the 17th century landscape paintings of Jacob Ruisdael, with their low horizon and dramatic effect of space. Also, on occasion through the years, Steinberg did imaginary portraits of Vincent Van Gogh. In fact, he adopted a way of drawing where each line is a description of the nature of the subject rather than rendered real life. Mondrian was also a recurring influence. In fact, when I first met Steinberg he had just made a number of fake Mondrian paintings and was amused that people assumed they were the real thing. At that time he had begun to make the so-called “tables” with trompe l’oeil objects arranged in a Mondrian way on horizontals and verticals. Like the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, Steinberg explored the ambiguity of reality as a puzzle. All of which made me wonder at times if my being a Dutch artist was another manifestation of that interest, and if all that “order” he often asked me to make around him, where I put everything in horizontals and verticals—the Mondrian in me—which in turn influenced his tables.

One of the things that set Steinberg apart from other cartoonists, illustrators and painters was a language that seemed to be totally his own, but it had to come from somewhere. In the collection of his books and other materials that he left to you after he died, the roots become evident. What are these roots?

Steinberg grew up in Bucharest, Romania. The Romania of his childhood was culturally isolated from the European centers of power and a remnant of the former Turkish Ottoman Empire. Plus, it was a country with a relatively small Jewish community without a worldly center like Vienna or Berlin. Leaving for Milan at age 19 in 1933 to study architecture represented a huge leap into the then-modern world. He often expressed embarrassment and shame of his homeland’s culture, which he never returned to visit after he left for America in 1942. When I asked him why he had not gone back, he told me that he would if a travel agent could sell him a 1922 ticket. It was in his later years that he did touching drawings that spoke of his childhood home life and the personages of his family. Because of his interest in postcards, he had me find cards of the Bucharest streets and buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, which he then studied with pleasure through a magnifying glass. At the very end of his life, a friend got him a large map of Bucharest from the New York Public Library, which he then had me photo-enlarge the neighborhood of his childhood. From this he drew in pencil on a large piece of paper his last map, which was his last drawing.

What were some of his influences, and who did he truly respect in the art world?

Much of Steinberg’s art was his invention, and a deliberate misleading and blurring of his actual personal history. It was these disguises that gave him the freedom of many points of view. Picasso and James Joyce were among his most profound influences, both explored ideas on multiple planes and identities, and with ferocious curiosity towards all manner of means and sources. Of the generation of artist that came after Steinberg, it was my impression that Andy Warhol most held his interest and respect. Both were social and political artists. I remember one time Steinberg was pondering on a series of Warhol paintings about the Communist hammer and sickle symbol. In the works, Warhol had separated the two objects and laid them down as a still life, on which Steinberg said that he was surprised he had not thought of this idea.

There is a lot of history in Steinberg’s work. How would you describe his method in relation to art history?

Steinberg’s method of work was to not realistically render imagery from a fixed perspective, but rather to construct a picture by a coded system derived from art history. In this way, within one of his drawings, several art histories coexist. For example, as I mentioned, for the skies of his watercolor landscapes (with rubber-stamped figures) he mimicked the Dutch painters of the 17th century, but then the people on the ground represented as contemporary postal markings. For panoramic scenes, the French 17th century engraver Jacques Callot suggested the peopled open plain, but then above that will be curled clouds in classical Chinese brush style. Steinberg’s buildings maybe were influenced by the Italian 18th century etcher Piranesi, or a Bauhaus style, or just drawing on graph paper. Artists as diverse as the popular Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, or French social artist Honore Daumier, and Picasso with his own rich mix of art histories, allowed him to stage on paper a complex world. He was like an alchemist mixing the unexpected, and this way he used history as his grammar to assemble a picture.

Being so close to Steinberg, did he present you with any of his work?

Yes, during the 30 years that I worked for Steinberg he generously gave me original artworks. He did so once or twice a year, as he did for many of his close friends. He called these gifts “little collections.” Now when I look over my “little” Steinberg collection—the variety and the dates they were done—I am struck by how balanced a representation it is of his art. When he gave me a picture it was always a big event for me. At his home he would surprise me and walk over with a drawing. It appeared that he had taken time to decide as to what to give. In later years he forewarned me not to display histrionics, as he called it. So I simply thanked him, but then when I got home I called on the phone to thank him warmly.

After so many years of discretion—in fact, some people who know you did not even know that you worked for Steinberg—why are you now going public with some of these private things?

For many years Steinberg experienced eroding pleasure from life, and darkening view of the public exposure and uses of his art. Arne Glimcher of the Pace Gallery, who was devoted to Steinberg as an artist and man, pleaded often with him to exhibit, but he resisted or postponed again and again. So now after his death, only the work remains, and which now needs to be introduced to the next generation, which is the reason I have now gone public to help restore the pleasure both he and his art gave to me and my generation.

Speaking of his darkening views, what about Steinberg’s imitators? There were many who copied the style. Indeed, he went to court over the flagrant abuse of his New Yorker “New York map” cover. How did he feel about imitators? Was he flattered or angered?

During most of his lifetime he was one of the most widely copied artists, which was a constant irritant, and many have contributed to his evolving new styles and subject matter to stay ahead. When The New Yorker came out with a poster that became his most recognized cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue” (March 29, 1976), it spawned a flood of renegade copies, which were sold at every poster and frame shop in New York. Of course it was without his permission and he was not compensated. He did show me how to recognize the fakes by the blue band of sky across the top, which unlike the original had a hard edge, not the soft fade-out. In time the poster was also endlessly imitated as “take-offs” for most major cities around the wo
rld. The “take-offs” did sour him. Yet years later he grew intrigued by the influence of his idea and how it reverberated around the world.

His work is so playful. Was he as pleased with his printed work at the end of his life as he must have been in the beginning?

He was mesmerized by the print medium. Many a time I watched at the arrival of the proof-print of his latest New Yorker cover and how he held it flat on his palms turned up, as if a silver tray, and eyeing it with minute interest. In contrast he treated his original at very casually, and piled it in flat files, often with minimum protection.

Steinberg’s work was filled with such joy, indeed passion. What did he take the most pleasure in doing?

Steinberg would speak of having an “appetite” to make art, or conversely he might say, “I am not working right now.” He worked in episodic ways. Throughout his life his curiosity towards the world was to me always surprisingly deep and entirely unbridled. He had read just about every book, on every kind of subject, and traveled to about every place in the world. I always perceived his lifetime work as an encyclopedia of life on Earth in the second half of the 20th century. Any given interest, be it baseball or Tolstoy, would be complete in his mind. He spoke of the importance of an obsession. In person this intensity of interest and insight was expressed with monologues that I made sure not to interrupt with questions, because if I did that moment would be over. His drawings are very much like the way he spoke, with gravity, irony and with unexpected turns of humor. He spoke of making his art as a means to escape boredom, and it appeared to me that his working episodes were a retreat to document his then-current obsession. During his lifetime he filled hundreds of sketchbooks, where he distilled his private images of subjects that most interested him. He would build upon these for his large public drawings. I never saw him do what artists generally do, which is to sketch an overall plan. Instead he improvised, and brought these independently developed elements into context, just as a theater director moves actors and props around a stage, or in his case, paper.