Alan Vega, who died last year, was best known as the lead singer of Suicide, an influential and pioneering proto-punk band that started in the late ’70s. He was sometimes even referred to as simply ‘Alan Suicide.’ But those in the know — like renowned art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, for instance — know that Vega was also a skilled artist who created riveting assemblage sculptures from lights, cords, pieces of wood, old electronics, and other random bric-a-brac. Those works, along with photographs and videos of Vega and his performances with Suicide, are on display at Deitch Projects from June 18 through the 28th, and again from September 5 through the 30th.
Vega’s work has a magnetic energy. It feels alive, despite the fact that its creator no longer is, which, I think, is the ultimate goal of most people who make art. And because Vega was not just a visual artist but a pioneer of the punk movement and a forefather of the post-punk, synth pop, and electronic sounds, his sculptures give a glimpse not just into the mind of a brilliant creator, but a bonafide rock star. In true punk fashion, Vega was able to find beauty and interest in the mundane. He knew how to put together something much greater than the sum of its parts, and how to infuse a collection of seemingly meaningless objects with the same magic he brought with him to the stage.
The most eye-catching piece in the show is a small television with an incessantly flickering screen hooked up to a large tree’s worth of Christmas lights. Lying on the floor, the whole thing is a mess of lights and wires, and there in the middle is a tiny statue of Jesus. It’s almost hidden, but it’s there, and similar religious iconography pops up again and again in Vega’s work, including in the many makeshift wooden crosses he has covered with lights, discarded street signs, and toy figures. Vega was born Jewish but declared himself to be Catholic, and was, if his work is any indication, obsessed with the existence of a higher power.
In an exhibition statement adapted from an article first published in Kaleidoscope magazine, Deitch recalls seeing Vega’s work for the first time at O.K. Harris gallery in 1975: “Stepping into the gallery, I was confronted by an assemblage of discarded TV picture tubes, Christmas lights, broken radios, and various electronic debris dragged in from the street. Dangling wires were plugged in, activating the lights and popping tubes. The structures were as anti-form as possible, but surprisingly dense. They fused Punk, Pop and Pollock.”
Deitch gave Vega a show, “Collision Drive“, in 2002, which featured reconstructions of his assemblage sculptures from the ’70s as well as then-new works. In recent years, Vega’s work has also been shown at Invisible Exports and Galerie Laurent Godin, but despite the support of these galleries and people like Deitch, Barbara Gladstone, and Julian Schnabel, Vega’s work still doesn’t command the art world cache that many feel it should. Possibly this is because, in life, Vega was never much interested in being an art star. Instead, he was simply obsessed with creating for its own sake.
“Alan was both of his time and way ahead of his time,” Deitch writes. “Alan and Marty [Rev]’s seminal debut album, Suicide, from 1977 was too radical to achieve commercial success when it was released, but is now listed by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 most influential albums of all time. Alan’s sculpture is not yet in the collections of the major contemporary art museums, but one of my missions is to see his sculptural work also achieve the public recognition that it deserves.”