Colin de Land died of cancer at the age of 47, in March 2003. For a lot of people his name is one of many, for others it’s a religion. Some men live and die honored by the public, and there are others who live and die to be commemorated and loved only by those who belong to the first of the two categories. Colin de Land is one of these. His figure is related ineluctably to New York. His activity as an art dealer or, more precisely, his atypical way of directing a gallery – as an artist (the role he covered to all intents and purposes in the project John Dogg, the fictitious artist behind which Colin himself and Richard Prince used to hide) – put an indelible mark on the New York artistic scene of the 90s. And as Richard Prince says, in memory of Colin: “…you don’t go to American Fine Arts to see a show... you go to see Colin, in the back, that’s where the show is. You walk in, he’s on the phone, he’s got a John Deere baseball hat on, and he’s saying “yes” a lot ... and Peter Fend is in the corner making Xerox’s and Jack Pierson is working on the mailing list and John Waters walks in as himself.”
Creative, pulsing, eccentric, but at the same time able to run his activity at a high level and throughout a considerable period of time, he brought to light artists like Mark Dion, Peter Fend, Jack Pierson, Cady Noland, Andrea Fraser, Art Club 2000, practically unknown at that time. He urged some of them to become famous, like John Waters, who started to exhibit with de Land. He lived on their same level, saw many generations of artists pass by, he changed locations, life partners, but continued to be himself until the end, without ever refusing to expose himself.
His story looks like a Ken Russell film. He came to art almost by chance selling a Warhol for a neighbor who needed money to get some drugs. In 1984 he opened his own space, called Vox Populi, transformed later in American Fine Arts, changing locations several times throughout the years until he settled in Wooster Street. American Fine Arts, like many can confirm, was a gallery, as well as a place where you could have a drink, talk, use as a studio or simply shelter. Christian Nagel remembers de Land’s inimitable style: “…he was the only dealer in New York who didn’t fix a honeyed grin on his face in order to promote his wares in the language of an advertising agency. Whoever had the luck back then to hear de Land lecture on his slide carousel containing the art of those he represented knew that here spoke someone who understood this material and was emphatically advocating a personal standpoint. This standpoint – not commercial success – was his driving force.”
He had the looks of an actor; he dressed up in a simple and classy way. He was constantly emaciated and pale. He was a free pinch hitter in the art system. John Waters talks about Colin’s hidden side, subtly narcissist: “…Colin certainly had a “look.” For a man who spent almost nothing on clothes, he was a fashion leader who pretended to not know how influential he was in the style department. A cult gutter-couture icon, Colin knew how to use cast-off clothing as art-world armor, but would never be so vulgar as to admit that he spent the slightest effort in creating his image.”
He didn’t work in the underground scene, he worked in the art market, had his own collectors, participated in art fairs, and worked with museums. He was a contrasting figure as Jack Pierson remembers him, among all artists he was one of his dearest friends: “…I could imagine him as a filmmaker, but his inability to suffer fools gladly made it easier to be the boss of an art gallery and make the world around him like a film. It reminds me of how he was super competitive on the tennis court, which I found so shocking! There’s a certain point where you just want to keep the ball going, but he’d do whatever he needed to do to win that point--the whole time smoking on court. You know, you don’t smoke on the tennis court! Of course, he was doing it to be picturesque. And so it tricks you into thinking he doesn’t care. He was a study in contrasts.”
All the photos are taken from American Fine Arts by Colin de Land, published by powerHouse Books.
nero nr. 22 winter 2010