Near the corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street is a townhouse with P E A C E written in abstracted geometric black lettering across the entablature of the bright white garden level façade of the home. The townhouse is graphic and playful in its facade, inviting anyone who walks by to stop, look up, and appreciate their surroundings. This interaction is the core of Anton van Dalen’s artistic practice.
Anton van Dalen, a Dutch-American artist who moved to New York’s East Village in 1966, has lived in this townhouse at 166 Avenue A since 1971 and has been carefully documenting the East Village since 1975. When van Dalen first moved to New York, he was working as a graphic designer and studio assistant to the notable illustrator of New York life, Saul Steinberg. Van Dalen’s drawings at the time were an experiment in measured surrealism and pattern, but after living in the East Village, he became taken with the character of the neighborhood and began to document his surroundings through his art in 1975. Van Dalen wrote for EV Grieve in October 2020:
“Initially I just watched and listened to the street life, its sidewalk theater with joyous salsa music. It was not the New World that I had imagined as a child growing up in Holland — no streets here paved with gold. Rather streets paved by the colors of many cultures…
…On first arrival our new home looked abandoned, hardened by history, burned out house next door. And by contrast, a storefront church on the other side, often crowded with multigenerational Puerto Rican families…I consider myself a documentarian of the East Village…urged on by wanting to note and remember these lives. Came to realize I had to embrace wholeheartedly, with pencil in hand, my streets with its raw emotions…discarded bloody heroin needles on sidewalks stunned and urged on my thinking. The drug dealers, the junkies, the police, the firefighters, were then the unquestioned royalty of our neighborhood…
…Then came hopeful efforts by gardeners in garbage-strewn abandoned lots, squatters, community organizers. They were able to redirect our devastated neighborhood toward again being a community for many. So my documenting became more and more informed by the stories of my neighbors’ acts of activism. And a commitment on my part to be true to those lives, of their raw heartfelt emotions, birthed on the street.”
Anton van Dalen’s oeuvre is a fantastical journey through the history of the East Village over the past 50 years. His dark graphite “Night Street” drawings from the late 1970s possess the ominous overtones of a neighborhood — and city — in crisis, but van Dalen artistically captures life in the East Village with the unexpected combination of neighborly empathy and a flaneur’s objectivity. Van Dalen continued to document the neighborhood, through the Tompkins Square Park Riots in 1988 and the gentrification of the East Village in the 2000s.
Anton van Dalen’s most engaging work about the history of the East Village is Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre. The work was first performed at the University Settlement House in 1995 and has since been performed at the Museum of Modern Art, The Drawing Center, and numerous art galleries, changing to include recent events in each iteration. Avenue A Cut-Out Theatre is composed of a portable model of van Dalen’s townhouse along with numerous cut-outs depict the ever-evolving story of the East Village. “Anton van Dalen represents a lesser-acknowledged artist archetype: the non-heroic, civic-minded observer and chronicler,” wrote art critic John Yau for Hyperallergic. Anton van Dalen’s artistic chronicle of the East Village is not only visually captivating but an unparalleled source of documentation of the East Village’s vanishing intangible cultural heritage.