The Baltic Notebooks of Anthony Blunt
A Few Notes on Colin de Land
In order to decide on the introduction of this article, I ran through various periodicals, reading the beginning of essays that were dedicated to particular authors. Quite often the they go something like: “After the first time I met... [I should insert Colin de Land here]” or “I was fascinated by his work after seeing... “ Actually I never met Colin de Land, a famous New York gallerist, eye to eye, neither have I visited any of his shows, and there is no particular study of de Land’s oeuvre, so I can only rely on the memories left by those who were related to him and his gallery in a few publications.
I first came across de Land’s name more than a year ago, while I was doing my internship in Supportico Lopez gallery in Berlin. It was my first actual working experience within a contemporary art gallery that survives on sales and still works mostly with a younger-generation of artists at the beginning their careers, so I was a curious intern. Once, while waiting for Supportico gallerist Gigiotto del Vechio to finish his phone call, I remember picking up a random publication from the gallery table, opening a random page and quickly looking over an article which, as I recall, was entitled “Transcript of a Conversation Between Colin de Land, Josef Strau and Stephan Dillemuth,” and went as follows:
Stephan Dillemuth: Maybe we should first describe our project, what we are doing. A little introduction..
Colin de Land: Right, okay. Please, yes.
SD: Probably you know us better than we know ourselves.
CDL: No, I...I don't really. It wouldn't be bad to hear what you are up to.
SD: You see, the whole thing is about...imagination anyway. I mean...
Josef Strau: Fantasy.
CDL: The whole setup of the situation?
SD: You may have this fantasy what Friesenwall is about and we have this fantasy about your involvement in the East Village scene.
CDL: Well, I wasn't so affected.
JS: You are in a few catalogs...
CDL: What?
JS: You are in a few catalogs.[*]
Colin de Land, J. Strau and S. Dillemuth, “Transcript of a Conversation Between Colin de Land, Josef Strau and Stephan Dillemuth,” in Dealing with - some texts, images, and thoughts related to American Fine Arts, Co., ed. Valérie Knoll, et al. (Berlin: Sternberg press, 2012), 50.
I guess this was the first time I asked who this Colin de Land was and since del Vechio told me “he was the last one,” suggesting I should read the book I was holding, I entered the story of Colin de Land, the founder of American Fine Arts, Co. gallery (AFA), which existed in New York from 1988 until the death of de Land in 2003.
After starting to dig out more information about Colin de Land as well as the 90’s NY art scene, I subscribed to the continuing attention to this persona. Properly speaking, since then I became curious not only about the romanticization of de Land himself, due to the impression he made on people and his apparently extraordinary approach to gallery making, but also because de Land’s work still stands as a perfect example of creativity in relation to a commercial gallery – something that has become a recent concern of mine.
The figure of Colin de Land is surrounded by various, sometimes contradictory characterizations, with special attention given, for example, to his relaxed work habits, lavish taste, resistance, amateurishness, resemblance to an anti-gallery or successful activities within the framework of the art market. According to his obituary in The New York Times published after de Land's death in 2004, art critic Roberta Smith writes that he was the one who “fostered experimentation” and later, that, “His ambivalence about commercialism was reflected in an art gallery that sometimes resembled an anti-art gallery, if not a work of Conceptual Art.”[*]
Roberta Smith, "Colin de Land, 47, Art Dealer Who Fostered Experimentation," The New York Times, 2003, 2010, accessible at:
After reading a few publications on de Land’s practice and seeing some documentation of him and his famous wife Pat Hearn, who was also an acclaimed 90’s Chelsea gallerist, it became obvious that these characterizations appeared because of de Land's overall attitude towards the politics of a commercial art institution, which showed the way a gallery can operate within art world and challenge it at the same time, resulting in a selection of artists and shows AFA represented that varied from prominent artists and fresh trends to those not yet legitimised as a high culture and trash aesthetics. These were just some of the ways to shift commonly perceived roles, stimulate unexpected correlations and maintain a sense of constant renewal. The vibe and flow of the 90’s in NY formed the AFA gallery and its notable presence in the scene; various photographs of AFA show a time when openings would be attended by both junkies and people driving Rolls-Royces.

While continuing my research, I found out that all the archives of Colin de Land's gallery, and the Pat Hearn Gallery will go to the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, NY, which will be open to the public only from the fall of 2014. Therefore I wrote to Ann Butler, director of the Library and Archives at the Center for Curatorial Studies, to ask how she sees the relevance of the de Land legacy. During our short correspondence, Butler noticed the great deal of interest in the gallery records for AFA and the Pat Hearn Gallery, coming both from young curators as well as more established art world figures who knew de Land and Hearn.[*]
Private conversation with the author, 2013.
Following the archivist, the reason for this is that the curatorial oeuvre of these personas in both curatorial and commercial gallery contexts still serve as an indispensable example of mastering the art market scene. After mentioning that the story of the Pat Hearn Gallery and Colin de Land’s AFA has yet to be written, Butler assured me that through the agency of Bard's College, the legacies of both figures and their contributions will be exposed, making their approach more easily observable. Hence, as step by step, the story of de Land and his wife becomes history, their activities become more easily defined, and particular trends of today can be traced back to them. In accordance with Smith and the aforementioned obituary in the New York Times, de Land’s working methods and style during his intense gallery practice (after running a space in East Village and then having a gallery in SoHo, de Land finally moved to Chelsea) were ‘relaxed,’ consisting of “an insistent sartorial style that presaged the ‘white trash’ look.”[*]
Smith, “Colin de Land, 47, Art Dealer Who Fostered Experimentation”.
Nevertheless, after reading some memoirs by people who worked with Colin de Land, it became clear that according to most of them, de Land’s self-awareness of running a gallery was always at the forefront of the actions of AFA, even though some of them could have seemed meaningless then. Some of the marked examples of such actions could be allowing for one of the artists to close de Land’s gallery for a month, holding critical art history seminars for art collectors, discussing publicly why art should be kept edgy, and long-term collaborations with students and fictional artists. These are just a few exemplifying points, evoking the image de Land as a practitioner of risk. The curator and artist Jackie McAlister, who worked at AFA from 1989 to1991, wrote some memoirs about the time she spent with de Land, which illustrate some of the de Land's working methods. One of the most likable stories is about the open doors of the gallery. According to McAlister, once, during installation week, de Land went for a coffee around the corner on West Broadway, so she typed and put a sign saying “Closed for Installation” on the front door of the gallery. Immediately after seeing it, de Land took it off, saying that they never use the word closed in AFA.[*]
Jackie McAlister, "American Fine Arts - If Culture Means Anything," Zing Magazine, issue 19, 2004, accessible at
According to the memories of artists and visitors of AFA, people could pop up whenever they wanted, see the artworks in the middle of installation and share their interests with de Land. Following Jackie McAllister, de Land always sought to be in the middle of the action as well as to direct the action to his gallery. As McAllister suggests, this could describe the choice of the gallery name:
The most important lesson to be learned from Colin was his idea about what could be exhibited at a gallery. The key approach can be found in the proper name of the gallery: American Fine Arts, Co. For Colin, who had an abiding interest in linguistics, each of the lexical items selected from a vertical paradigmatic menu: “American”, “Fine”, “Arts”, and “Co.” are combined syntactically to form a meaningful classification which is arrayed in a horizontal dimension. What is that which is described by these particular words aligned in this precise order: American Fine Arts, Co.? By his example, we now know that, that far from being a limitation, “American Fine Arts Co.” is a category under whose heading a whole host of people can interact and a tremendous range of activities can come into play.[*]
McAlister, “American Fine Arts - If Culture Means Anything.”

As I was mentioning before, de Land’s so called ‘relaxed’ attitude, as well as ‘relaxed installations,’ is one commonly noted trade mark of de Land now: one can find records showing that sometimes exhibitions in AFA were not installed on time, that sometimes neighbors called the police because of the openings in the gallery, and the gallery did not produce press releases which de Land’s explained was because a work of art is experienced visually for such a short time before perception is inevitably reshaped by language, so we should try to keep the possibility for enlivened experience open for as long as possible.[*]
Dennis Balk, Colin de Land, American Fine Arts, (New York: powerHouse Books, 2008), 237.
Being a professional and yet also unprofessional, de Land’s seeming ‘recipe’ was to appropriate conventional models of gallery practice in order to chafe against them, using them to question the supposed ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ they operated within. Or to put it in another way, de Land seemed aware of the art market in order to gain independence from it. In another exemplifying account of this, Stephan Dillemuth describes his impression of de Land’s practice in one of the art fairs:
I remember the impression he made on us during the Cologne Art Fair in 1990. My initial thought was that he had just arrived and not finished installing. Maybe the artwork was stuck in customs. At the opening, he showed some slides and stuff he had under his table. The next day he put something up on the wall: a few posters by Andrea Fraser. Then the next day he put up some old scraps of painted canvas: a work by Mark Dion, who had previously worked for an art restorer. The day after that Colin exhibited a video of burning fire. Everyday we returned just to see what was new in Colin’s booth.[*]
Balk, Colin de Land, American Fine Arts, 237.
After all, with his working style, de Land gained the prefix ‘anti,’ which appeared from within the game of the market and established a sophisticated image of AFA. On the other hand, even while de Land seems to have devoted his life to challenging a capitalist logic, this didn't happen without contradictions, rising from his “successful activities within the frame of the art market,”[*]
Description on cover, Dealing with - some texts, images, and thoughts related to American Fine Arts, Co., ed. Valérie Knoll, et al. (Berlin: Sternberg press, 2012).
such as co-founding The Armory Fair in NY, etc. In this case I rely on Stephen Dillemuth again, who describes de Land as “seeing his work as a gallerist as a kind of theatrical, but also critical activity and his gallery was the stage – his stage – from which it was possible to reflect upon all the other stages in New York.”[*]
Balk, Colin de Land, American Fine Arts, 237.
I guess this could be considered a purposive use of theatricality that comes from knowing how to benefit from the choice to make your own stage.
All in all, it seems that De Land’s wish for visibility came together with a constant attempt to navigate the present and deal with it in the shape of a gallery. And it is obviously much more interesting to think and talk about galleries that could be conceived as ‘anti’ galleries because of a constant awareness of the position they adopt followed by the distinct style they develop. This is when an art institution starts to produce and share energy with others, rather than becoming an unnecessary weight to carry through the layers of time.
The figure of Colin de Land is abstract, but glazed with admiration, which makes a critical distance hardly possible when researching AFA and de Land, himself. I am already one in a list of curators digging through history and ready to visit de Land’s archive in search for tools that could help to re-create the principle of the private art institution. Of course, this is immediately followed by the risk of losing a sense of a present and contradicting the aforementioned aim. What goes around comes around: in the case of de Land, a commercial gallery functioned as a platform of creativity and sharing because it was a political and educational enterprise, developing from constant self-education rather than formal learning methods. That is to say: it is about embracing a full time participation and flow with and within an era you represent, but still being one step forward.
All photographs are of the places where AFA used to exist, taken in the summer of 2013 by the author of this article.