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Alan Vega (Bermowitz)

Hebrew: ברוך
Also Known As: "Boruch"
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York, Kings County, New York, United States
Death: July 16, 2016 (78)
New York, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Louis Bermowitz and Tillie Bermowitz
Husband of Private
Father of Private

Occupation: Vocalist
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Alan Vega

Boruch Alan Bermowitz, known professionally as Alan Vega, was an American vocalist and visual artist, primarily known for his work with the electronic protopunk duo Suicide.

Alan Vega Ignored the Art World. It Won’t Return the Favor.
JUNE 23, 2017

There is art, there is anti-art — and there is Alan Vega. The front half of the proto-punk duo Suicide, an outfit so confrontational he once had to dodge a flying hatchet from the audience, Vega also spent nearly half a century stringing together “light sculptures” out of old neon tubing, junked electrical parts and bulbs he sometimes stole from the subway. Some he hung on the wall; others he scattered across the floor. On occasion he even made drawings and paintings — surreal at first, spidery and jittery later on. During this time he was treated to a single museum retrospective and fewer than a dozen gallery shows. Yet today, not quite a year after his death last July at 78, he looms over a scene he ignored almost as assiduously as it ignored him.

“He was never really part of the ‘art world,’” said his wife, Liz Lamere, sitting in the memento-filled apartment they shared in the Financial District. “You had to be part of the scene to promote yourself. That wasn’t what he was about. He was purely about creating.” If not fame, then money? “He could live in a refrigerator box,” she said.

Jeffrey Deitch, the New York art adviser and curator, concurred. “He was not playing the careerist game.” And yet, Mr. Deitch asserted, “he’s going to end up having much more influence than many artists” who did.

If so, Mr. Deitch will be at least partly responsible. Along with Julian Schnabel and the dealer Barbara Gladstone, he is part of a small coterie of art-world insiders who have championed Vega’s work. Now he has helped orchestrate a series of events that should elevate it further.

On Friday, June 30, the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports is presenting a show that will spotlight Vega’s final paintings — lush yet ghostly images that reprise the drawings that will be shown with them. On July 14, the New York independent-music label Fader plans to release his final album, “IT”; the album cover features a photograph he’d once taken of an exit sign. (The first single, “DTM,” is available on streaming services.) And on July 18, Mr. Deitch plans to open a show in his own SoHo gallery that will feature drawings and assemblages from Vega’s earliest days to his last, as well as a larger-than-life projection of Suicide in concert that, he promises, will make people “feel as if they’re there.”

As a performer, Vega was legendary. Suicide’s albums were hardly major sellers, and their performances were long limited to art galleries and downtown clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. But Vega was a menacing, volatile presence. He would chant, yelp and shriek while his bandmate, Martin Rev, stood impassively in the background, his face half-hidden by dark glasses, droning away on a cheap electronic keyboard. As often as not, the show would end in a riot.

“They were scary,” said Arto Lindsay, an important figure in the “no wave” music scene that Suicide helped inspire in the late ’70s. “So loud. Excruciatingly loud.”

Vega took to music almost by accident. He’d majored in art at Brooklyn College, where he fell under the sway of Kurt Seligmann, the Swiss surrealist, and Ad Reinhardt, the unrelenting abstractionist who reduced his art to variations on a single color: black. In the late ’60s, Vega helped open an art space on lower Broadway called the Project of Living Artists. It was open to anyone who identified as an artist — including Vega himself, who lived for a time in a sleeping bag on the floor.

During this period he made two critical connections — Mr. Rev, then a jazz musician, and Ivan Karp, whose OK Harris art gallery was one of the first in SoHo. Vega (then still known as Alan Bermowitz, his given name growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn) had taken to arranging junk electrical parts to form assemblages that sprawled across the floor. Mr. Karp, who was exhibiting now-celebrated artists like Duane Hanson, Malcolm Morley and Richard Pettibone, offered him a show — the first of several. He also offered Suicide a stage.

For Vega, it was a critical moment. A year earlier, he had caught Iggy and the Stooges at their first show in New York. Iggy was a ferocious performer, cutting his bare chest, leaping headfirst into the audience. Vega was in awe. “It changed his perspective totally,” Mr. Rev recalled in a phone interview. “He said to himself he could no longer be an artist unless he performed. That was the transition.”

Suicide’s first album came out in 1977, the year New York hit rock bottom. The city had only narrowly averted bankruptcy. A power blackout sparked a looting spree. The serial killer known as Son of Sam was terrorizing the city. In the East Village, tenements that hadn’t been torched became squats. “There was kind of a ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ vibe to New York,” recalled Mr. Lindsay. “You’d walk by a building and wonder what was going on in there — what kind of devil worship or orgy.”

Suicide fit right in. The highlight of their self-titled debut was “Frankie Teardrop,” a harrowing number about a young factory worker who, unable to feed his family or pay the rent, turns a gun on his infant son, his wife and himself. Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone it was “one of the most amazing songs I ever heard.” A video version by the artists Walter Robinson and Paul Dougherty and the critic Edit deAk is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Vega was invited to edit an issue of Art-Rite, the punked-out art ’zine Mr. Robinson and Ms. deAk were publishing. But he wouldn’t show again in Manhattan until 1983, when Ms. Gladstone, who was exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe and Anish Kapoor, put him in a group show. When she gave him a solo show the following year, Mr. Schnabel bought one of his light sculptures.

“I thought it was a cool thing to have,” Mr. Schnabel said recently in a phone interview. It put him in mind of a phrase that’s been applied to the avant-garde films of Jack Smith, but could just as well describe the work of the Fluxus artists of the ’60s or the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely: “The sheer beauty of junk.”

Ms. Gladstone wanted Vega to keep making art, but he objected to having to “crank out these pieces,” Ms. Lamere recalled. Yet he kept making them, regardless, cannibalizing one assemblage to complete another. The disregard for his own work was typical: After his final show at OK Harris, he tore down his sculptures and dumped their parts on the street. “He would never cherish an object,” declared Mathieu Copeland, the curator who organized Vega’s only full-scale retrospective, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon. “For him, it was all about the energy.”

Nearly 20 years would pass before his next gallery show, at Deitch Projects in 2002. It came because a group of much younger artists caught Vega in a 2000 New Year’s Eve performance and came back raving about how cool he was. In 1975, as a young gallery assistant, Mr. Deitch had seen his work at OK Harris and come away equally stunned. He considered it “one of the greatest art exhibitions I saw in New York in the ’70s” — on a par with Vito Acconci, the transgressive pioneer of performance art, who likewise stepped away from art.

In Vega’s case, the line between art and not-art was always blurry. “The aesthetic of his sculpture, the aesthetic of his music — one fit right into the other,” Mr. Deitch said. “It was the same aesthetic” — the beauty of junk. You can see it in Jean-Michel Basquiat, in paintings that present “a collage of all these found elements in an energetic assemblage that has its own inner logic,” as Mr. Deitch put it. You can sense it in Tony Oursler, whose installations feature found objects and disturbing video projections. “He was very anti-form,” Mr. Deitch said of Vega, “but he was also conceptually rigorous. That’s one reason why he inspires so many artists and musicians today.”

Mr. Oursler and his friend Mike Kelley played the first Suicide album nonstop in 1977-78, when they were students at the California Institute of the Arts and had a band called the Poetics. “We’d never heard anything like it,” Mr. Oursler said. “He was slipping between art and music in a wonderful way.” Mr. Oursler had heard that the light sculptures in the OK Harris shows smelled like “smoldering junk” when they were plugged in. “I had this image in my mind for years. It inspired me without ever having to see it.”

In recent years, even as he was recording his final album with Ms. Lamere, Vega returned increasingly to sculpture. After the Lyon show, in 2009, there were solo exhibitions in Paris and at Invisible-Exports; group shows in Moscow, Milan, Copenhagen and Geneva; and a Semiotext(e) conference at MoMA PS1 in New York. There was also a stroke, in 2012, and congestive heart failure, which was discovered at the same time, and after that a series of mini-strokes. On May 20 last year, he fell in his kitchen and broke his hip. He got a partial replacement, but there were complications. He spent weeks in the hospital, then went to a rehab center in Brooklyn. “But his heart was starting to do weird things,” Ms. Lamere said. And then “he just passed in his sleep.”

Several months before his death, Vega unexpectedly took up painting again, for the first time in decades. He was up all night, doing the series of portraits that will be shown at Invisible-Exports. “They didn’t have any faces,” Ms. Lamere remarked. “I said — and he didn’t correct me — that they were like spirits.” Human shapes, but with a void. Though they never talked about it, the two had a tacit understanding: “We kind of knew he was preparing to go into the other world.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 25, 2017, on Page AR12 of the New York edition with the headline: He Ignored the Art World, Then Inspired It.

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Alan Vega's Timeline

June 23, 1938
Brooklyn, New York, Kings County, New York, United States
July 16, 2016
Age 78
New York, New York, United States