“Art is a state of mind. . . . The way I feel about everything; it all comes back in my work.”[i] These are the words of Pat Hearn in September 1978. She is twenty-three years old, a recent transfer student from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They are published in the Newporter, the local newspaper of Newport, Rhode Island. Her interview is included in a surprisingly generous two-page preview of Roommates, Hearn’s two-person exhibition with her friend Lisa Knox.[ii] Hearn attempts to explain the show’s concept: “The art is the conversation I had with Lisa over coffee before I started working, the art is the emotion I was trying to communicate, the way the process of communication in turn affected me.” She goes on to summarize her jejune practice: “I work with whatever materials I have around me at the time. . . . People tell me I should just stick to one thing, and I know they may well be right, but I also know I’ll never do it, that I’ll always work in many ways.”
The feature is revealing, not simply for its light portrayal of two young women actively performing the role of artist—at one point Knox comments, with apparent wonderment, that one must “look like an artist as well as be one”—but also because it is rare to find any public statement of Hearn’s thoughts on art and art making. By the time she became a gallerist, she rarely spoke of her own biography and kept quiet about her own art practice; the Newporter captures her youthful bravado and, in hindsight, her remarkable continuity. Throughout, Hearn repeatedly underscores the importance of conversation, communication, and collaboration as core elements of her practice. Indeed, these three key attributes defined her career: first, as a young artist and dancer in Boston and Rhode Island circa the Newporter preview; second, as an arts organizer in Boston and Paris in the early eighties; and finally, as an influential New York gallerist who changed the possibilities of contemporary art in commercial contexts, from the time her first space opened in 1983 until her death from cancer in 2000.
When the Newporter feature ran, however, Hearn was busy acquainting herself with her immediate artistic community in not only Newport but also Boston. Against the immersive backdrop of a burgeoning punk-rock scene imported from England to America’s East Coast in the late 1970s, Hearn befriended the artists around her at the Museum School and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These included Mark Morrisroe and Gail Thacker, whose photographs Hearn showed in her Broad Street loft in 1980; the musician Steve Stain, who organized shows for punk bands like DNA, Girls, and Mission of Burma, and with whom Hearn performed as “Hymie and Glinda” at Cantone’s; video artists and art teachers Jeff and Jane Hudson who played together as the Rentals; and filmmaker and photographer Shelley Lake with whom Hearn made numerous videos. Hearn helped to organize dance parties, mud-wrestling matches, masquerades, Halloween Balls, and performances including a “Screemalong”: widely circulated flyers encouraged people to scream for any reason of their choosing in the small residential area advertised for the duration of one minute. She produced the Pat Hearn Show, a closed-circuit cable broadcast that ran from MIT and featured her work and that of her friends. Hearn was embedded in a creative community that was making work with itself, of itself, and for itself. The scene’s modest size was a catalyst for mixed authorship; its insularity ensured confidence and a heady output, which also served as a training ground for what would come later.
In 1981, Hearn spent a year abroad, sponsored by a $10,000 grant from the American Center in Paris, where she soon embedded herself in artist-run collective L’Usine Pali-Kao, an art space initiated the same year within a disused paper factory in the Belleville neighborhood. Historically, Belleville was home to supporters of the Paris Commune. But by the 1970s and 1980s, it had transformed into a haven for immigrant populations including a large Chinese community, as well as Jews of German, Tunisian, and Algerian descent. Belleville was largely overlooked during Paris’s architectural modernization of the mid-twentieth century. Consequently, like Pali-Kao founders Thierry Cheverney and Christine Caquot, young artists and musicians began moving to the area, attracted by low rents and large studios.
Pali-Kao’s hectic program of events paralleled its quintessential hedonism. Performances, exhibitions, and dance parties took place throughout the decaying factory during the collective’s three-year run, and Hearn soon found herself creating collaborative links between Pali-Kao and her previous Boston base. Her projects had a notably technological slant, no doubt informed by her connection to MIT, and she closely participated in Pali-Kao’s programming throughout 1981.[iii]
Hearn hardly took a breath between the Boston and Paris scenes. On her return to the United States in 1982, she rented a room in Boston’s eight-story Hemenway Hotel as a live-work space. In its heyday, the historic building housed Igor and Vera Stravinsky, but by the 1980s it had become something of an artist’s commune. Hearn wryly named her new project space after the mispronunciation her Boston peers made when they referred to the Paris collective by way of Americanized exclamation: “Poly Cow!” Unlike the raw industrial environment in Belleville, however, Poly Cow was a small but ornate corner apartment that had once been the lobby of the Hemenway, replete with high ceilings and baroque columns. It was the perfect stage for a series of events that doggedly followed the parodic spirit of its moniker. Inviting old and new Boston friends to contribute, Hearn’s Poly Cow was an irreverent assembly of kitsch cabaret and performance: an American (mis)interpretation of Paris, featuring dance nights, one of Jack Pierson’s first installation works, and numerous Morrisroe performances. Hearn also forged her close connection with Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian) there, eventually forming the band Wild and Wonderful. Joining her from Paris was Thierry Cheverney, and the couple married soon after his arrival to the US on Hearn’s birthday, June 12, 1982.
Whether Boston felt too small after the cosmopolitanism of Paris or the lure of the New York art scene had become too great, Hearn and Cheverney were soon keen to relocate. But their next move was not a direct one. The pair had an unlikely excursion to South Dakota, where they planned to work with a group of supporters from the Oglala Lakota Sioux on a documentary film. But the project did not last. And by the summer of 1982, Hearn and Cheverney arrived in New York, right on time for the burgeoning East Village art gallery scene.
The origin stories of the East Village art scene are numerous and often conflicting in their anecdotal eccentricities. Most are guilty of misrepresentation by omission. But when it comes to dating the specific proliferation of commercial art galleries in the area, one can definitively mark 1981 as a tipping point. That was the year Patti Astor and Bill Stelling converted the former’s painting studio into a gallery in July, programming it namelessly for two months before settling on “FUN.” Soon after, Gracie Mansion dubbed her domestic bathroom on 432 East Ninth Street Loo Division; it was not, she claimed, a gallery as such but “a statement about art—a performance in the form of a gallery.”[iv] Civilian Warfare, Nature Morte, and 51X had also opened their doors by then and, by 1985, the small quadrant of Manhattan housed over seventy galleries. Tongue-in-cheek humor characterized the scrappy East Village gallery scene, and the outward identity of its spaces suggested a bohemian reaction to the staid SoHo and uptown gallery scene. But the aggressive appropriation of commercial models nevertheless betrayed a thirst for profit, something in keeping with the new Reagan era.
Hearn and Cheverney thrived within this nascent scene. Their names frequented the lineups of performances and exhibitions at galleries and clubs like New Math, Club 57, and the Pyramid Club. Although Tabboo! and Hearn initially shared a Manhattan loft, Tabboo! was overcome by the rent and moved out, effectively disbanding Wild and Wonderful. Hearn was keen to continue her music and dance career without Tabboo!, but Cheverney suggested that opening a gallery might do just as well.
After finding a run-down corner store at 94 Avenue B, a block away from the couple’s second New York apartment, Hearn leased and renovated the shop front with a bank loan and parental assistance. Enlisting paid help to redecorate, she transformed 94 Avenue B into a startlingly bright and cool space. Writer Anthony Haden-Guest memorably recalls it as “about the size of a walk-in closet in Beverly Hills,” indicating not only its scale—relatively large for the East Village at 1,100 square feet—but also its aesthetic. Indeed, Cheverney, who had previously studied architecture, conceived the space and its eccentric black-and-white “crazy-paving” tiled floor, glass-block walls, cactus garden, and even a waterfall (though the latter was never realized due to fear of humidity problems). A Dunkin’ Donuts table was repurposed as a receiving area at the front of the gallery; the requisite bars girding the exterior of the building resembled less a security gate than a radiant Art Deco sundial welded to the main entrance.
Regardless of any initial ambivalence Hearn may have had about assuming the role of gallerist or the degree to which it was all an elaborate performance, the intentionality of 94 Avenue B’s extensive build-out betrayed her significant ambition. For one, it was a serious financial commitment (gallery renovation costs have been estimated close to twenty thousand dollars), but Hearn also had a sense of purpose regarding its establishment.[v] The would-be gallerist asked Pierson to design an advertisement for her to place in Artforum announcing the gallery’s opening. A version of the ad also ran in the scene’s very own newspaper, the East Village Eye, on October 20, 1983, under the headline, “opening soon.” On November 18, Hearn’s first gallery officially opened its doors with an exhibition of works by Cheverney, George Condo, David Bowes, and Milan Kunc.
The year 1983 is symbolic not only because it dates the transformation of Hearn from persona to business (she had done something similar with her Boston cable show) but also because it marked the final year of her artistic practice. Although she won the Boit Prize from the Museum School in 1983 and continued to screen her video work through 1986 (at venues like the Kitchen in New York, Hallwalls in Buffalo, and Powerhouse in Montreal), Hearn abandoned her own practice and dedicated herself entirely to the development of her gallery and its artists. Her early energetic collaborations with friends had matured into the complex orchestration of performances, parties, and people befitting her new role as scene gallerist. Roommates, lovers, and intimates had always been essential actors in Hearn’s cabaret-like practice; now these connections equated to a business and an aesthetic. Artist R. H. Quaytman describes Hearn’s first gallery as “beautiful and glamorous. It took real chutzpah.”[vi] In many ways, it was quite like what Hearn had staged in Boston. But the East Village scene’s mordant disregard for labels, and the support it gave to the socially driven, provided the perfect environment for Hearn to bury her own practice and instead cultivate an extended roster of artists bolstered by her name.
After some shows of Neosurrealist painting, the exhibition program shifted toward Neo-Geo coolness via artists like Peter Schuyff and Philip Taaffe—two of the most lucrative artists in the early days of the gallery. Scoring an opening hit with Condo’s canvases, followed by Schuyff’s instant popularity (and speedy production), allowed Hearn the time and funds to broaden her program and work on her collector base. Testament to her trademark ability to strike a double note, Hearn managed to fall in with the East Village elite despite her wariness of the scene. Andy Warhol cast her as a naked muse, plastering her in white body paint and high-contrast lipstick for a Polaroid shoot in preparation for an iconic silkscreen portrait.[vii] Her friendships with curator Diego Cortez and dealer Massimo Audiello opened doors to a host of East Village regulars, including Julian Schnabel, rumored to be an anonymous backer of her second gallery space at 735 East Ninth Street, which opened in 1985. Pushed even further east toward Avenue D, the 2,000-square-foot space was a logical evolution in the expansion of Hearn’s commercial gallery. Nearly doubling the size of the Avenue B gallery and hiring Tom Cugliani as a director, Hearn was savvy enough to consolidate the success that she and many other East Village galleries had enjoyed in the early eighties. Hearn’s new space occupied the site of a former plush-toy factory, indicative of contemporary economic transformations that were taking place not only in the East Village but also other urban centers. After Pali-Kao, it was the second time Hearn operated from a former factory space in a dilapidated city district—where cultural success would contribute to soaring real-estate interest.
Such changes did not go unnoticed, and a number of artists and cultural observers began to write with increasing unease about the East Village art scene’s unabashed participation in the area’s gentrification. Shortly before Hearn had made her move, Art in America ran two critical pieces on the neighborhood’s transformation, underlining the cost of the new cultural entrepreneurship. In a scathing op-ed, “The Problem with Puerilism,” Craig Owens argued that the East Village culture had not only obscured but also countered attempts to resist economic inequality in the area:
If we regard the East Village art “scene” as an economic, rather than esthetic, development, we can account for the one characteristic of that “scene” which seems to contradict more conventional notions of avant-garde activity. I am referring to the surrender, by the East Village artist entrepreneurs, to the means-end rationality of the marketplace. . . . Despite attempts to fabricate a genealogy for the artist-run galleries of the East Village in the alternative space movement of the seventies, what has been constructed in the East Village is not an alternative to, but a miniature replica of, the contemporary art market—a kind of Junior Achievement for young culture industrialists.[viii]
The editorial was a much-needed afterword to Carlo McCormick and Walter Robinson’s extensive “Report from the East Village: Slouching toward Avenue D,” published in the same issue. An exhaustive tour of commercial activities in the area, the coauthored article furnished a descriptive topography of the gallery boom, naming it a “bohemian efflorescence,” and noting, “the East Village picture was completed, geographically if not chronologically, with Pat Hearn’s opening in December ’83.”[ix]
For some readers, the Art in America issue did not go far enough in addressing the widening gap between the new art dealers and the working-class residents of the area, nor addressing the artist-run initiatives that were attempting to do so. Artist Lorraine O’Grady responded in a searing, unacknowledged letter to the editor, signed under her Futurist performance persona Mlle Bourgeoise Noire:
The most ahistorical aspect of your “Report 84” was its art-commercial bias. By effectively denying the role of such not-for-profit spaces as ABC No Rio and Kenkeleba, you distorted the nature and history of avant-garde art in the contemporary East Village. I am not writing this to promote either ABC No Rio or Kenkeleba (the latter is a gallery whose curatorial policies for the most part I seriously disagree with), but to point out that by ignoring them, Art in America failed in its responsibilities as a magazine of record, and that in the case of Kenkeleba, the omission contributed a blatant and unnecessary example of racism in the art world.[x]
Certainly, even the naming of the East Village was a form of commodification, as it symbolized an evolution in cultural style across a definite time period—encapsulating Warhol’s parties of the 1960s, graffiti and club culture in the late 1970s, and, finally, the proliferation of commercial galleries during the 1980s. While some took it to mean the DIY-spirit of young creatives, the moniker essentially functioned as a zoning term. It came into common usage in the 1960s, when middle-class families began moving onto blocks below Fourteenth Street and above Houston, an area previously regarded as part of the Lower East Side, and historically home to Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish immigrants. Since the 1960s, Hispanic residents had settled onto the lettered blocks of Alphabet City, east of First Avenue. As Colab member and ABC No Rio co-founder Alan W. Moore and Nada Gallery’s James Cornwell argue, replacing “Lower East Side” (or “Loisaida”) with “East Village” was an act that “symbolically erased both its former and present ethnic inhabitants.”[xi]
Hearn vigorously rejected claims that her gallery’s arrival had a negative impact on the area. “My space helps the street,” she argued. “It is the residents who have let it get run down.”[xii] Although Hearn was by no means the first to participate in a scene that would lead to devastating property speculation and mass displacement of low-income New Yorkers, her role in “helping” the street was nevertheless a significant catalyst in one of the largest-ever real-estate deals in the East Village. While she was renovating her first gallery, the historic Christodora building—only a few blocks away—was being flipped.
Christodora House, at 143 Avenue B, was established as a nondenominational settlement house in 1898 and also offered vocational education courses. The original structure was demolished in 1928 to make way for a sixteen-story skyscraper with a hotel, as well as residential and recreational spaces. After falling into decline, the Department of Social Services tried to take over management of the building but failed to prevent its deterioration; it was offered for sale with few modifications in 1975 for $62,500. By the 1980s, the building had become a speculative prospect. Skydell & Partners purchased the building for $1.3 million in 1983 and placed it back on the market. In a feature published in New York magazine, the businessman Robert Weiss, who had been eyeing the Christodora for some time, recounted a trip he made there:
It was a cold and rainy evening. Afterward, Weiss got in his new BMW with his brother and drove past the corner of 6th Street and Avenue B. On a dozen other trips, that corner had been particularly bleak, surrounded as it was by empty lots and burned-out buildings. This time, although it was a weekday, the block was crowded with parked cars. The corner building had been renovated. The Pat Hearn Gallery was open and full of young people. “I didn’t have to go in,” says Weiss. “But I knew this was very East Village. I didn’t know if it was a gallery opening or what—just that it was something new. If there was any hesitation in me about buying the Christodora, that’s when it disappeared.”[xiii]
Shortly after, Weiss went on to buyout the building for $3 million.
This is an extract from ‘Views From The Gallery’, published in The Conditions Of Being Art: Pat Hearn Gallery And American Fine Arts, Co. (1983-2004), Eds. Ann Butler, Lia Gangitano, Jeannine Tang. CCS Bard / Dancing Foxes Press, 2018.
[i] Pat Hearn, quoted in Sidney Long, “Roommates: Opening Sunday,” Newporter, c. September 1978. Undated clipping in unprocessed sketchbook of Pat Hearn. Collection Colin de Land, American Fine Arts, Co., and Pat Hearn Gallery Archives; MSS.008; Center for Curatorial Studies Library and Archives, Bard College.
[ii] The Roommates—Art Show, September 16–20, 1978. The exhibition took place at Michael Walsh’s studio, 3 Spring Street, Newport, Rhode Island, as part of a series of events Walsh facilitated to support young artists in the area.
[iii] For an extended discussion of Hearn’s relationship to the Pali-Kao program and its history, as well as Hearn’s early artwork, see my essay “Passing Time,” in Dealing With: Some Texts, Images, and Thoughts Related to American Fine Arts, Co. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012): 75–80.
[iv] Gracie Mansion, quoted in Amy Virshup, “The Fun’s Over,” New York Magazine, June 22, 1987, 50.
[v] Virshup, “Fun’s Over,” 53.
[vii] Andy Warhol, Pat Hearn, 1985. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas.
[viii] Craig Owens, “The Problem with Puerilism,” Art in America 72, no. 6 (Summer 1984): 162–63.
[ix] Pat Hearn Gallery in fact opened in November 1983. See Carlo McCormick and Walter Robinson, “Report from the East Village: Slouching toward Avenue D,” Art in America 72, no. 6 (Summer 1984): 134–61.
[x] Lorraine O’Grady, unpublished letter to Elizabeth C. Baker, editor of Art in America, October 22, 1984; http://lorraineogrady.com/writing/art-in-america-1984. Located at 214 East 2nd Street, Kenkeleba House was first established in 1974 by Corinne Jennings and Joe Overstreet in response to the city’s lack of support for and representation of black and minority artists. From April 22 – May 22, 1983, Kenkeleba hosted The Black and White Show, an exhibition curated by Lorraine O’Grady which featured the work of 14 black artists and 14 white artists. The show received little press coverage, despite John Fekner’s Toxic Junkie mural (commissioned by O’Grady “to connect the inside with the outside”) which immediately became an iconic image associated with the East Village art scene. “Getting reviewers to the gallery was like beating your head against air. The show received a single paragraph in the East Village Eye, nothing more,” notes O’Grady in a text accompanying her artist portfolio of The Black and White Show in Artforum, vol. XLVII, no. 9, pp. 190-195, May 2009. Kenkeleba House continues to operate as a gallery, workspace and sculpture garden at its original address. ABC No Rio, meanwhile, was a collectively-run centre setup in previously abandoned beauty parlor at 156 Rivington Street. Founded in 1980, it grew out of The Real Estate Show (December 31 1979-January 2 1980), an illegally squatted exhibition developed by artist-run group Colab (Collaborative Projects) and developed in response to the economic pressures experienced by Lower East Side residents. Explicitly committed to political and social engagement at the intersection of art and activism, ABC No Rio is currently preparing for the construction of a new facility due to the demolition of the original Rivington building. No Rio’s events continue “in exile” at other venues and in collaboration with other organizations. For further reading see the extensive collection of documents on “ABC No Rio History,” http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/history.html
[xi] Alan W. Moore with James Cornwell, in Alternative Art, New York, 1965–1985, ed. Julie Ault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 357n7.
[xii] Pat Hearn quoted in Paul Taylor, “Pat Hearn,” Manhattan, Inc. (March 1986), reprinted in Paul Taylor, After Andy: SoHo in the Eighties (Melbourne: Schwartz City, 1995), 93.
[xiii] Craig Unger, “The Lower East Side: There Goes the Neighborhood,” New York Magazine, May 28, 1984, 41.