Reviewing Pat Hearn Gallery

George Condo: Infantile Memories, 1984, oil on canvas, 42 by 34 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York and Sprüth Magers, Berlin, London, Los Angeles.


Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Pat Hearn operated one of the most innovative galleries in New York, fostering the careers of artists ranging from George Condo and Tishan Hsu to Mary Heilmann and Renée Green. Hearn navigated the ups and downs of the art market, balancing exhibitions of commercially viable paintings with experimental and socially engaged installations. A savvy businessperson, she collaborated with more established galleries on joint exhibitions and cofounded the Armory Show art fair.

The Conditions of Being Art: Pat Hearn Gallery & American Fine Arts, Co. (1983–2004),” now at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is on view through December 14. The show examines the legacy of Hearn and that of her husband and fellow gallerist Colin de Land, who ran American Fine Arts, Co.

Art in America has covered numerous shows at both galleries over the years. To mark the exhibition at the Hessel, we are presenting excerpts from these reviews, beginning with the selections below focused on Hearn.

Hearn opened her first space in the East Village in 1983 and moved to a second location in the neighborhood in 1985. She relocated to SoHo in 1988, and then to Chelsea in 1995, years before the latter neighborhood became a gallery district. In 2000, Hearn died from liver cancer at the age of forty-seven. Her gallery’s forward-looking program—especially the experimental projects she hosted in her upstairs space in SoHo—attracted some of the era’s most astute critics. Gary Indiana, Walter Robinson, Roberta Smith, Holland Cotter, Nancy Princenthal, Brooks Adams, Yasmin Ramirez, Eileen Myles, David Bourdon, and many others wrote about shows there. Known early on for her presentations of geometric abstract paintings (in one review, Robinson wryly misstate the gallery’s name: “Patterns, I mean Pat Hearn’s”), Hearn also championed photographers Jimmy de Sana and Mark Morrisroe, and the art she brought to public attention often highlighted pressing social issues from the AIDS crisis to the racial inequities in the United States. —Eds.


George Condo at Gladstone and Pat Hearn, May 1985

George Condo has refined the daffy figurativism indigenous to the New East Village into something on the whole more provocative, more exasperating, and more appealing, in compositions and brushwork redolent of a more gracious, more difficult era (several eras, actually) in painting.

One could mention the classical Surrealists as the originators of this kind of thing, using academically impeccable painting techniques to display the psychosexual imagery of dreams. But Condo is doing something quite different. A bit closer to Groucho Marx in spirit, he abuses both the exacerbated self-pity behind the impoverished imagery certain painters derive from mass media sources and the academic flavor our newly installed expressionist avant-garde carries with it. The bombastic quality of the double show, in this case, is a parody of pretentiousness, especially evident in the fact that Condo placed only four works in Pat Hearn’s considerable space. The largest one seemed a conflation of Tiepolo, Rubens, and Woody Woodpecker on Tuinal: a breathtaking concoction, demonstrating a perfect grasp of the Zeitgeist and how to crack its spine on history’s knee. [. . . ] —Gary Indiana


Peter Schuyff, February 1986

Peter Schuyff’s new paintings are some of the best seen in New York this year. At the moment, despite the unsavory excellence of Philip Taaffe and Peter Halley, it is not too bold to say that Schuyff is the best young abstract painter in town. Also, the work of these three artists, along with the occasional abstract paintings of Tom Lawson, James Welling, and Peter Nagy, the plaster-case Minimalism of Allan McCollum, and the works by these and other artists in two recent group shows “Post-Style” at Wolff and “Final Love” at Cash-Newhouse, make up together a school of painting that is certainly better than any outside the East Village, whether figurative or abstract, whether from New York or Europe. But these lists still leave Schuyff as one of the best artists, even if the best now make a fairly long list. [. . . ]

Schuyff was born in Holland in 1956 and lives and works in New York [. . . ] he began showing his painting in 1982 and had his first show at Patterns, I mean Pat Hearn’s, in 1983. The term retro-Surrealism is more or less descriptive of Schuyff’s work then. [. . . ]

The five paintings in that were in this show are all ten feet square. They are great ones. Each is painted with a simple geometric pattern in two or three colors—checks, concentric circles, or concentric squares. The paint is applied in graduated shades (varying in lightness and darkness) to give the effect of a surface hit by one or a number of separate external light sources.

Schuyff’s paintings are large, like most successful painting today. They are big but made of little parts, using a medium size brushstroke that is both casual and fussy. The colors are also very common and could even be called dull. The single “optical” effect, color shading used as a kind of systematic chiaroscuro, is automatic and rudimentary. These paintings have none of the coquettish appeal of Schuyff’s earlier work. They are not simply vacant, they are lobotomized. [. . .]

If the ’80s have consigned us to a recap of Modernism, it should come as no surprise that a determined revival of Minimalism should now appear in the ever parochial and pluralistic East Village, even if only for a moment (and appropriately a year or two after a “not Pollock” surfaced there) [. . .] Schuyff’s new painting, like that of the Minimalists, is “pure”—but, like that of his colleagues, it is pure only in its impurity. Its appeal is to our magpie eye for shiny things. More could be said about Schuyff’s work, but there isn’t space. These are terrific paintings. —Walter Robinson


Philip Taaffe, June 1986

Philip Taaffe’s abstract paintings are representations of abstract paintings, as well as originals which masquerade as copies. His second one-person show proved once more that, these days, some of the most effective appropriation is being conducted without benefit of camera. Taaffe’s method of resuscitation is an obsessive hybrid of print-making, collage, and painting which enables him to literally deconstruct his borrowed motifs, then reattach them, piece by piece, to the picture plane, questioning old meanings and adding new ones as he goes. He’s especially good at rendering the corpse of Op art exquisite, giving it a suggestive, nearly lifelike glow which reverberates historically. [. . . ]

In this show, Taaffe pitted generic and specific Op paintings against reconstitutions of some masterworks by Barnett Newman. In a continual ricochet of titles, colors, and references, he imbued the former with the religious rhetoric and historical validity we usually associated with the latter. The title Crucifixion designates Paul Feeley’s jack-shapes as religious symbols, while Taaffe’s palette of purple and yellow on a lavender ground deviates from Feeley’s predominant scheme of red and blue on unprimed canvas, thereby suggesting “deviations” of a more sexual nature [. . . ]

This exhibition worked best as an ensemble—and an installation piece in which the sacred and the profane, the majors and the minors, traded places, and the also-rans got the better deal. That’s poetic justice. As optical objects, I still prefer the three paintings Taaffe exhibited in the gallery’s group show last summer; they were equally paintings and paintings about painting. Here, paintings about painting dominate, but in the process Taaffe is demonstrating an unusually resonant subject for himself. It is apparent in Yellow Painting, the only success among Taaffe’s Newmans. In Taaffe’s version of this relatively small, little-known work, an incredibly sculptural twisted zip bisects a yellow ground, looking like a tiny column carved out of solid, deep yellow pigment. It is flanked on each side by a “straight” zip entwined with a serpentine line—think of the snake-and-dagger motif of the Blue Cross logo run forever. The precision with which these three vertical elements occupy this yellow space is hard to describe, but it’s lyrical, exultant, and votive. It depicts Newman’s “Pagan void” as real space, and it alludes to the fervor—for painting, for abstraction, for the present emerging from the past—which runs beneath the perfect yet animate surfaces of Taaffe’s best work. —Roberta Smith


Ti Shan Hsu at Castelli and Pat Hearn, September 1987

[. . . ] Where the wall-dependent work has a hunkered-down, beetling black humor, the free-standing sculpture at Hearn looked expansive and light. Water sport appurtenances figured here too: the major piece, Ooze, a sectioned floatlike platform with a gridded surface painted a light chlorine-aqua, is like a cutaway of a swimming pool. Raised above floor level and set in the middle of the room, it seemed to invite us to climb aboard; at the same time, its truncated ledges and seats, and the bright, Day-Glo “caution” red glowing eerily up from its underside warned us away. In Hsu’s dystopian suburbia, the place we go to cool off and clean up may just get us fried.

That Hsu has a critical agenda of one kind or another going is clear enough, but where the work is strongest is in the wealth of directives its formal and conceptual invention yields. It makes us notice unappreciated, awful, clashing textures (material and cultural), leads us to suspect epiphanies and disturbances where we least think to look—the bathroom, the pool, the car wired for sound—and turns from funny to cranky to malign and back again in a single scan, rather like daily life itself. If Hsu’s Ooze in this show was as stylish and loony an example of abstract sculpture as any around—one hopes it indicates the direction of his work—the paintinglike pieces constitute a perfect mock-bourgeois art: heavy, comfy, semi-conscious, and strange. —Holland Cotter


Susan Hiller, January 1989

When the fluid confronts the fixed, the fluid will prevail: imagine a shoreline in a storm. This image and the metaphor it suggests appeal greatly to Susan Hiller, whose “Rough Sea” project, ongoing since 1972, uses conventional scenic postcards of storms and breaking waves to chart the English passion for inclement weather.

Hiller, born in the U.S., but since 1967 a resident of Great Britain, is a former anthropologist who, in the early ’70s, abandoned the alleged objectivity of scientific observation for the more overt and appealing objectivity of art-making. Yet she never really gave up her preoccupation with the scientific. The “Rough Sea” series is presented in the form of experimental data, the hundreds of postcards which Hiller has collected over the years categorized, numbered according to locale and arranged in grids. Flanking these panels were meticulous framed charts which Hiller designed according to the precepts of the discipline of anthropology. Like a scientist in the field, she organized her fragments of information, making a primary distinction between “linguistic” and “visual” traits. The linguistic traits of the postcards were established as caption, legend, and commentary (the message on the back of the postcard, when there was one); the visual traits were identified as medium, format, color, presentation, signature, and type.

In a text accompanying this show, Hiller admitted, “There can be no doubt that a contribution to ‘objective’ knowledge is involved. I have, after all, claimed academic competence.” Hiller may be acting scientific, but there is also a funny kind of estheticism—both disingenuous and sincere—at issue here. Passion, sublimity, and terror may ride these waves, but to name them is finally poetry not science. [. . . ] —Nancy Princenthal


Aimee Morgana at American Fine Arts and Pat Hearn, July 1991

These were two of the weirdest shows I saw this season. Aimee Morgana, formerly known as Aimee Rankin, has changed her last name to dissociate herself from patriarchal systems and has aligned herself instead with the tradition of Fata Morganas and Morgan Le Fay, not to mention Morgana King. As Rankin, she made a name for herself as an expert tinkerer with peep show spectacle videos (her haunting tape about Michael Jackson, “The Man in the Mirror,” was shown at the 1991 Whitney Biennial), and provocative art criticism [see A.i.A., Sept. ’85]. Now, as Morgana, she has moved into the realm of room-size installations which are essentially blow-ups of her macabre, miniaturist dioramas.

In Hearn’s darkened upstairs space, Morgana put together “Room for Hope,” consisting of two separate installations: a ghoulish bedroom suite of the same name and The Caress, which was basically built around a large color photograph of the artist posing nude with two gold skeletons (surely one of the wildest feminist self-images since Linda Benglis’s 1970s naked self-portrait-with-dildo ad). Morgana’s large double bed in “Room for Hope” was equally remarkable, in that it sported a black velvet coverlet lovingly decorated with faux diamonds and shining silver condom packets of “Magnum Lubricated Larger” arrayed in a loose grid formation. Titled Security Blanket, this prophylactic quilt clearly alluded to the AIDS crisis; a pillow strewn with red silk roses was subtitled Wishful Thinking. Behind the bed was a dense array of flickering white candles that dripped wax onto a floorscape of pebbles; this was called Reality Test. The bed was surrounded by a rug of moss that suggested both an earthwork and a burial mound. An audiotape of Jessye Norman singing Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot intercut with chanting and drums (sound collage by Ian Ainsworth), played up a mood of conspicuous black magic; this was enhanced by voodoo-type fetishes of bones and bird feathers hanging over the bed.

At American Fine Arts, the ever-witchy Morgana assembled five installations out of the most disparate materials—everything from Renaissance manuscripts to rattlesnakes in glass jars—and unified the elements by painting the gallery walls an oneiric cobalt blue. Many of these improbable aggregates had a glitzy, Art Deco appeal. In Contact, two real rattlesnakes were displayed intertwined in a jar sitting on a rustic cherry wood shelf against mirrored backing. The serpentine coupling was amplified by ornamental tree roots suspended below the shelf and by the two large metal balls (a Van de Graaff generator, we learned) that occasionally produced an electric charge and a banging noise. Morgana’s poetics are never subtle (Eros and Thanatos just about sum things up), but her production values are impeccably perverse. —Brooks Adams


Renée Green, October 1991

[. . . ] Before climbing the stairs at Pat Hearn to the upper-floor gallery where Green’s latest installation, Vistavision: Landscape of Desire, could be found, visitors were instructed to keep in mind the following questions: “How is Africa (or how are Africas) constructed in our minds? What sorts of projects and desires do we bring to the landscape?” Green partitioned the gallery into three curtained zones, inspiring initial feelings of curiosity and trepidation. In the first room, a tent contained a treasure chest filled with small boards on which were written the titles of various adventure books and scientific treatises. Outside the tent were two long open files that held color-coded boards with Latin names presumably referring to African flora and fauna. Nearby was a stepladder next to a telescope pointing at a photograph of a mountain. On the wall hung excerpts from Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails, H. Rider Haggard’s Kind Solomon’s Mines and Somerset Maugham’s The Explorers.

In the middle room two video monitors played movies about African explorers. On a table near the monitors was a voluminous book containing a variety of Ph.D. papers on contemporary African culture and a source book scrupulously detailing where Green had borrowed her materials. Finally, a third room recreated a colonist’s (or explorer’s) study, replete with guns, trophies, safari hats, pipes, and a Victorian armchair.

As best I could tell, Green meant the installation to examine the kinds of materials that collectively confirm “Africa” as a Western trope from blackness, savagery, terror, and redemption, and hoped to contribute to the deconstruction of these myths. But I found it very difficult to get a handle on this very eclectic group of objects; compared to her previous projects, Vistavision seems hastily executed and lacking in focus. Although Green has a powerful intellect and shows great courage by tackling tough themes that don’t easily lend themselves to visual expression, I nevertheless walked out of Vistavision feeling cheated, as though I had been promised a banquet but had been plied with appetizers instead. —Yasmin Ramirez


Mary Heilmann, October 1991

Heilmann’s paintings unshyly advertise alternating states of formalism and erasure. I think of Suprematist drawings or the collages of Hans Arp—“I’m like a kid stacking blocks,” she’s declared. Her paintings are built with squares, rectangles, triangles of color, then painted over repeatedly; often at the end, only the smallest hazy blue cubes remain uncovered by a veil of white paint. In all her paintings the edges provide an opportunity for her to play “chicken.” A bold stripe might wrap around the established form, becoming the color it’s alternating with once it hits the edge; or it may turn into a third color that was always hovering underneath. Likewise her drips, sometimes calculated, sometimes passionate seeming, frequently add an unanticipated dimension of feeling to a painting. Looking at Valentine, a medium size (54 by 54 inch) oil painting, you feel moved by the rumble of while planes created by red lines—tensing themselves, as the light spray of self-conscious white drips effects a slight release—because the painting’s ardor is even stronger than its design. [. . . ]

In the upstairs finale of this large show, twenty-eight brightly colored ceramic tiles, ranging in size from three inches to seventeen inches square, hung precariously on the wall, having jumped off the paintings downstairs, it seemed. Eye candy, so to speak, and weirdly exciting. Each baked birthmark, bump and rip; bright shadows on green, a wave of color running down another, a tie-dyed red, a blue windswept corona; the sometimes irregular glaze, the shaking shapes; one small, spotted blue tile or a small overly wide-bottomed red one; en masse, all this created an almost drunken pleasure. Only a Californian could do this work, one concluded. From an angle, seeing their edges bend and make shadows, one understood that this artist’s practices in other mediums have created broad expectations concerning the possibilities of paint—to expand and retreat, to be mute and to inform, to make flexible systems that accept all tropes. —Eileen Myles


Jimmy de Sana, November 1995

Posterity’s range finder is bringing Jimmy de Sana into sharper focus, revealing him as a canny photographer whose kinky quasi-surrealist images helped elucidate the punk sensibility of the late 1970s and early ’80s. A low-key, laconic figure on downtown Manhattan’s art and music scenes, he excelled at staging scrupulously perverse tableaux that transformed naked human subjects into enigmatic still lifes with sadomasochistic overtones. This retrospective exhibition offered bountiful evidence that many of his photographs would fit snugly in the same black leather portfolio as the sleek and flamboyant erotic figure studies of Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Helmut Newton, and Lucas Samaras.

Born in Detroit in 1950, de Sana grew up in Atlanta, where as a youth he was exposed to the delights of shutterbuggery. Between 1970 and 1972, he shot an extended series of black-and-white photographs, collectively titled 101 Nudes, portraying individual young men and women who were willing to strip and strike goofy poses in tacky suburban interiors, exemplified by the skinny guy who performs an arabesque of sorts atop a dining room table. These callow Georgians most definitely are not nudes in the idealized sense, just ordinary looking pals and acquaintances who apparently agreed to “get naked” on a lark for de Sana’s camera. The casually composed, flash-illuminated images typify a snapshot esthetic that gives a deliriously ridiculous edge to the entire enterprise.

After moving to New York in 1973, de Sana sharpened his skills in staging provocative tableaux. His next ambitious project, titled Submission, was a book of black-and-white photographs dating from 1977-1978, that display in-your-face zeal for gleefully decadent and sometimes downright repulsive S&M imagery [. . . ] In one photograph, a standing young woman is almost completely swaddled in contact paper, leaving only her breasts and genitals exposed [ . . .] Elsewhere, a trussed-up young woman in bra and panties is stuffed into an open refrigerator (two eggs carefully wedged between her leg and torso), while a naked man wearing a leather head mask hangs by roped feet from a shower nozzle with the water running [. . . ]

De Sana achieved an arresting style during his early adulthood and seemed on the brink of a promising mature career when his life was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1991. —David Bourdon