Alanna Heiss is hailed as a founder of what we know as the “alternative space movement,” and one of the most important centers for contemporary art in the country. However, when she began these projects in the 1970s, there were no established terms to designate her activities. So in 1971, she called her organization an “institute”—now one of the monikers of many alternative art spaces. Heiss had probably no inkling that what she was starting in the 1970s with the Institute for Art and Urban Resources would eventually become the contemporary affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art, and a seminal movement in the presentation, production, and appreciation of contemporary art.
Since 1971 and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, Heiss has curated over 700 exhibitions in New York and around the world.
In 1976, she founded PS1, which she directed until 2008. Her exhibitions there include the inaugural Rooms (1976); Robert Ryman (1977); Marcia Hafif, Breaking Color (1979); New York, New Wave (1981); Casinò Fantasma (1990); David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, 1969 –1990 (1991); Stalin’s Choice: Soviet Socialist Realism, 1932–1956 (1993); Alex Katz Under the Stars: American Landscapes 1951–1995 (1998); John Wesley: Paintings 1961–2000 (2000); Greater New York (2000 and 2005); Jon Kessler, The Palace at 4 a.m. (2005); John Lurie, Works on Paper (2006); Tunga (2007); Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland (2008), and Gino de Dominicis (2008), among countless others. The list of artists who have shown at PS1 since its inception reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary artists both in the U.S. and abroad.
Our premises are simple: we focus on leaders of art institutions who have utterly transformed the institutions whose helm they took.
Our latest interviews have focused on museum directors who had to balance the concerns of a permanent collection with the needs of temporary exhibitions. Heiss never had such a problem, but she did face other challenges.
PS1 is only a short subway trip from MoMA, but in 1976, it seemed a planet away from MoMA. Today, MoMA and PS1 are one and the same institution. Heiss and Glenn Lowry were the captains of this joint odyssey, initiated in 2000. We wanted to hear how Heiss led PS1—one of the pioneering institutions featuring contemporary art of its day—to become an inherent part of MoMA today.
Heiss has been much interviewed, and so our goal was to ask her questions she hasn’t often been asked. We wanted to learn how she came to be a passionate advocate of contemporary art, and how in her experience running a Kunsthalle presents distinctive demands from running a museum.
We invited Gaby Collins-Fernandez, who was in charge of the recording, to participate in the discussion—with happy results.
Joachim Pissarro: I’d like to signal to the readers of the Rail that this is the first interview that brings us back home to Brooklyn. I’d like you, Alanna, to take us through this. We are in 1971, if my memory’s correct, and you decide to create that incredible Brooklyn Bridge event, where you bring a dozen artists—some now among the great luminaries of the late 20th century, some totally unknown to me, but that’s part of the picture. So what led you to this, via London?
Alanna Heiss: I was briefly in New York, off and on, for a year or so in probably ’67, ’68. I always had a feel of how the machinery worked, which is important to our discussion—our profession is really all about machinery. I always had jobs—paying jobs: there were day jobs and some night jobs. My artist husband was working all the time, but as an artist. So there was a known quantity: there simply wasn’t going to be any money. He was engaged as were most artists that I knew at that time in some sort of manual labor. In this case, he had with Philip Glass, Richard Serra, and some others, a plumbing business. They did a lot of lofts—illegal plumbing. [Laughter.] That was a very, very good operation. This operation gave me a great deal of important knowledge about price, and also knowledge about people making choices. As an estimator, I would have to give a total quote and we would have to live by that quote. The way I did it was: $50 an appliance in my head and I multiplied it. So all the measurements that I did were complete nonsense. It was just fake.
Basically, if you were an artist living in a loft in the late ’60s and ’70s, you had two options. For every loft, there was water that would come to the toilet or to some sort of sink. That’s just commercial plumbing at the time. The idea that anyone would be mad enough to change the major pipes for water and re-direct it somewhere else—that would have been insane. Nobody would have done that. People would call Bellevue hearing of such a thing. But the real issue was, if you were going to plumb, for instance, across a loft, a sink, and a kitchen somehow—you could either put the pipes on the ceiling, which was terribly expensive because you had to run the pipe up, across the ceiling and then down the wall. Or you could plumb directly from the source of the water to a new water source, which is a diagonal across whatever rooms you were creating there—the studio, the living room, the bedroom, whatever—at a diagonal. It was the closest point between two points, a diagonal!
So the artist would stand there, women artists or men artists, it didn’t matter. This often led to the first clash an artist had with his middle-class upbringing. They would say, “Well, if it goes across the floor at a diagonal, doesn’t that mean you’ll have to step over it?” And there’d be a silence, and the two prices. I’d say: “Yes.” And, at least 70 percent would choose to have it plumbed directly across the floor at a diagonal and just step over the pipe, because the cost was a fraction of what it would cost to run it through the ceiling.
That was an early introduction to the knowledge that you were going to live a different kind of life if you wanted to function in the art world. Also, the lifestyle at the time was nothing that someone would choose nowadays. Artists! Today, it’s a lifestyle choice that many people want to have, because it’s brilliant and you’re a fabulous celebrity, and you go everywhere because you have lots of money. You all travel business class, usually because your dealers do, and on and on. In those days, people were people. That was very different. In the old days, there were different voices for lifestyles. The museums were so far away from us in any kind of exhibition machinery. It wasn’t even worth talking about it, or even thinking about it.
David Carrier: So, these installations weren’t legal, were they, in SoHo?
Heiss: The plumbing? I’ve never been involved with legal plumbing even, perhaps, to this day. [All laugh.] The problem with lofts was that in addition to plumbing you needed electricity, and every artist I knew was afraid of electricity. So you didn’t know how to electrify your loft, because you couldn’t go to a union electrician. That would cost a huge amount of money. Though, people did do that, in the end, because most artists couldn’t face dealing with electricity themselves. There were artists who would say to themselves, “Do I have to work 12 hours a day as a waiter, then work as a plumber, or could I just go to school and figure out electricity?” I always wondered why girls didn’t do that, because electricity is not so terribly hard, but no one wanted to learn it.
Pissarro: And so you did?
Heiss: No. I didn’t learn! I’m also terrified of electricity, but we found some people who had been the equivalent of “disbarred” from being electrical contractors. They would sign off on jobs. I still have a list at home of artists who would agree to touch electricity. One of the problems that had to do with heat was that if it was electrical heat, it was a nightmare. If there was gas heat, you could run in gas from the street. There was a loft—John Chamberlain later lived in it—that was occupied by a man named Serge when I first came to New York. He was living with an opera star and a bunch of people who were part of the west coast digger movement, which was kind of a pre-squatter type, hippy anarchists. There were a lot of them and there was a huge loft. It was 10,000 square feet. What they had done for heat was they had installed an open barbeque pit that they’d bought at an auction from a Puerto Rican bodega, on which you could roast as many as 20 chickens at a time. They used it as a heat supply for this 10,000-square-foot loft, and let me tell you, that loft was warm! Fabulously warm. The kitchen was not far, so you’d just throw chickens on the grill. But, what happened was, they had plugged this gigantic 10-foot high grill into the gas meter, and were running it day and night. You can imagine the bills! The register on the machinery had the same amount of gas as a huge industry down in lower Manhattan.
So when I first came to New York, I was taken to the loft and met the opera diva and Serge, and all these diggers—which was a culture shock. Serge and his friends were discussing the potential bill for this illegal heat, and they were going to owe maybe $300,000 in 1968 for gas running this unofficial “chicken rotisserie.” I thought, they should reverse the meter and run it backwards. Bingo! That was my first contribution: “Why don’t you run it backwards?” And they said: “That’s just great!” So they took the gas thing off. The whole place was full of gas for a while and then they turned it around and they ran it for six months backwards. But then, the bad part happened: they forgot. They ran it too far back, into negative figures, and the gas company owed them money. [All laugh.] It was just terrible. It’s fun to talk about these times, because they were very fun times. Everyone’s youth, as you will discover, is fun—usually—unless they’re morbid people who don’t have any dates or something.
Pissarro: You’ve given a lot of interviews and this one, I feel, is not going to be at all the same, but there’s one quote that is almost your signature. Everybody quotes it or re-quotes it: “One of the most essential parts of art is to have fun.” Today, in many parts of our art establishment, this is anathema. Why is it so badly considered to have fun in the art world?
Heiss: [Laughs.] Yeah. It makes having fun seem superficial and frivolous. That’s why the merger with MoMA, for a person who insisted on having fun her entire professional life, might have seemed to some as baffling, because for the first time it made people consider the possibility that fun must be taken quite seriously. It’s a different order of priorities in museums than it is in other places, and the museum directors who I admire and who were so important to me were not always a lot of fun, but they had other qualities—they had gone against some list of priorities that was important from the country that they were in, or they had taken a list of priorities and had been able to maximize the impact, or they simply threw away the priorities!
Carrier: I wonder, in a way, if the disappearance of fun isn’t an inevitable part of bureaucracies and numbers, and the fact that things have to be organized.
Heiss: I always think of Dickens, Bleak House, when I think of museum bureaucracy. The one where he spends all day and all night going from department to department.
Carrier: In a sense, what interests me here, in this historical perspective, is the kind of career you had at PS1. It is something that no one could replicate now, because now you would need to do the whole thing differently.
Heiss: I don’t know that that’s true. It’s just that people who have the kind of personality that I have aren’t usually wooed by museums. And most people like me are not attracted to museums. To talk about art criticism for just a second, I felt that in the ’70s, which is my generation, we lost all of our best art critics to music criticism.
Carrier: That’s interesting.
Heiss: Because the world of music was actually just so much damn more interesting and, once again, fun. Working as a music critic for Rolling Stone, for instance, your readership was different. Dave Hickey is the well-known crossover here. He gave up art criticism for years, and only wrote music—rock ‘n’ roll criticism. There were many terrific writers that just went over to music, and I’m not talking about classical music, obviously. I’m talking about rock ‘n’ roll. No one wants to be a classical critic. That would just be endlessly boring. The classical music world is not a lifestyle choice. Performers have to practice all the time. Things go wrong constantly with their hands, or their legs, or their mouths, or whatever the armature is, and then, they have to have horrible, dull operations. Although they can be very beautiful, of course, and esoteric and people do fall in love with them, they have bad clothes. They always have to wear this stupid black stuff for concerts. (I should know. I played in orchestras my whole youth.) Then, this is the worst part: terrible food. First of all, they don’t have very many dinners. Occasionally you would be invited to dinner after a concert if you are first chair, and then would be served spaghetti—always with red sauce.
Pissarro: What is this gap about between music and art, do you think?
Heiss: Perhaps food is the answer. I think people in music don’t care enough about food and they don’t demand good food. They’re just poor entertainers. Whereas artists have an audience from the world of collectors. Collectors are rich people who like to eat. Name a collector who doesn’t like to eat! Do you know one that doesn’t like to eat? No. Every collector we know likes to eat, except for people who are trophy collectors—the third person in the partnership, the one who doesn’t like art but is very young and attractive. You don’t eat anything, then, because your job is not to eat.
Pissarro and Carrier: [Laughter.]
Pissarro: I’d like to hear you say a few words about the Brooklyn Bridge event. In 1971, you came back from London, and you said something very important—you said that all the museums were far away and I think you meant, not just geographically, but also culturally, psychologically.
Heiss: Psychologically, they were very far away, but that really wasn’t true in the ’70s. In England, as I said, I had many jobs. I was a used car salesman for three years, which taught me a lot about collecting, because people collect those cars. It is a form of collecting. I had old cars, all kind of cars, junk cars. My business partner had the Rolls Royces. We had a pretty good business going, and I met a lot of automobile collectors. For instance, I sold a Buick that had belonged to Diana Dors that was in a barn in Scotland. I know, it’s incredible, isn’t it? It didn’t run, but I had many auto collectors who wanted to buy that thing. What you started to ask yourself as a used car dealer was, why would they want a non-running, dysfunctional car, once owned by Diana Dors? (Not even a major movie star—an English version of Marilyn Monroe!) It was a Buick that would not even fit any English countryside road. Then you realize it’s because deep in their heart, in their gut they’re passionate about collecting celebrity cars, or passionate about Diana Dors. Diana was still alive when I sold her car. I reached her without difficulty. She told me her real name was Diana Mary Fluck, which was on the car registration.
I also worked as an intern at an artists’ space—a big studio complex, which was created by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley. There I was able to observe the behavioral pattern of artists, who are rare birds, of course. If you see them cluster around something, either a watering hole or wherever—these rare birds, you just wonder: What makes them gather here? What attracts them to one spot over another? I believed then and I believe now, that most artists cluster in gangs, which allows them to spend time with each other and to talk about the work. There are of course exceptions, but the majority of artists do need that back and forth dynamic, for at least a certain period of time in their life when they’re developing their work.
Pissarro: So, why London? And what was the difference then with New York?
Heiss: London is a horizontal city. So it’s harder for artists to gather in gangs, because they have to have transport. At the time, we had motorcycles, so we could get everywhere, but not so many English artists had bikes and cars in London in the late ’60s. They didn’t have the money. So there were pockets of young artists, but not strong movements and powerful cliques.
New York, on the other hand, is a vertical city, and one of the reasons it’s always been a fantastic center for the arts is because of its verticality. We can name the places where artists have gathered in New York City. First it was the Cedar Tavern, then it was Max’s Kansas City. You name the place and you immediately can visualize the people. You can go there and they’re there. It’s like Madame Tussaud. They’re there! They’re just sitting there, day and night, drinking. Of course, the bars change. At this time in our New York City artist community, there are no longer the absolute identical spots that everybody would go to: it has become much larger.
One of the few museum people who did have a place at artist’s gatherings was Henry Geldzahler. He was enormously powerful, because he lived the museum life at day, and the artist life at night. He stayed at the bars at night, and he stayed in the museum in the day—back and forth, back and forth. Curators, writers, artists knew this: they were there, always. Of course, they were alcoholics, so they had to be there, but all working art critics were at the bars constantly, and that included even Lucy Lippard and artists/critics of the time. Drink, drink, drink. Because you have to be in touch with the artists, usually, to write well about your contemporaries. Jill Johnson was a great writer at the time, a kind of art journalist about art, before she went mad, which also happens to art critics. It happens to critics more so than to artists perhaps because critics are frequently forced to ignore their ego.
But before all this, in London, I was kind of an artist liaison assistant. I used to give tours of the giant studio complex. I also used to do a lot of sets for films as a job. I did all of the selection of the art for Stanley Kubrick’s a Clockwork Orange.
Pissarro: Really? Did you?
Heiss: The Milk Bar scene talked to me. The rocking penis—I discovered that in Amsterdam. It was a Dutch artist named Herman Makkink who did the rocking penis. I think he had an identical twin brother. One of them did very formal paintings. The other one did these fiberglass genital works that were absurd.
Pissarro: So, up to the early ’70s, you acted as a connector or a facilitator. You brought together people. What was your first experience with the museum world?
Heiss: Experience taught me that the museum model was probably not the obvious setting that young artists could—or should—effectively show in. Dealers were obviously more open, because their job was often to do shows with living artists. In London, the early dealers were people who were very connected to the rock world, like Robert Fraser who knew both the Beatles and the Stones. In Germany, the dealers only showed American artists. But Germany had the great Kunsthalle system, which really emerged after the war, when the German constitution was re-written and they rewrote the whole museum system in Germany. German artists were always very lucky, because their museum system was a response to new issues then, as opposed to the museum systems in France and England. The Kunsthalle system was very useful, and the Kunstverein system was also very useful, and then, of course, the Kunstmuseum, which is where the collective energy is stored—visibly and metaphorically—these things are separately funded and encouraged in Germany where they were not in England and they were certainly not in America.
With contemporary art, the English came up with the I.C.A. structure.1 That’s one that we tried to copy back here in New York. The other thing I mimicked for my first organization here was something called the Institute for Policy Studies, which was an organization that gave a form for investigation by a number of—not so much freelance we would call them adjunct intellectuals. I thought, why not start something called the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, which gives an umbrella to a variety of different positions that people would be taking—curators, writers, and so on. I was trying to set up something that would be functional for a moving group of people. That was one thing—and a moving location.
Pissarro: Please say a few words about that infamous Brooklyn Bridge event.
Heiss: The Brooklyn Bridge event was odd. It was never as important to me as other things were. It was basically a festival. I know about festivals. I’m a good administrator and organizer (now called curator). The “curator” label is really used too often; curators at contemporary art venues should be designated “producers.” We should remove that title. “Curator” is a horrible title. What does it mean in French? It means like concierge. No! Curators are producers: That’s my feeling. Anyway, the Brooklyn Bridge event took advantage of a job I had when I came back from London, which was for a city betterment organization called the Municipal Art Society, which had some tangled but very important connections to the city bureaucracy. Brendan Gill was, among other things, the chairman of this institution and became my lifelong friend and my co-conspirator. As the chairman of the Institute of Art and Urban Resources, he figured out the name, because he said it was so long and inconsistent that the police would never be able to remember the whole name when they would write up tickets. They’d get Institute for Art, but they wouldn’t remember Urban Resources. It’s not exactly parallel. It was intentionally not parallel and confused many people. A lot of our mail went to the Institute for Art and Architecture.
A lot of our police tickets were for performances on streets—for instance, when Gordon Matta-Clark was selling oxygen to people on Wall Street. Remember the oxygen machine that he would wheel around? It was great, but it got him a ticket for no vendor permit. Gordon did the clock shower film on the face of the clock tower, where he was nude and spraying himself with a hose. We were apprehended quickly, because we were directly across from the federal court building and everybody was looking out the window at Gordon—that attractive half-French, half-Chilean young nude man on the face of the clock.
Anyway, the Brooklyn Bridge event was the first time, perhaps, that Gordon and I worked together and we were constantly scheming about things that would be fun and interesting to do. I had access to the Brooklyn Bridge because it was the 88th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge so I thought we could do a festival and get city support for it. Except, we didn’t get city support, but we did get permits. This is a story that has now been copied for the last 50 years in all cases of performance art (i.e.: you go to the film department of the mayor’s office and get a permit to do a film with extras).
Pissarro: And the extras all claimed to be artists.
Heiss: Yes. There were lots of artists. We always gave names that people could remember, like Picasso or Pissarro. Anybody that was remotely educated would see that this was a sham. We did the same thing, by the way, at the Clocktower. People had to sign in. You’d look at the lists of the signees, and there’d be hilarious people signing in. Timothy Leary. Albers was always signing in to these shows.
The Brooklyn Bridge was something that would have happened very commonly in any of the European cities that I lived in the late ’60s because those were very accessible forms of performance festivals. The French never stop having festivals. Their festivals go on all year. They stop, like Tuesday, and then you get to sleep for two nights and then you start another festival on Thursday. The French also like to do demonstrations, they call them “strikes,” which are not festival-like, but they’re similar principles of organization. They’re just not any fun. Then, at the end of the demonstration two days later, you have a festival—dancers like Jules Feiffer, ballerinas going around. And the British, of course—it’s too rainy and cold to have festivals all the time. They insist on sitting in mud, watching opera—in mud. Of course, recreational drugs help.
Pissarro: And there is a lot of chanting and dancing in those demonstrations.
Heiss: [Laughs.] Chanting. Dancing. You’re right—always a good combination. I feel so bad for the Chinese, because their festivals are so strangely desperate ever since Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square put cold water on festival organizations in China.
Carrier: So you’re back in New York, but now some years before PS1—1971. PS1 doesn’t start until 1976.
Pissarro: Would you say that the Institute leads to PS1?
Heiss: Absolutely. We kept that as our legal name throughout the ’90s. I went to the museums that were friendly, which were the Whitney and the Modern. Those were artist-friendly. The Guggenheim was not artist-friendly. Tom Messer was friendly, but it was not an interesting museum to approach for anything because they were always showing all those small, dark paintings from Hilla Rebay, Robert Delaunay, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, and so on. Not Minimalism.
Pissarro: Then the closing Hans Haacke show.
Heiss: Another reason, you quite correctly bring up—the Hans Haacke problem. The Guggenheim. You’re right. But even before that, nobody really wanted to be at the Guggenheim because of its curved walls. It was very hard for contemporary artists. [Laughs.] It was the last place in the world you could show Judd right. The only way one could show Robert Morris was by wrapping that felt around the walls saying, “Oh well, it’s just like horizontal felt.” LeWitt could do it, but it was way before those wall drawings. He was making silvery square stuff.
Now MoMA was very artist-friendly, because MoMA had been accidentally taken over by some lively people, namely John Hightower. Because in the John F. Kennedy world, who could be director of the MoMA but John Hightower. He was very handsome and young—and a good guy in every sense of the word. I can understand the trustees choosing him: “This is a new world. We need someone like John Kennedy. We need John Hightower!” He was, like Joachim, a very dashing man. He had a young colleague named Jennifer Licht. She was beautiful. She had red hair and was always at Max’s Kansas City with all of the artists. So there’s a direct link between the director of MoMA and Max’s. She was only an assistant curator, but somehow—I don’t know how it happened—she got the opportunity to organize a show in 1969, and she did one of the famous shows Spaces—six young American artists.
Pissarro: She later worked with Bill Rubin, didn’t she?
Heiss: Sort of, but I think she was under Rubin and the brilliant Dorothy Miller at John Hightower’s office. Anyway, it was a great show, and there were all these young artists in it. So MoMA was right out in front of what was going on. That office made MoMA very permeable.
Pissarro: Was she the person who introduced contemporary art to MoMA?
Heiss: She was young. She was good. She was strong. I actually saw her about three years ago. I told her that she was my idol and one of the most interesting organizers I had met.
Pissarro: But Hightower’s tenure was rather brief, wasn’t it? Who else brought contemporary art within the museum?
Heiss: Well, there was that Pierre Apraxine, but he happened to have thrown a stone one day during a big MoMA strike, thus ruining his entire career as a curator. Obviously, you could never trust a curator again who joined the artists and threw a stone at museum staff. That was his downfall as a museum official. Of course, he went on to be immensely happy as a rich, well-connected advisor to collectors. Imagine what would have happened, he could have slaved away for many years as a young, and then aging, curator. But he was doing something important at MoMA: He’d been given permission to hang paintings in the café, the cafeteria.
Pissarro: That was the beginning of a long legacy. It’s still is going on, I believe, today.
Heiss: That’s right, a long legacy, because it was not the outsider’s café, it was the insider’s café. By hanging paintings there, the big curators—these people would all see these works by artists whom Pierre deemed of interest. Pierre would sneak in these works and put them up. It was incredible. It was huge. He was an embedded curator—embedded in the great war at MoMA. You had Pierre hanging around. You had John Hightower at the top. You had Jennifer Licht.
Pissarro: So what happened then?
Heiss: It didn’t last long. They didn’t like John Hightower. They fired him, and Jennifer went somewhere else. Pierre was fired for his stone throwing and banned. [Laughs.] I asked him once about why he threw that rock and he said, “Well, it wasn’t a very big rock.” [All Laugh.] He should have said, “I’m sorry. I just bent down to pick it up because I’m Belgian—and I pick up stones, because we’re a very neat country.” Of course, he was perhaps too blasé, as he had experienced many a student protest in Europe. He just didn’t realize that you could not be a MoMA curator and throw stones, even if you were only a cafeteria curator. He didn’t realize that he was only a stone’s throw away from disaster—he came from a great Belgian family and he spoke French, of course. The idea was that if you spoke French you could probably get by at any given museum. That turned out not to be the case.
Anyhow, I went to MoMA and I went to the Whitney, and I said, “the fire now in our hearts is to decentralize the city’s resources” because that’s what the mayor wanted, and that’s what everybody wanted. It was the time of the early ’70s.
Pissarro: Where did you get this idea from?
Heiss: I’d come from England where I was trained to be a good person in museums, and the Hayward Gallery and these other places. Here was the idea that museums have many things in storage and many contemporary works—new works. Those can be stored in a warehouse that is in Brooklyn, and there’s one in Queens, and one in the Bronx, and you can just store the stuff here and there. Then, someone, me or my team—or working with you or your team—could move it out of the back 10,000 square feet and move it into the front 10,000 square feet, and change it every six months, and people can come and see it by appointment only. This could have made all this new art very accessible. I understood museums enough to know that they felt there had to be some coherent relationship in hanging things—they feel they owe the visitor a coherent visual experience.
Carrier: Can you explain what you mean? What is this coherent visual experience about?
Heiss: This is the issue. That’s why they [curators] can’t show anything, because it’s only with years and years of experience and thousands of degrees that you can possibly organize a coherent visual experience worthy of a great museum. Otherwise, you just keep what’s there until you have to paint the walls. I explained that the point of the storage project is not to present the work as a coherent visual experience. No, no, no. You cannot be blamed for not doing it. You’re just moving it out. You do not owe anything to your viewer. You just give everything a label. That’s it, and it takes care of storage, accessibility—all these terrible problems. It’s over, and you’re alive in these different people’s memories and artists can come and see it. Schools can do tours and the city will go mad with joy. When that was completely rejected I talked to John Hightower a lot about it. He rejected it, too. I didn’t understand what I came to understand only years later—that they couldn’t do it because of the coherent visual experience. I knew they couldn’t do current shows with current people, but I didn’t understand why, and it was because they didn’t want to. It’s a simple thing. If you have children, you understand. Why do children not do things sometimes? Because they don’t want to. Most museums don’t want to show contemporary art. This has all changed in the last 10, 15 years. But this is basically what it was.
Pissarro: This is fascinating to hear this conversation. I actually did not know this. So museums all rejected this storage idea even though it made so much sense, and would have solved their ongoing storage crisis. Why didn’t they take your project? That is really interesting.
Heiss: Oh, so many reasons. One reason they generally don’t like this kind of idea is because they don’t want to give credibility to artists before they think that—
Pissarro: Before history has recognized them.
Heiss: Exactly. Each museum has a sense of history, and their sense of history tells them that the Museum of Modern Art is the place that, most of all in the world, has been conferred with the role of a history-making machine. The Whitney is less concerned with this. As a result, it is easier to make proposals, but they didn’t want to do it either. It was just too much work.
gaby Collins-Fernandez: But at MoMA, Frank Stella got in very young, he got that kind of validation. So, how do you explain that he was so quickly recognized as part of history?
Heiss: Yes, and I wonder why that happened.
Pissarro: He’s the only living artist today who had as many as three retrospectives at MoMA, and not one since Rubin stepped down. That says it all.
Heiss: And why did Rubin step down? We know why, don’t we? He made a mistake. He made a mistake because he got carried away with his own theme: the Primitivism show of 1984.2 Until that moment, he had made many other mistakes, which we won’t discuss here because it would be indiscreet. But in 1984, the mistake he made that was to forge connections between specific Picasso works and specific primitive works that were totally improper and were not backed up historically. It’s very tempting to curators, but certainly for great experts like Rubin at the time, to think of themselves as carrying on the voice of history: Rubin was thought to be god—he was thought to be god by everyone except people who cared, like Lucy Lippard. He couldn’t just say that it looked to him as though Picasso had seen this. No, no. He had to go on further than that and declare dogmatically: Picasso did see this! And by stating things so dogmatically, he left himself open for attack and that was his mistake. So when Tom McEvilley attacked him—
Pissarro: I would even go further than that Alanna: that show was seen and it has produced more ink than any other show, and more shows and counter shows. It was seen as a kind of race-colored, or race-oriented, thesis by which Modernism was propped up by “primitive art” (whether from Oceania or Africa)—
Heiss: Yes, you’re totally right.
Pissarro: And indigenous, so-called, “primitive art,” that phrase could no longer be used after 1984—that whole expression was absolutely axed after that show.
Heiss: It made the whole word drop out of our language.
Carrier: I remember that battle. McEvilley got going, and was one of the critics who wrote a vitriolic diatribe against this show and its thesis. Then Rubin would reply, but the reply didn’t really make sense: it didn’t at all address the issues raised by McEvilley. Rubin kept arguing, from the position of his ivory tower, about how many objects there were in his show: whether he placed 150 objects, or 200 of them in one of the vitrines—
Heiss: McEvilley’s response was like: “Aha, the bear, the big bear is coming out”—
Pissarro: But the greatest response, since we’re talking about museum politics here, takes place in France in 1989, with Les Magiciens de la Terre.3 Tom McEvilley was invited to be on the organizing jury of the exhibition, which took the exact counter thesis of Primitivism: this was the first show ever where contemporary, living artists from all continents—including Australia and Africa, from everywhere—were brought together. Was that exhibition a mess? Yes, a phenomenal one! Was it incoherent? Definitely. Was it well organized? Terribly organized. But it set a new tone for upcoming exhibitions.
Heiss: I think it was an important show to do because it caused dialogue and people thinking are always better than people sleeping. [Laughs.] For that reason alone I think it should be enshrined.
Carrier: And McEvilley only had a minor role in it. He wasn’t sure about that exhibition—he wrote an essay for it, but, he was unhappy with it.
But, Alanna, we have mentioned a lot of people so far. Who were you working closely with at this point?
Heiss: Leo [Castelli] was my love advisor. He was very, very curious about current art activities, and we liked each other. He was enormously good as a person who had great instincts about how to survive. He was on my board of directors. I was the first person to have dealers on my board. I had Leo Castelli and Richard Bellamy. It was very much a thing not to do. It’s clear why it wasn’t done. The reason I did it, though, was because Richard was essential to my life. He was a great teacher, a mentor—a stupid word, mentor. He was an unsuccessful dealer, which is why artists loved him so much. They knew he was the only dealer who had nothing—he was completely poor, much worse off than they were.
Pissarro: Why? Did he spend all his money on art?
Heiss: Well he didn’t even make much money. The money went straight to the artists. He lived in his car a lot of the time. He actually slept in his car. It’s just mad. And there are stories about him, also legendary. He was often homeless because he’d have difficulties with either rent or with romance. And one person—I think Paula Cooper tells that story, was going to the Greene Gallery and looking around for Richard. She couldn’t find him anywhere—and she realized there was a foot sticking out from underneath the desk. And there he was, he had fallen asleep under his desk because he’d been up working all night. He was really a very wonderful person. At first I had to follow him for a while before he would talk to me. I just followed him around. I follow people; I find that’s a good way to meet people. When you want to meet people, just follow them and stalk them and eventually they give in.
Pissarro: Were you criticized a lot for bringing two art dealers on your board?
Heiss: Yeah, people thought that was a bad idea—only serious people. But, by the way, they stayed on through the ’80s and ’90s. By MoMA time, there weren’t any dealers on the board.
Carrier: I’ve heard that repeatedly from different people, and I’ve never understood because it all seems a part of one system. The idea that someone’s outside of it because they’re a dealer or a curator doesn’t make any sense.
Heiss: That’s one of the things that we’re talking about in this interview: where are the disguises and who has the masks and what are they masking? The museum, the collector, the dealer, the artist. The museum used to have—when I grew up in this New York art world, not as a child, as a grown-up—these positions I thought were very fixed and solidly set, and I kept asking and finding out who they were: who was who in this art world? My best friend in all the world was James Elliott, who was director of the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Pissarro: The oldest museum in America.
Heiss: Yes, the oldest museum in America. A very, very intelligent man from a good family—but an American family, from Washington State. Then he came to the Wadsworth Atheneum where he lived with his then-wife, Judith, who was a beautiful ex-model. And then they split up, and he went to the Berkeley Museum. I went out with him to San Francisco because he was my best friend. Went with Donald Droll who was another good friend of ours, who was a dealer. We went out together to see if Jim could be director of the Berkeley Museum. And our conclusion was absolutely not. It was just an odd museum, with weird architecture.
Pissarro: Let’s go back to your accomplishments. Take us through one of the exhibitions that counted most for you.
Heiss: The last show that I was organizing—before 2008 happened and all my sponsors wanted to run away, sponsors either jumped out windows or closed their businesses or whatever—was called Spectacle. It was about these gigantic art pieces which are spectacles. It examined the crossover into the art world of gigantic experiments in technology. I was trying to narrow it down to the spectacle in Asia because there, the idea of spectacle is very sought after and it is a completely legitimate artistic enterprise—unlike in our world. And it is at the forefront, technologically. The fireworks, everything. The larger the piece, the more it moves, the better! Whereas in our strict Protestant, Calvinist world, art that moves is generally bad art. Plug it in: bad art. Moving around: bad art. Except then you get eccentricities like Robert Breer (1926 – 2011), who made art that looked like a minimal piece of sculpture but had invisible wheels underneath. And then, this happened at MoMA actually, he left it overnight, he would turn it on and it would move by itself. Guards came back the next day, and all of it had moved. [Laughter.]
Pissarro: I really wish I’d seen that.
Heiss: Oh, yes. Look up Breer and his moving art piece. I always wanted to do a really big show on this guy.
Carrier: It’s very moving! [Laughter.]
Heiss: Well, kinetic art is bad art. That was my last show in England, I worked on kinetic art. Tom Finkelpearl, who’s now our Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner, my good friend, and a curator and museum director for many years, loved kinetic art—which I hated. My usual policy is to try to choose people to work with who are really smart people, who like and know more about something than I do. At PS1 that was essential to open up the whole place to different points of view.
Pissarro: It’s a little bit of [Rail publisher] Phong Bui’s strategy.
Heiss: It’s very much Phong Bui, and very much the Rail strategy completely. That’s one reason Phong and I love each other. In fact, Phong was working with me on the Spectacle show. Phong and I traveled to Asia together. I was with him the first time he went back to Vietnam.
Collins-Fernandez: I’m interested in what you started saying about the different masks people wear in the art world, and the sort of four-cornered archetypal situation of these roles; I’m wondering what those roles are for you. Thinking about the difference between the curator’s mask and the artist’s mask and the producer’s mask in this sense—how you see them reacting to each other. I don’t know if that’s too clinical a question.
Pissarro: No, that’s a great question, I think. There’s been such a shift in the past decade or so.
Heiss: A huge shift. It’s a shift that today keeps evolving: all the roles keep changing, the entire set of the play is changed. All the costumes have changed and all the masks have changed. The museums can hardly maintain any mask at all. What’s left? Is there any possible role to keep now, today? The shows happen too late, they don’t have any money, and they have to be events that entertain the board members, but without causing too much trouble.
Collins-Fernandez: Where before you had conservative institutions and unaffiliated people interested in art working against them, now you have those same interested power structures and—
Heiss: Now you have silly people. [Laughs.] Well, hopefully what you have are not people too silly to get a real job, but hopefully the people you hire are very good, very young people, people who don’t want to sell art, and are not interested in retail. Museums are the only place now that you can hire people who are not interested in retail. The real relationship now is between the collector and the dealer. It’s just too much money involved to have museums, in their older figuration, play a serious role. There is just too much money at stake, and sadly the museum has had to take a back seat.
Collins-Fernandez: Except for artists’ reputations, no? Ideas about a career or something like this, they still matter?
Heiss: Which do you think would be most important to an artist? The news that his work had been bought in a collection by, let’s just choose anyone—Steve Cohen, for instance—or, that this artist was featured in an important article about him in Artforum! Which one do you think he would choose?
Collins-Fernandez: It depends on how old the artist is and where they want to go and how they’re thinking about it. Because thinking about a mid-career artist, you know, an Artforum review for them is probably less important than their collection placement, or their mid-career retrospective.
Heiss: In 2014, I don’t think it matters at all!
Heiss: It’s only who is collecting. It’s only money. I think the money is the thing—it’s easy to rail against money—oh money, money! Bad, bad! But, it doesn’t examine the situation, just crazy, that this has happened. For some reason, contemporary art has become the sexiest, most enviable, attractive thing in the entire art community. It’s much more important that you’re buying a great John Currin than if you’re buying a new condo, or whatever: acquiring great art is just more important! You walk into a room and you say: “Oh my god! Pissarro, look at these Tony Oursler works! I don’t know how he got them, they weren’t for sale!”
Now who is going to even say such a thing about a collector who just bought an incredible drawing from some 18th-century jackass? No one would even introduce him to anyone!
Heiss: Yes, that’s okay, because there’s been a tremendous injection of money into our community from outside. People came from outer space with a big, gigantic injection of cash and said, “Where should we do this?” They just chose contemporary art and said: “Push, push, push!” Glenn [Lowry, director of MoMA] looks like a genius for encouraging contemporary art: it makes you look like a genius for writing about it. It makes me look like an idiot for never having collected a single thing, and not even knowing collectors who do it now. The discussion is that the situation has changed so radically that these masks that used to describe our actions are no longer relevant. They can be put in the closet.
Pissarro: Or, have they not become interchangeable, maybe?
Heiss: For me, the change was when I realized that museums had lost the game. I never went to art fairs, because I figured they were immoral. Anybody who worked at PS1 and who went to an art fair would be fired. [Laughs.] I believed so much in this that when I was giving an award from the Illy coffee company to James Rosenquist, who designed the Illy logo, they wanted me to give it at the art fair, here in New York. This was about 10 years ago. I said I would never set a foot in an art fair. So, they built a kind of ramp over, so that I could go to the VIP luncheon award. That’s how strongly I felt about art fairs. But I finally gave in.
Carrier: So, tell us how you saw this radical change take place, and how you positioned yourself towards this huge shift.
Heiss: In the early ’70s when I found out that museums didn’t really want to show contemporary art I tried to look at different kinds of venues that showed art of my time and figure out how you would get permission to use them for shows. All I do is shows. I’m not interested in collections. I’m only minimally interested in storage; my true love is real estate. I developed a kind of manual of how to use buildings for art shows. I would develop a building that was in different kinds of ownership. There was a privately owned building called 10 Bleecker Street where I did a couple of shows. Then there was the city owned Clocktower building, with us perched at the top and a whole mesh of city affairs and city agencies below. Then there was the Coney Island Sculpture Factory. This was a federally owned building, which by the time I got it became city-owned; this was where the Idea Warehouse germinated, and a couple more such buildings followed in its wake.
Pissarro: But tell us what was so different about all these buildings? About the Idea Warehouse, for instance?
Heiss: The Clocktower was for art which could be reflected on, or if you want, to be seen in a utopian situation: Jim Bishop, Joel Shapiro, Richard Tuttle. The shows I organized at 10 Bleecker Street were shows about sculpture: Nancy Holt, Richard Nonas. The Coney Island Sculpture Factory was different: it was a production space where you could make your own very big sculptures. It was John Chamberlain, it would have been Richard Serra. And the Idea Warehouse gallery was specifically about performance art. Paula Cooper was the most hospitable to it. People would do fantastic things for a few days in between exhibitions.
But then I said to myself: What if these performance people would get a whole month to do this! And, at the end of the month, they would give two days of performances, but they would have 28 days to develop the whole scenery. So here, the Idea Warehouse was born! You have an idea; you have a month to prepare it, and then, you give a public performance. I chose 12 artists. The first one was Philip Glass. The last one—number nine—was Charlemagne Palestine. We didn’t get to numbers 10, 11, or 12 because the place caught fire due to an unfortunate mistake by Charlemagne. So the Idea Warehouse became very, very, very famous because it had this strange time limit. Anthony McCall did one of his great pieces there.
But, to go back to your question, each one of these spaces had a different kind of ownership and a different kind of program and then at the end of five years I thought, well this is fine, guerrilla warfare everywhere and over everything: Time to move on! People were starting alternative spaces all across the country. I helped with many of them and I was super happy with their proliferation. Then I realized that the last and ultimate challenge for me was a museum! It was back to the very beginning and for me, it suddenly made full sense. If you’re a guerilla warrior, it’s really fun for a while and you wear good outfits, and get yourself good boyfriends; but museums are about a whole different business. Museums are about long-term bureaucracy. Where can you run a museum that lays down a foundation for long-term activity, and that is still a good player? That became my new challenge.
Carrier: So, it sounds as though you went full circle.
Heiss: Well PS1 was the perfect transition. When I was invited by the City of New York to organize a long-term space in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan, or the Bronx, I chose PS1 in Queens with the advice of all my friends, all the collectors, and all my interested artist-friends. We all decided that PS1 was really the right case study. It was so huge. It was bigger than any private grade school. It was two blocks by two blocks. It was more central than any place lower or upper Manhattan. We didn’t dream it would take 40 years for people to go into Long Island City because it was seven minutes away from MoMA. We made plenty of mistakes. It was an experiment in how to run a very large space and swing being a museum without a having collection. There was never an idea of a collection. Marcia Tucker had all these dreams of a collection for the New Museum. Any museum is a museum, she said. I didn’t care. I refused the invitation to join the American Museum Association. I refused the invitation to be listed among the American museums. And I was stupid to do this.
Heiss: Because it would have solved so many problems just very simply. You realize that for 10 years we were listed in the New York Times under “other.” How many people go to “other”? Power is power. Why not go to the American Museum Directors Association and lean on their power? Those people are all bored. You could be the entertainment for museum directors all over the world. I didn’t do it.
Pissarro: But, you heard this more than we did—and here I’m being the devil’s advocate more than I want to be—because I actually believe so many great things came out of your staunch resistance to give in to the lure of the museum establishment. And of course, you’ve heard all about the effect of the corporatization of PS1, the white box, whatever we want to call it. I remember the day it was announced that PS1 was about to fuse with MoMA—
Heiss: I know that was really a dark day, for some who thought it was giving up. After success as an outlaw, you join the sheriff team. (The foundation of most western films.) That wasn’t how I saw it. For me it was a total win. I saw it only in terms of listings. The Times changed their listings to accommodate us. PS1 is the only successful radical museum in the world in those terms—it was never started as an alternative space. It was a completely different perspective. Every single thing I did was with or against the museum world. Alternative spaces were something else. It was like play, it was like having fun with artists doing festivals. PS1 was very serious. How do you choose good curators that don’t have proper accreditations? How do you choose curators who work in a bar? How do you choose your choosers? I tried to formulate all such questions—over 40 years I had fun with reformulation. At the end of that, in 2000, I thought, we’re so strong. We don’t have any real debt. We have a $100,000 debt—that’s nothing. We have a fabulous board, a very powerful board. We have artists lined up around the world. What’s left? What was interesting then was to come up against the Museum of Modern Art—the ultimate challenger from the very beginning! What are we today? Can we work together? The greatest museum of modern art in the world, by my estimation, and PS1, which didn’t have to be the greatest—greatest is a common word—but it was certainly the largest and certainly the strongest anti-museum. What did all that mean? What could that confrontation mean—with what possible results? I thought, let’s talk about this! And from the beginning, Glenn and I knew right away that in 10 years, these two organizations could be interestingly matched.
Pissarro: As I saw you and Glenn in real situations many times, it seemed to me that you were very good friends. I can remember no times when Glenn was happier than when he was at PS1 meetings. I remember, for instance, when you offered him a chance to curate his own show. Can you comment on that relationship, which was a very unusual one?
Heiss: You know I really liked Glenn, and I think he is very bright, and I thought he had very good eyes. I mean, he has great eyes. I think he’s better than very good, because he also has huge ears. He hears everything. He could hear us sneeze: he’s probably listening to us right now. [Laughs.] But, I thought the curators would be more interested in playing with us; in getting engaged in the same things I was interested in. But I don’t think they saw the fun and I don’t think they saw the shows we were doing as being important. I’m not sure, I don’t know what they saw. The lively curatorial exchange that I anticipated between MoMA and PS1 didn’t happen immediately.
Pissarro: But in terms of the public, I think the recent public has been more about PS1 than about the traditional MoMA model; and in a way that interchange and this new situation have led more to the PS1-ification of MoMA than to the MoMA-fication of PS1. Would you agree with that?
Heiss: I agree completely. And I think that Glenn and I working together during those years, watching each other: that was fun! I mean the curators with the great power and the great history of making shows, they weren’t tantalized by this opportunity, were they? You, Joachim, were one of the few curators who even wanted to do a show there. Klaus [Biesenbach, present director of PS1, and successor to Alanna Heiss] and I worked together at PS1 for over 15 years and he was crucial to the project. Klaus took a position at MoMA so that MoMA could learn to trust him and I saw him as an embedded curator. His actions now reflect his own dreams at PS1. I’m just so happy he’s putting the time into PS1 to reflect his own dreams, which are different than mine.
Pissarro: Why do you think MoMA curators didn’t feel more inclined to be more closely associated with PS1?
Heiss: They were all good students, that’s true across the board. Maybe not the best, but they were all good students. And then they did something shining and wonderful and made people believe in them. Eventually somehow, as if their fortunes were controlled by Chinese fortune cookies, they end up at MoMA, with all this talent. And then, they have to go through this servitude, this training. They get to go to board meetings and watch their seniors behave with collectors, before they become seniors themselves. Eventually, they get up to the top spot and what’s left then? There’s the space they have but they don’t really get any space to do a show. It’s like every three or four years you get to propose a show. What can you do in this structure if you are a show producer? You can only be happy in that job if you don’t really want to do shows, if you really want to write books or something else.
Carrier: This is the first time that I hear the curatorial profession described this way. Tell us more about how you see this parallel between curator and producer.
Heiss: Klaus, for example, is a brilliant show producer. I worked with him for 15 years producing shows. He worked with me, he proposed installations to me, I changed them around, and the same in reverse; he really knew how to produce shows. He’s a show machine. If you check back over the last five years, it would be interesting to add up all his exhaustive work and see that he has produced as many as 50 percent of the great shows presented at MoMA. I bet Klaus is just always in there. He’s German: he’s there in the morning; he’s there at night. He’s enormously hardworking and then, he doesn’t have a private life, which is another plus. [Laughs.] You can’t be a show producer of any major institution in the world and have a private life. The phone calls come day and night. You can’t hand it off to a committee, which means you can’t be a curator with a happy home life at PS1 with a big salary and have assistants. That’s just not how it works.
Collins-Fernandez: The way you speak about your own life experiences seems to reflect a great respect for the unpredictable elements of life, which end up influencing both one’s own course and the way in which you relate to art. On the other hand, you referred to one of the obstacles of trying to set up this warehouse space being the responsibility to viewership that museums with older collections seem to have. So how do you, Alanna, relate to viewers, or art-goers—people who have lives outside of the art world, who come to museums to see certain things?
Heiss: This is a very good question. Jim Elliott my great museum director friend, whose model I follow (even though he is no longer with us)—and really, I pattern my life after him—he used to say to me, “Alanna, there are differences between different kinds of museums: There’s something called a full service museum; there’s something else called a university museum; and there’s something called a collector’s museum.”
And going through life, I recognize that, and I understand that, and did get to see the best in every category. Honestly, it took a long time for me to feel any responsibility to any viewer. And, that’s why, in everything I did, I was responsible first of all to the artists, and then to a small magic circle in the art community around the world. I had no responsibility to the press. I certainly had no real responsibility to collectors. I had only one responsibility: to make interesting shows.
Why did that change? That changed because PS1 was falling down. All the early repairs we put in from artists’ and supporters’ money, and some city money, but very little. Despite all these efforts, things were starting to deteriorate. The patchwork of water systems, one problem led to another: it was never-ending. Heat: people had to wear fur coats and gloves to work there, through every winter. I got a grant from the city to restore PS1 and it was large: it was like $5 million. This is nothing in city grants but to me it was a lot. It was a huge loan. We planned carefully how we would build the roof, how we would put the services in and connect the water. Once I took public money of that size I had acquired a new responsibility. The responsibility was to allow people to get in. Before that, it was a night museum. It was a club museum. Just getting in was the museum. You were lucky to get in. We never had to publicize our openings. Screw you. Try to get in. That’s all it was. Of course we were open on nights and weekends and were closed all summer. I never worried about it. I didn’t worry about mass audiences. We did it, and we didn’t worry about it. We did all this for years in the ’80s and the early ’90s but I didn’t take it as a mission. But taking that public money, that saved PS1, made me change my mission. It was a matter of honor. I mean, I’m exaggerating of course with hours. We did have invitations and hours and all that, but it wasn’t the primary thing. Once we took public money, I had to say: these are tax dollars. It sounds crazy, but I had to do it. Suddenly I thought, I’d better think now about who can come in here and at what time. Before that, the entire museum was adjusted more or less to my schedule: noon to 8 or 9 pm.
Carrier: And there was no financial alternative than to take any city money. No donors.
Heiss: Donors were just like us. They didn’t get up until noon. My contract with the museum stipulated that I never had to be anywhere before noon! That is the only remaining part of my early mission: I still can’t be anywhere before noon! But, suddenly, it became super important to adjust to an outside viewer who’d be coming, an innocent civilian. We just changed everything to, let’s say, become an accessory to a new kind of crime. We began publishing our regular hours; we had done something like that before, but never seriously. We promoted education projects in a way that we never did before. Guards, the whole damn nine yards.
Collins-Fernandez: It’s interesting to hear you talk about these vast changes. It seems straightforward to talk about the particular world of contemporary art you describe as being so isolated from life in general, or specifically here in New York.
Heiss: Well, I started in ’71 and ’72. The big issue was mailing list or no mailing list. Here’s the deal: The total number of people interested in contemporary art in the world was similar to the entire number of people that were interested in, say, higher chemistry. You publish a magazine on higher chemistry four times a year and you could hand address those magazines by yourself, 200 copies. And that would be just the total world number of people interested in such a specialized discipline. It was the same thing for the contemporary art world at the time: for a New York-based exhibition, at the time, how many people would be interested? I don’t know, for somebody like Red Grooms, maybe 500 people. But for normal shows Richard [Tuttle] noticed that I decided no more than 200 anywhere. We never had to print more than 200 invitations. We never had to print more than 200 catalogues. And we also had phone numbers for every single one of those 200 people. So I had a Rolodex, one for NYC with 200 people on it, and I would call them all up personally, and tell them when we were open. And I had another that had 2,000 people I couldn’t call because it was too expensive. But, I could write to them. I could hand address them, which I did, or I’d pay somebody to do it.
Pissarro: So, this might be a perfect place to reflect back on the quantum leap that occurred, for you, and for PS1 at large, from the 1970s to today. Let us look at your legacy: I know Klaus very well and we’ve known each other for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how you felt about Klaus—who in many ways was your protégé—taking over your role, and becoming the new director of PS1. What did this mean to your own legacy to an institution you actually created?
Heiss: I was just so happy. In fact, you remember that for one year after I left there wasn’t anyone appointed to that position, and that was quite risky. However, one of the major reasons I was interested in merging with MoMA was to see that there would be new ideas and sustenance for this beloved place, past my ability. I’m just thrilled now to see that it has worked out, that Klaus is the head of PS1. As a founder of an institution, you have nightmares. My particular nightmare was to see that place turn into one of those musky art centers. To another, it’s not exactly a nightmare but it’s close to a nightmare, was to see it turn into collection-driven institution. That’s why I never wanted air conditioning, ventilation, because that brings with it, you know anybody who’s so dumb that they don’t want to show sculpture because it doesn’t have climate control: ask yourself about the room temperature IQ of that person. All the major museums in Europe have places that show all these great works without climate control.
Pissarro: The Uffizi.
Heiss: The Uffizi, just start there and then go on.
Pissarro: Windows open on the outside, in the summer—
Heiss: Windows open. Go to the Pantheon, right? You could show anything for three months without climate control.
Now, I agree with them about guards, that’s an issue. But, climate control [disapprovingly]. You know two months, three months is not going to have an impact on an artwork. No profession is ruled by the land of “no” like the art profession. Think of another one. Medicine? Well, yes that’s the land of no except there are some laboratories in the world that make experiments.
Collins-Fernandez: Also, thinking long-term, there’s a whole part of the history of art based on political censorship of what could and could not be said. There is a history of “NO” in art which is based on social and cultural acceptability within various regimes.
Heiss: Well that’s of course with dictators. Generally, dictators are good for art. I did this wonderful show which taught me so much about Socialist Realism, called Stalin’s Choice. It was originally an attempt for me to discover why Stalin made aesthetic choices in art that were all similar to those of my Midwestern family. You see tractors, big breasted women, and all this kind of things like, you know, dubbed realism. I thought, what an interesting thing to show to Americans in the ’80s, that Stalin, the evil empire person, was all about realism. And if they were about to say, “But, wait a minute, I like these!” then they had to confront the fact that they liked what Stalin liked: and it was like a causal effect. But then I got into another world, which was really another world. That was the world of Russia. That was really an issue, because that was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and I had a lot of friendships with Russians, which were truly interesting. I was given a room in the Lenin museum, a corner office. There was no food, no café, no cafeteria. There was really no food. I’d bring suitcases full of stuff, but the Lenin museum was something else. To be a guest curator of the Lenin museum—can you imagine that!
But the most effective museum guy there was the guy who was the general director of the Museum of the Art of the Army and Navy, which was very important precedent to my show because of a lot of Stalin’s choices of paintings wound up in that museum. I think his name was Colonel Korchov. Anyway, sometimes he would pick me up in his black car and we’d drive into the Museum of the Art of the Army and Navy, which had this back entrance for the director and his curators. Staff would all line up at the gate when his black car was getting close, and they would be saluting and there they were, curators, in their various uniforms, saluting! Just like you see in movies. It was fabulous. He would turn to me, because he too was always in uniform, and say, “You know, I just don’t understand how any of you run museums without uniforms!” What an interesting idea, I thought. Yes, curators should be wearing uniforms and be saluting. Curators might as well be wearing uniforms, why not? Then they’d soon know who the director is, right?
- See Carrier and Pissarro’s interview with Sir Norman Rosenthal in the July/August, 2014 issue of the Rail
- Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984)
- Magiciens de la Terre, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1989
Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.David Carrier
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.Gaby Collins-Fernandez
Gaby Collins-Fernandez is an artist living and working in Brooklyn.