Curator, Arts administrator, Gallery director
Active in New York, N.Y.
Size: Transcript: 80 pages
Format: Originally recorded on 1 sound disc. Reformated in 2010 as 4 digital wav files. Duration is 3 hr., 39 min.
Collection Summary: An interview of Alanna Heiss conducted 2010 June 15 and October 28, by James McElhinney, for the Archives of American Art's Elizabeth Murray Oral History of Women in the Visual Arts project, at Art International Radio, on Leonard Street, in New York, New York.
Heiss speaks of the Clocktower Gallery and the AIR offices; New York galleries and museums and the economic depression of the 1970s; art shows in Germany, France, Switzerland, and England and the role of foreign and West Coast curators in New York shows during the 1960s; founding the Institute for Art and Urban Resources with Brendan Gill; her lack of interest in collecting and the problems she feels it poses for organizations showing art; her attitudes about displaying art in the 1970s; growing up in a small town in Southern Illinois; spending summers as a child in South Dakota; her musical training; art in relation to Midwestern cultural values; her work on the exhibition (3z(BStalins Choice: Soviet Socialist Realism, 1932-1956(3y (Bin 1993; her degree in music and the philosophy of aesthetics from Lawrence University; taking classes at the University of Chicago; moving to New York and deciding to focus on visual arts; her time in Europe and the various jobs she took while abroad including teaching, inspecting monuments for the Society for Ancient Buildings and Monuments, writing about animals, selling and transporting used cars, and serving as an artist liaison; and the exhibitions she saw during her travels.
Heiss also discusses trips she made across the United States after returning from Europe; working as a band road crew manger; her work in 1993 on the John Cage tribute show for the Venice Biennale called (3z(BIl Suono Rapido delle Cose(3y (Band the album produced in conjunction with the show called Caged/Uncaged - A Rock/Experimental Homage To John Cage; her marriage to the artist Jene Highstein and their friendships with the artists Richard Nonas and Gordon Matta-Clark; her return to New York from Europe around 1970 and her use of old or abandoned real estate as locations for contemporary art exhibitions; her first show, (3z(BUnder the Brooklyn Bridge(3y (Bin 1971; founding PS1; her work as a parole officer and her exposure to the culture of Harlem; the various shows held at PS1; urban art spaces in New York including the New Museum and the Coney Island Sculpture Museum; her exhibition space on Bleecker Street in New York; her disenchantment with the idea of community art; her work with Tom Finkelpearl; the way she publicized exhibitions; the underground culture of the 1970s; and the relationship between the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 and their eventual merger.
Biographical/Historical Note: Alanna Heiss (1943-) is director of Art International Radio in New York, New York. James McElhinney (1952-) is an artist and educator in New York, New York.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.
This interview is part of the Elizabeth Murray Oral History of Women in the Visual Arts Project, funded by the A G Foundation.
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This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Alanna Heiss, 2010 June 15-October 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Interview with Alanna Heiss
Conducted by James McElhinney
At Art International Radio in New York, NY
2010 June 15 and October 28
The following oral history transcript is the result of a digitally recorded interview with Alanna Heiss on 2010 June 15 and October 28. The interview took place at Art International Radio in New York, NY, and was conducted by James McElhinney for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Elizabeth Murray Oral History of Women in the Visual Arts Project, funded by the A G Foundation.
The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
JAMES MCELHINNEY: This is James McElhinney speaking with Alanna Heiss for the Archives of American Art, at Art International Radio at 108 Leonard Street in New York, New York on Thursday the 15th of June, 2010.
Thank you for agreeing to this conversation.
ALANNA HEISS: Well, I certainly have been looking forward to it for a long time. And I think that it's symbolic that we're having the conversation at the old Clocktower. The AIR radio offices and broadcast officers are at the Clocktower, which has been a place that I have directed since 1972.
When I left, a year ago, the position as director of PS1, my exit plan took me back into Manhattan and down to the Tribeca area and up the stairs, 12 flights, and up the extra walking stairs to the 13th floor and down the long corridor to the original place where I not just started out completely, because a couple years had gone by in the early '70s when I had other locations.
But this was always a favorite location and it's one that I've kept now for all these years. And to be back here is a great, great pleasure. I've valued and laughed my way to work—I live not far from here—every single day since I've been coming back. It's been nothing but pure joy.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's a kind of homecoming. How has it changed in 38 years?
MS. HEISS: Well, it is a homecoming when Aggie Gund, a great friend and a great patron of PS1 and of the Clocktower and the radio programs, did a farewell party for PS1 and a welcome home party the same time a year ago, June. And that was her way of suggesting that these two events dovetailed with each other. In fact, I set everything up in my office, which is my same office space that I had in '72 to '76, and I set it up as an idealized version of what my office was like then. It's actually much better now, but it's the way we remember things.
When you're young and little, the ponies are always horses and your grade school is actually the size of a giant university and to me, my first activities in New York were mysterious, exciting and alluring. And the Clocktower was and is a gorgeous Stanford White tower, a beacon of sanity in an insane art world, and it remains that to this day—or, I should actually say a beacon of insanity in this too-sane world, which is the more important way to word it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: But it's straining against the current in a healthy way.
MS. HEISS: Well, yes. In the '70s, when I began working in what we now see as the art community or art world, it's usually called, it's not funny but it's a way of suggesting that our world is so unique and so compartmentalized that there is a whole world that goes on parallel—there's a parallel world like there is in science fiction, and I think a lot of critics and artists and art dealers and collectors do feel that way. They feel they're living in a parallel world. I certainly do. I use the expression as much as anyone else.
But the art community and art world of the '70s was kind of a—I don't want to say sad because it was the time of my youth so for me it was terribly happy, but it was very much a depression in New York City. There were thousands and thousands of acres and acres of empty buildings, caused by a fairly significant depression in the real estate market. The one that we're looking at now doesn't even seem to compare with what was happening in the '70s.
The New York City government was quite afraid of their upcoming bankruptcy. They were afraid that the city would be punished unnecessarily because of the proponents of Republican values from the rural areas in the Midwest—which is exactly where I come from so I understood how and why it would be punished to be in New York City instead of Des Moines, Iowa.
And really, the situation other than the fancy, or to us very fancy, museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney and the Guggenheim, those museums seemed fairly frisky. And the galleries that were around were very frisky. I mean, certainly Leo Castelli was—you can't get friskier than Castelli.
But amongst the artists there was, you know, a certain compelling feeling that there was very little money and it had to be spread around and it was very hard to get studios. Compared to that, on the other hand, was a feeling of great interest in a new, a very new—it had only gone on for about 10 years—international companionship among the world of contemporary artists.
The shows of the artists of the time were not done much in New York but they were being done a lot in Germany and they were being done in a very small way in France. Switzerland was extremely active in organizing artists of its time. By that I mean New York artists and all the artists from Germany and England.
And England did put on a series of some significant shows. In fact, that's where the expression "pop art" came from was from a critic named Lawrence Alloway, who in the '60s organized a show I think at the ICA in London, which brought the expression "pop art" into usage.
In any case, the New York artists I was with—my friends, my colleagues, my peers—were in a state of extraordinary excitement because foreign curators and collectors were coming every day from—mostly from Europe but some from the West Coast, looking at art, organizing shows and collections, and the feeling was you could really get in on this. It was a lot like perhaps—soccer was just being taken up in New York and people thought they could get on a soccer team really fast if they were—
The enthusiasm was very high, the money was very low, and I walked into that magic situation with an idea that I would provide spaces for my own shows and I would organize, and I would organize them around a central administrative headquarters, which would have a pompous and pretentious name. I had Brendan Gill, the enormously—I guess the word is erudite.
There's no number of words under a hundred that could describe Brendan, who was brilliant and a great writer and great speaker and a theater critic of the New Yorker and also a great architecture critic, writing books on Frank Lloyd Wright, and who also wrote books on Tallulah Bankhead and whose friends ranged from—Mrs. Astor was a very close friend of his, and Jackie Kennedy also, to really quite unacceptable people.
Brendan liked the Times Square night life. He liked—he thought prostitution and cabaret were one and the same, and he liked to go to bars and watch standup comedy and all these sort of things that made him a unique person while he was tearing around New York going to black-tie dinners. He was afterwards going to very wild bars, and then in between he would be giving speeches at private clubs in New York, which were quite snooty.
So he was the chairman of my board, and he advised me to name this new not-for-profit thing we were starting in a way that would allow it to be removed by the pomposity of the wording, which was we devised something called The Institute for Art and Urban Resources. And, now, we worked on this a long time.
The institute was very legitimate. It was modeled after an institute for policy studies which had been started by some of my radical friends from the University of Chicago that had gone to Washington to start a think tank, and it meant you could bring to you people who would hold the position of fellow, which is borrowed from the Oxbridge world of participants who are not really working very hard but whose ideals were yours.
And that was the fellow principle at the institute, and the other part was art. Well, that's pretty clear. And "urban resources," what that really meant was we were going to do a lot of work with things that were owned or existed in the urban environment rather than a rural environment, but also that the emphasis was going to be more on use of buildings than gathering of collection. There was no interest that I had then or now in collecting anything. I'm not entirely against collections, as I don't think that they're immoral, but I think they create moral problems for organizations that are trying to show art.
In the sense that the curators are the directors, the board always—or easily can get confused between looking and shopping, and looking is what I believe in and want to be a part of and shopping is something that I don't know about and don't feel any interest in being a part of.
So my institute was not about shopping; it was about a fellowship of likeminded people occupying all kinds of places, usually abandoned—maybe owned by the city, maybe the feds, maybe private ownership. We made experiments in each. And we didn't—and very defiantly had absolutely no collection. We had one office that organized—at one point—11 different spaces, the Clocktower just being one of them and one of the most beautiful.
The other thing that Brendan pointed out about The Institute for Art and Urban Resources—which still floats around on every piece of paper that's ever associated with it, it's still alive; we still find things that are billed to The Institute for Art and Urban Resources, all that sort of thing—and the other thing that Brendan pointed out was he felt that it was a name that was so long and so complex that the police, in giving tickets to us or summons or whatever for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or on the roof or doing whatever we were with the artists, wouldn't actually be able to remember the entire sentence.
He thought that The Institute for Art and Urban Resources occupied a kind of strange grammatical position where you couldn't—by the time you said "resources" you couldn't remember the first word of that. And I think that he was very right, and this was a great, great benefit to us.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Where do you think you came by these values of being suspicious of collecting as a motivation? I know that a lot of, you know, the museums rely heavily on private patronage, and a lot of it good but a lot of it perhaps mingling, you know, the mission of a public institution with commerce and—
MS. HEISS: Well, "suspicion" is a difficult word. Looking back on this—I mean, I don't remember having any genuine strong antagonism towards collections. There were radical groups at the time that were quite active in the art community and they were generally interested in issues of why there were not artists represented on the boards of museums, why there were not more artist control of choice of shows, things like that, but—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Who in particular?
MS. HEISS: Oh, that would be Lucy Lippard, and the Art Workers' Coalition was very strong on different issues. Carl Andre was always at the ramparts, and of course Leon Golub was so far in the ramparts that he was really actually on the other side. He met himself coming around the block. These were truly left-wing people and they had truly left-wing values. I didn't have any values of those sorts, and I also wasn't—I wasn't compelled by the issues of feminism which were occupying most of my intelligent women friends at the time.
We were all interested in different things, and what I was interested in was getting space and doing shows. And I'm pretty single-minded and have always—I sort of—I only do what's fun, and if it's not fun, I stop doing it. So there was something about working daily on—and I'm not being condescending at all, I just didn't—there was something about feminism that somehow didn't make me just laugh all the time and I was much more interested in hanging around bars with artists and trying to figure out what their art was about and in what kind of space it would look interesting.
I was interested in an artist being interested in the space and so we were working not just so that they would put it in. It wasn't a decorative—it wasn't a decorative impulse, and by "decorative," I mean we weren't involved with decorating spaces; we were actually thinking very industrially at the time.
And that industrial thinking had a tremendous impact because the way we now see exhibitions in most galleries come from those early days in the '70s where we were working with poured cement floors, where we were working with—sometimes it's called diaesque [ph] pipes. I mean, these are—these are just—I supposed they are decorating details which were foreign at the time. Most galleries were in townhouses. They had beautiful parquet floors and even the most experimental work was hung on a wall in this townhouse and that's how you saw it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So the idea that you were entering a person's private parlor; it was a private-public parlor in some kind of upscale neighborhood, and it put art in that context as being a precious thing that could be purchased and was usually acquired for the delectation of a few, not for many.
MS. HEISS: It was definitely something to show you how you could live with something. Galleries were about how you lived with art and museums were how you saw art in a pattern of historical development, don't you think?
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yes, I do. Can we talk a little about your life, your early life? Where did you grow up?
MS. HEISS: Well, I grew up in Southern Illinois in a very small town, one of four children.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So you're Egyptian? You're from Egypt?
MS. HEISS: I'm from north of Cairo.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh.
MS. HEISS: Or Cairo, as they would say.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Cairo.
MS. HEISS: And my father was a teacher and my mother was also a teacher, particularly, completely—not completely but particularly knowledgeable about special educations needs, either the very gifted or the very non-gifted. You know, that's a circle that just goes round and round. Sometimes the most gifted people get into trouble because they're too gifted. [Laughs.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: Students with extraordinary needs.
MS. HEISS: "Extraordinary needs" is a good way—and therefore it was an idyllic Republican small farm town. There was one thing about it that's always been quite funny. It wasn't funny at the time, it was all I knew, but it became funny later when I realized it.
The town, I don't know, had maybe—let's call it 5,000 people, civilians, living in it. It also was the town of the state hospital—location of the state hospital for the criminally insane—not criminally insane—I'm sorry—insane. That was a very large, large, large percentage of the people in the town were insane. It was also the town where the state school for the deaf was located, and even the state school for the blind also located there.
So then, it had two colleges, both thriving now: one, Illinois College, which had been kind of achiever farm people that had been started by the Yale-bound who also started Knox and various Midwestern schools, very sort of congregational, very no-nonsense. And then the other college was a quite lovely MacMurray College, it was called. It was sort of a finishing school that had a conservatory for music, and girls who were going to marry well and not work always went to MacMurray.
So if you think of that in bringing the population of the town to about 20,000—we had 20,000 people, three-quarters of them were either insane, blind, deaf or hormonally very, very propelled into action at all times.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: And walking down the street, you know, you became very familiar—you would see people in various odd situations, you know, walking in the middle of the street, on their head, not talking, grunting, yelling, in traffic, so on and so on.
And I think that that makeup of my little town that I come from—which is no longer, sadly, so complete a makeup because many of those institutions have closed—very much prepared me for New York City because we have such odd percentages of people here who are driven here by ambition and they exist with only ambition instead of—it's no fun being just ambitious. They're forced to eat their ambition every day and it puts them in a rather—often a bad mood; you know, intellectual indigestion.
And everywhere I've gone I have carried with me this wonderful feeling that my home can be really, truly happy with the insane and the blind and the deaf and the hormonally challenged. Every summer we would go to up to South Dakota, where my family has a farm. My family were second-generation Norwegian immigrants. And there were five family farms, of which bad management and gambling took it down to about one. And we always spent every summer there, and the Badlands were places where I rode horses and grew up and we camped, and that's a very eerie landscape.
The plains in general are landscapes that are very good for art people because they have not very much detail. It's just a horizon. If you can get the horizon down, you've got it all, and you've very comfortable from that time on seeing the horizon and nothing else. That's the kind of landscape that art works very well on—no mountains, no streams, no trees, no anything like that, just one line in the center of the page horizontally.
Artschwager and I have talked a lot about this because he used to do these telephone pole pieces that you'd see—these drawings were these telephone poles will be disappearing, disappearing, disappearing, and he said, "Alanna, you know, you have to learn that most people can't look at these paintings because they just don't—they're not happy with them and they're in anguish because there's nothing but perspective of telephone poles." And I was always very happy, and Artschwager told me that I would be happy looking at art for the rest of my life because I didn't demand anything other than one line, which I think is a good analysis.
MR. MCELHINNEY: When were you first cognizant of being in the presence of a work of art?
MS. HEISS: That's a good question. I was trained—trained. That sounds a little more efficient. I believed that I would be a musician like all the members of—all my cousins. One half of our family is full of performing musicians, all string players. And so, from about the age of four on, I was training in piano. And by six, I had started the violin.
And to be a plain musician as opposed to a composer, that's a kind of learning like a craft. It's not really art, so I can't answer your question directly because I don't believe that performance by rote and repetition is, in fact, art. That's where I think it's craft. Now, I know that will be a very unhappy subject for many people but that's what I did until I was probably about 18 is spend two to three hours a day practicing.
And I wouldn't say that any of those hours resulted in a confrontation with—they always represented a confrontation with art because you hear some great person—I remember when Wanda Landowska came to our little town, the greatest harpsichord player alive, and I remember hearing her play Bach. That was surely a confrontation. Things that, like, are just, in a performance way, unimaginably inspiring.
I remember also being in Clear Lake, Iowa, which was a nine-hour drive, when I was a teenager, to hear Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and of course the great "Chantilly Lace" song. All these anthems were meaningful the rest of my life because it was after that concert that all those rock'n'rollers went down in a plane and all died. They died in Clear Lake, Iowa during a terrible storm and they were trying to get off in their plane. So that was a very defining musical episode also. Popular music is extremely important to me.
I didn't mention that a lot of the people in my little town are black, you know, maybe 30 percent or something. I mean, it was a very high percentage. And we were a completely integrated town, and since I was a musician for the church I made all my money accompanying different kinds of choirs or practice rehearsals. A practice pianist is a very lowly position but it's also something that's always desired and you're always needed.
So I played for all different kinds of groups and I did a lot of transposition of—I guess you'd call them tunes that my black schoolmates were sending off to hopefully—well, they were all sending them to Detroit and some of them were sending them to St. Louis in hopes that they would get picked up and not have their songs stolen, which they normally would have. If we had some way of transposing them into staff paper or music paper, we could register them.
So that's all a huge, huge part of my understanding of the life of the artist was like with those musicians, life with a violinist, like with black singers, bebop groups, things like that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Was there any contact with the visual arts at all?
MS. HEISS: Well, there was some. Again, my father was getting a master's in Washington University. My mother was also doing a degree there, and they would just take me there and put me in the museum. So I surely remember going to the museums in St. Louis, less so Chicago, which was such a terrifying city for all of us, just a terrifying city.
There was this political button that was put out. It was a banner, also a big sign on a billboard and it showed a gigantic octopus sitting on the tip of Illinois with his tentacles extended and grasping and strangling the rest of Illinois. And this was the Republicans' idea of what was happening when the Democrats were taking over—this vicious, monstrous octopus. And that's pretty much how I thought about Chicago until I went to graduate school there. I mean, I really just held my breath every time I was in the city; I was so scared.
St. Louis was very slow and very warm and not at all scary. But art as such was not and is not, in the Midwest, valued in the same way by a majority of people as it is in the East Coast. I mean, there are always great, great collectors.
Let me not for a minute even suggest that Emily Pulitzer, who is one of the greatest collectors, along with her former husband, Mr. Pulitzer—and of course collectors in Des Moines have built their great collections, as has the Walker. So, it's not that people don't like art, but a majority of people don't like art because they think it's silly.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Why do you think they think it's silly?
MS. HEISS: Well, I know why they think it's silly, because it has to do with the feeling of the old-fashioned Midwestern values related to rural values, which are that you should work hard, and if you're not working hard, you're not doing a good job, and art is simply something that isn't very functional and it looks—it looks fun.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So they don't see the value of it, even if it's a piece by somebody like Wood or Tom Benton or Steuart Curry or—
MS. HEISS: Oh, no, that was all very, very valued. Anything realist is valued and anything that is a good copy is very valued. I'm not talking about—
MR. MCELHINNEY: It has a work ethic—
MS. HEISS: —20 percent this—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Any artwork that has a work ethic.
MS. HEISS: Yes. The reason I did the big show in the early '90s of the Stalinist collections in Russia [Stalin's Choice: Soviet Socialist Realism, 1932‒1956], which I did—it was the only historical show of that kind I've ever done in my life, the only one, and I did it because it was the era of Reagan and I really wanted my fellow Midwesterners to really understand that Stalin, who was seen as such a terribly evil man—and there was no discussion about Stalin. I mean, there wasn't any shading on that. And I wanted them to see the art that Stalin liked.
And I worked for five years on a show bringing together 180 paintings and a lot of sculpture, but mostly paintings. And the show was called "Stalin's Choices," and it represented the absolute winners of Stalin's personal prize, which he gave out in painting, which he himself gave out annually to the artists selected after looking through all the selections of nominations that were given to him by his curators.
He also made awards in other things too but painting was his favorite thing because of course he loved realism and he loved that which realist paintings could depict: his vision. And I wanted to share Stalin's vision with my colleagues in the United States of America and show them how similar their visions were, how this art fulfilled this vision.
And it seemed to me that that would put—that would make people uncomfortable and might make people think, well, if these were Stalin's favorite paintings and they are also my favorite paintings, do I decide then that Stalin is now good because realism is good, or do I decide that realism carries with it the danger of propaganda? And that's what I was hoping that that would accomplish.
MR. MCELHINNEY: But a lot of the revelations about the USA and the CIA promoting abstract expressionism during the Cold War as a weapon of the Cold War basically used abstraction and Bohemian individualism as a weapon as well. I mean, so that was actually—so art of any kind can be turned into propaganda.
MS. HEISS: Well, yeah, of course you speak from an enormously sophisticated standpoint and I'm talking from a very sort of dizzyingly banal and bimbo-esque position.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Hardly, hardly, but –
MS. HEISS: But, you know—
MR. MCELHINNEY: No, but I'm talking about—I mean, I'm acquainted with that environment. I'm acquainted with rural America and I understand what you're saying, and it's a wonderful kind of challenging thing to do, but might not you want to also argue that Stalin was hiding behind a work ethic as a smokescreen for his other activities?
MS. HEISS: Well, you not only could convincingly argue that; you would be correct in arguing that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: And the exhibition [Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany] organized by L.A. County on the recreation of the decadent art shows—decadent art show that the Nazis organized, which was—by the way, this is a little uncomfortable. As I remember from looking at the figures, I think it was the most attended—still the most attended exhibition that's ever been done. I'm not sure about—
MR. MCELHINNEY: At LACMA or—
MS. HEISS: No, no, the original one in Germany, in Munich. Excuse me. I did read—now, there could have been a new figure since I read that 20 years ago—that the organization and showing of the decadent art show that the Nazi's did, which traveled, was seen in the end by more people on this planet that any show before or since. That includes all the giant Paris exhibitions and expositions in Chicago and so on.
I think that part of the answer to that is that people were forced to see the show. [Laughs.] They didn't always just want to see it; they actually had to see it. But I think it's a compelling statistic, which is perhaps incorrect. I had a pretty simplistic idea with this Stalin work. Realism as an issue has concerned me a lot, and coming from a place where realism was so valued, I always wanted to examine it, but not as much as you're suggesting.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I was just asking.
MS. HEISS: I can't continue an intellectual dialogue of such merit for very long. I mean, I did it as long as I had to do the show, which was quite interesting. But I very much backed away from the emotional energy given to what then became a rather popular thing that I was invited to talk about or do shows on, and it worked out more or less me doing shows of bad people's art, like Nazis or the Chinese or whatever.
So you could easily get into, you know, you do one bad person's art, then you must be pretty good at the other bad person's art. And, you know, I didn't—I left out the whole Nazi art thing from the Stalin art because Nazi art, first of all, had a—much of it had a much more historical, romantic basis or a lot more white horses with people in armor and lots of plumes on—you know, sort of half-armored that's—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Sort of Wagnerian.
MS. HEISS: Yeah, Wagnerian but also Camelot, you know, a strange sort of medieval, gussied-up—all the women have, you know, big tits. Of course that's just true with this realist art, bad people's art, that everybody has big tits.
But I would really actually secretly liked a lot of the Stalinist art, the original stuff, not the stuff that became just copies later on, because it was so innocent. It seemed innocent at the time to a person who hadn't been put in prison or had a relative in prison to see these buxom young women aviators, you know, standing with—leaning on the plane wings with their eyes cast towards Lenin's star. I mean, it's just so wonderful you just almost cry with joy when you see the vision.
And a lot of it had to do with aerial vision because it was always going out and up. Their vision was to go out and up and to everything was going to change and all these farmers were going to be floating around in the skies and they were going to be wearing chic, masculine-type clothing. I mean, it was just fabulous and you could just see that this was a vision for a great people. And I do understand why Stalin loved it, even though he was an evil and terrible man, and I do understand why everybody loved it too.
There's lots of stories about that which I won't go into. Let's go back to long ago. I'm very comfortable in New York because I just pretend it's where I grew up and you can see it's easy to do that, with the exception of the single-line plains. And when I discovered that I could not—I wasn't good enough to be a performing musician, which was a dismal, dismal day—I was about 18—then, after a couple of days of crying—well, actually, my teacher at the time had—I posed a question to him about my progress.
It was very clear to me that I wasn't as good as my colleagues. I was, you know, sitting second chair, second violin already in a small college orchestra. That's a bad sign. Then I had actually played that same position in the St. Louis Symphony and, god knows, the Springfield Symphony. Here I am, you know, in a college orchestra.
So I asked what was going to happen to my future career and he said, "Well, I'm afraid that unless you drop everything and just really put in the time, really stash those hours away, five or six hours a day, just drop everything else—you know, if you do that for the next four years, I think that you will be able to probably play the second violin in a third-rate city in a fourth-rate orchestra." So I said, "My god, that's terrible, just terrible. I mean, what kind of place would that be?" I was also not very traveled. And he said, "Oh, I think Nova Scotia might be the place." [Laughs.] "You might be in Nova Scotia."
MR. MCELHINNEY: With apologies to our Canadian friends.
MS. HEISS: Yeah. I mean, it was just this far-out idea. Since then, I've thought a lot about Nova Scotia, you know, because there it was, my destination if I—you know, there are so many great string players, I could not have ever made it in Nova Scotia. I would have been, you know, really somewhere else. Anyway, I would have been in—oh, no, I couldn't even have gone to Kansas. I just can't think where I would have been.
Anyway, it was very clear to me that I was going to get my degree in music but I wasn't going to be a performer. And after days of tears and so on, I decided that I wanted to be working with people who were the very best at what they did in the first-rate place, in the first-rate environment, with first-rate people, and whatever that meant, I would be working for those people. I wanted to spend my life with first-rate people. That was my goal. That's what exactly happened. And I feel that that exactly defines the course of my life.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So what did you actually take a degree in finally?
MS. HEISS: Music and, I think, the philosophy of aesthetics, which came in handy later because aesthetics let me take some graduate courses in various kinds of philosophies and semiotics, which was very useful. So I could do all those things. But that had to be particularly useful because that was the kind of thinking that a lot of the minimalists and post-minimalists would have pinned their logic to that logic. And so I knew that logic. I trained in that. That was good. And I had done some of that at the University of Chicago—
MR. MCELHINNEY: That's right.
MS. HEISS: —a place I sadly didn't graduate from but certainly was very effective.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Where is your degree from?
MS. HEISS: My actual degree is from Lawrence University, the one that had the conservatory that had such a—held such a dreadful fate.
I now have an honorary degree from that university, which was very satisfying for my mother because I never actually graduated. Two things interfered with me walking across the platform. One was I had then, and had up until a couple of years ago, library books that were out, which—
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: —you know, you can't get your degree if you—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, you've got to return them. I know.
MS. HEISS: Yeah. And the other thing is that by the time—by the time I left school and went down to Chicago, it was a time of great furor politically, and I started taking some classes at the University of Chicago and did all that stuff, and then met a man and then ran away, went to New York, had my first hit of what happened in the arts, decided it was the visual arts that I would pretty much stay in on, and met de Kooning and Edwin Denby and all those people. It was a pretty wild and interesting year.
And then I went back and picked up some courses but didn't graduate on a graduation exercise. So the first time my mother got to see me graduate from college was two years ago when I got an honorary degree. That was a really magnificent push for her.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So you didn't start becoming involved with the visual arts when you were in Chicago or the University of Chicago.
MS. HEISS: Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, you did?
MS. HEISS: My work in aesthetics—more from the point of view of aesthetics.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Studying the art—
MS. HEISS: Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —not interacting with artists or—
MS. HEISS: Well, I never took—I never took any art history courses per se. Of course you take the normal ones you take when you're getting a bachelor's, but I'm not an art historian. And I think that's been really, really a tremendous asset for my work as a curator. I have a very clean, uncluttered mind. I know almost nothing about the past. I know a lot about the last 40 years because that's what I've lived, but I don't—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right. That's, you know, the past you helped to create.
MS. HEISS: That's the class I participated in. And when I went to England, like I did immediately in '66, '67, with my then-husband, we were diving into not literal caves, national caves; we were diving out of the adventures that would ensue were he to be drafted for the war. And he got a deferment but still it seemed best to be out of the United States at the time.
So like many people, we left the United States, we went to London and he took a degree at the Royal Academy [of Arts], and I just wandered around London doing lots and lots of different jobs, which are part of the basis for the job I have now because in England at the time, you could work but you couldn't get permission for—you couldn't get permission for a job visa unless it was a job that had been turned down by every British person.
Well, it was a very, very difficult definition because first you locate the job, you apply for it, and if no one else wanted it, you could get it. And that's why I got all these different jobs. I got the job of teaching music and religious education at Barnsbury Girls School, which is in Islington, London, and I got a job wiring the early transistors in a little factory that no English people wanted to work at this.
And I developed a job on my own with the Department of Ancient Buildings and Monuments Inspection. I became an inspector of Grade II monuments and for the northwest region of Scotland, where it is, by the way, very, very, very cold. Nobody wanted that job either. And I, you know, was able to learn a lot about that. And in order to get the fare to go there, I also became, on the—not on the books exactly. To say that I was the contemporary art critic for Country Life is to make it into too—it's what I usually say but it's not correct.
Country Life didn't have a contemporary art department but they did publish, from time to time, a very small, very narrow, two-and-a-half-inch-wide columns that described, mostly in italics, different pastels or drawings that had been made by people who were doing them primarily of animals. So—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Horses, dogs?
MS. HEISS: Well, the most popular really were dogs. So the typical one I would get would be when I would have an opportunity to inspect a historic building or monument, and the reason I'm going to be doing that is because the people had applied for a low-level grant of, say, 500 pounds, which was, you know, at the time a lot—almost $2,000 at the time—usually to put in a loo.
You have to remember, these great country piles up in Scotland, they were huge, huge, huge. They had no heating and they had no inside plumbing. And after the war, things were very tough and the kitchens were very far away from the dining rooms, so they would make adjustments and they would try to somehow locate all loo—or a newer loo, toilet, close to the point of the social activity of the castle or big baronial mansion, or in Scotland the sort of laird's hangout.
And so I would put together the train fare between the request for a toilet and the new possession of a castle, a portrait of a Labrador Retriever. With this double income I would then go and visit, and it was always interesting and entertaining. I learned a great deal. This is my first real brush with realist animal art, which is something I'm devoted to and have been very, very much involved with through the rest of my life.
And I know it's mostly ironical, but the things that were printed—and this also has made me very cynical about art magazines—you could imagine a postage stamp-sized thing—I mean, a little bigger than a postage stamp, and in the postage stamp would be a—this would be a photograph taken by someone standing in the room. And it would be the laird, the laird's wife, and Willy, their Labrador Retriever.
And then the laird and his wife would be holding the actual portrait of Willy, and so you have two people, a dog, with the picture of a dog in postage stamp size. So it was completely black. You can't see anything at all.
MR. MCELHINNEY: The dog's name was Willy?
MS. HEISS: Well, and it could be—well, his official name would always be something else. Maybe he'd be called something like Willy or Frank or something like that. These were hunting dogs. And these dogs would grow up—the English always had dogs not only in their houses; they had them in their bedrooms and they had them in their beds. So I really learned a lot about that because, you know, every person of quality would be sleeping with dogs. It's not, you know, just—there was an extraordinary closeness between the aristocrats in Scotland and their animals.
Anyway, the most valued person in the household would be Willy and his many friends. And you can write—if you're writing about something that's completely a black square, underneath it, you know, you can pretty much write anything you want to and say, you know, "An extraordinary new work done by Donsu don Donohue [ph] of the Grand Vizier Mountbatten [ph]," parentheses, "Willy, in pastel, with particular grace, noting his noble brow."
You really talked—we wrote like this in this magazine. "Noble brow" is something—I probably said that a thousand times, "noble brow." And then you note that he's third in his line to be—to have a pastel—important pastel done, things like this.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So did you go to dog shows and educate yourself about—
MS. HEISS: Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —about the breeds and—
MS. HEISS: I went to Westminster this last year.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, so it's a real true passion of yours.
MS. HEISS: Well, yeah, once I started doing this I got very involved with dogs. [Laughs.] I've had a lot of dogs, too. I had Great Danes; I had every kind of dog. My last great dog was a bloodhound, Beauregard, and he met a very unfortunate death—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, dear.
MS. HEISS: —during the hurricane of 1985 in Long Island. But I've had lots and lots of dogs. And I actually—another fraudulent job I had—I had lots and lots of fraudulent jobs.
When I came back to New York I had to get work immediately and it was very hard, and I found this sort of writing shop. As a writer yourself, you probably know more about this than I do, but it's answering ads in the New York Times that say "writer" that bring you to these places. Of course, no one would really advertise for a writer. If you really wanted a writer, you'd try something else.
So I had turned up and it was a sort of writing factory where it was pet shop books. Actually, this was in early—this was in '65 when I found this place, because they said, "Oh, you'd like to be a writer?" And I said, "Well, I don't want to be a writer but I can write." So they said, "Oh, well, this is very good. We're doing books on how to take care of your animals: So You've Just Bought a"—blank. And that's what they published, and they were very popular and very successful and made a lot of money.
The first book they gave me was a parakeet book—you know, How to Care for Your Parakeet—and I never even had been close to a parakeet, so that was a research moment. I never could bring myself to touch a parakeet but I wrote a very, very useful how-to book. It shows you the—you actually write better about things that you don't know about, and I've always been suspicious of art critics for this reason, that the less you know, the better able—you know, the more elaborately you can write about something.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, you're unencumbered by any kind of—
MS. HEISS: Unencumbered by facts.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —by any kind of prejudice about the subject.
MS. HEISS: Right. Yeah, you just go on and on and on. But once I got off the birds, because I don't like birds and I don't know anything about them, then I was asked to do a little bit about dogs, which they're much closer to me, dogs and horses.
And I did a couple of dog books, which taught me that there are certain things—that this all applies to art collectors. Every person, when they get a dog, especially if it's a dog with a breed, they want to buy something that is about their breed. And so they don't want to buy a big book called Encyclopedia of Dogs. They want to buy a specific book that's for Springer Spaniels.
So they go to the store, and even if you picked up every one of those books and you open them all up and see that the Cocker Spaniel and the Springer Spaniel are the pretty much the same words, it doesn't matter. It's being a participant in a fraud—in that kind of friendly fraud that makes you feel better. It's not hurting you but it's something people don't want to discover, that there's no difference in their dog.
I mean, there's a little degree of difference. You know, I was able to find those differences and of course magnify them, but mainly the first sentence has to say something like, "You have chosen an English Springer Spaniel. You will be happy the rest of your life that you've made this choice, but you must know you've taken on a great responsibility because the English Springer Spaniel is different than every other dog." And that's the whole point of the book.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Isn't that the preamble of every book?
MS. HEISS: Yes, the preamble of every book, certainly of the dog books. And, you know, I love to watch how people interact with their dogs. I think that's just great. But that was the really easy part of the strange jobs that I had that were useful for what I do now. Certainly the dog books were.
I've never been very involved in publications, one, because I have a hard time writing but also because I don't do—I do shows, not publications, and instead of spending time on the next publication, which I consider kind of a secondary communication, the art being primary, I'd rather go on to the next primary experience. And I know that if I had done books about all my shows I would have been—I would have been a better person or a better organizer but I'm just glad I've done the shows.
Other things that have contributed greatly in my past to understanding and being a successful show organizer are in college, I would say, accompanying rather than planning original primary music. See, it's the training in being an accompanist that means that you watch—you watch, and you must watch, the conductor or the player, and you watch for their smallest signal and then you play.
And what you really want is for the audience not to even notice that there has been an accompanist. And if the audience thinks, oh, what a great accompanist, you've done something wrong. And that's very much about show organizing. I think that that is good experience, especially when you're a practice rehearsal pianist.
For my work in college I had to accompany very, very good people, and my most-hated—the person or the kind of person I most hate to accompany is a soprano. I find sopranos almost just—they're just awful people to accompany in rehearsal because the way they warm up is a special way. It's different than anybody else—altos, tenors or bases. The tonal pause is so terrible. And they're just very full of themselves.
My favorite person—which it's very rare to accompany that person because they usually don't need an accompanist—is a countertenor. And countertenors usually have spans of like 30 notes—just huge, huge vocal spans, which makes them so interesting to do warm-up for.
The second thing I learned in college is—I was a member of a sorority, a very, very chic sorority, the best one or the next-best one on campus, and for two years they made me rush chairman. And you probably don't know what that is, James, but what is, is it positions you immediately in a position of such terrible cruelty to others, where you, by the very—you have the authority to say, "This person is right for us and this person is wrong for us."
And even though the person's life will be ruined if you draw a line through their name just like this—I write "James" right here—
MR. MCELHINNEY: No, please, no.
MS. HEISS: —and then I'm thinking, James, hmm, James. All his qualities are very social, dances well, da, da, da, da, but maybe just not for us. And you draw the line—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: —and that's the end. And to have the horror of drawing that line and having your name—having your name be drawn through and then having the power to draw it through others' is the real training grounds for saying if someone is in a show or not because it's a cruelty that most people can't face, and you have to decide what it is that makes that show—if it's a group show, of course—hang together, and then you have to draw a line through the names of the people who are not going to be right for that show. And you have to be the one who makes that decision.
Then the next important non-art but very valuable thing that I did in London, of all my many jobs—and including the Country Life, including the historic buildings and monuments—was, always attracted to spaces, I got involved with a big project that Peter Sedgley and Bridget Riley had started, a huge studio project in the east end of London and the old St. Katharine's Docks warehouses, these giant, giant, giant warehouses which were completely unheated and were cold and quite complex to get through.
They had studios there. Many collectors were trying to come to the studios, but we had maybe 60 or 80 artists at one time having studios there. And someone had to sort of take the collectors through, sort of like a guide. It was not a very demanding—it was demanding physically and demanding mentally—I mean, I'd remember where everybody was but, I mean, it wasn't a high-rent job or anything; it was a guide job. It was called liaison, artist liaison.
And so I had that job, and I really enjoyed that. I did that for years, and I took people around St. Katharine's Docks and took them to different studios, and really learned a lot of lessons there.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So "artist liaison" was the name of the business?
MS. HEISS: No, no, no, that was the—they were trying to find a role for me so they just, "Oh, you can be the artist liaison."
MR. MCELHINNEY: So that was your title.
MS. HEISS: Well, that was sort of a title, yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So how did you get paid?
MS. HEISS: Well, I got my lunches there, which—they started a little restaurant, and I got enough money to go there on the subway, and then I got a little bit every week. I only could do it if I had a bunch of other jobs.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It was obviously part of a crazy quilt of other tasks that you were—yes.
MS. HEISS: It was part of being a European—I mean, it was part of being in Europe and having to support yourself with different jobs.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Without a visa.
MS. HEISS: Without a working visa of the kind that you could go—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: These weren't all illegal.
[End of disc.]
MS. HEISS: [In progress]—when it has changed since the last '60s when I was a Member of the Society for Ancient Buildings and Monuments. I liked to—I'm a joiner, so I joined a lot of clubs. And I was a member of all these clubs: the dog club, society clubs, and so on. I'm a member of 16 clubs in London alone. I'm a member of 10 clubs here in New York. So just imagine –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, they're towns of clubs.
MS. HEISS: I could just—if there was such a town of clubs e-mail –
MR. MCELHINNEY: What was your sorority, just out of curiosity?
MS. HEISS: Kappa Alpha Theta. Very good.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Okay. I used to date a Tri Delt, so –
MS. HEISS: Tri Delts are very good.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: They tend to be big-boned. [Laughs.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: No comment. [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: Big-boned girls—very hardy. Not bouncy, like Pi Phis. Because it's just incredible, the things you could say. It's just like you could say, post-minimalist-da-da-da-da. It's amazing. These are all names we have for categorizing things. And they're very rarely used.
MR. MCELHINNEY: All different names for fun.
MS. HEISS: All different names for fun. My funnest job I had in England, and what really kept me going was, I was a used-car dealer. This fit in with the other things that I was doing.
And that was the job that allowed me to get to Europe and see all of the shows in Germany that were being done in Europe, anything from kunsthalles to, in fact, some galleries like Konrad Fischer who were doing very interesting shows, to Holland, to Stedelijk Museum where Edy de Wilde was the chief, and where they did the first shows of the California light artists.
I saw all those shows in the last four years, in the '60s. It was—I saw all of them. I saw them in Munich. I saw Heiner Friedrich before he had his gallery in New York, he had a gallery in Munich. And I saw three—the Viennese actionists I saw there. The Fluxus artists I saw in Düsseldorf. I saw Beuys at his home. I saw Beuys, like, 14 times. I stayed not overnight, but I borrowed money from Beuys to get home.
MR. MCELHINNEY: And he loaned it to you.
MS. HEISS: And he loaned it to me. So being very, very mobile at that time was –
MR. MCELHINNEY: And you're married now, too.
MS. HEISS: And I was married to someone who was an artist. And you know, I was moving the used cars around through an intricate scheme. But –
MR. MCELHINNEY: So were you doing what they call "driveaways?"
MS. HEISS: What do you call a "driveaway," James?
MR. MCELHINNEY: Somebody has got a car in one place, and it needs to get to another place. And you take it—and you deliver it.
MS. HEISS: No, no. That's more legitimate. We were working on the fringes of legality. There are a series of tests which make a car possible to be on the road; it's called MOT [Ministry of Transport]. And there's a translation of that in every country.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's the U.K. basic inspection standards, whatever—you know.
MS. HEISS: Yes. Yes, the standards. And the issue is that a car which fails its MOT in London—in England can't be on the road.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's scrap basically.
MS. HEISS: It's scrap. But a car which fails its MOT in U.K. might in fact pass its MOT in another country, a less careful country like Spain. And when you go from the very careful countries backwards—most careful being, really, Germany—backwards, almost any car that would fail its MOT in Germany will pass with flying colors in the U.K. And it's like really a crisscross of what people care about in terms of what their motor vehicles—the Dutch, for instance, are driven half-mad by rust.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, of course because of the climate.
MS. HEISS: Yes because the French aren't bothered by rust at all. They don't care about rust; they care about other things. People care about different things –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, I see what you mean.
MS. HEISS: Those cares are passed into law, in automotive law, on the MOT test. That's part one. Part two is, a car would have a life of up to a year if it was driven, in fact, and brought into the country by a person who had a passport different than what the country required for its citizens.
The best passport to have for bringing in cars were American passports because Americans were thought at that time still, in the end of the '60s, to have some sort of really hotwire with the god of the motor world. And so if you were an American bringing in a car, even though it was some shabby, shabby old Deux Chevaux from France, well, you know, how could you be all right, here you are, bouncing American.
And we would take cars for MOT reasons and also maybe stylistic reasons and move them around Europe. And they would be driven by—usually by foreigners of that country. And there would be cars which would be seen as enormously fabulous in one country, but just—they were not in any way valued. And a good example of this is the London taxi. The London taxi is a difficult car because it never was intended to start.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: It is a diesel engine, which you'd start at one time in the morning. And the London taxis would keep running the whole day. And you'd never use their batteries to start them. You'd really jumpstart the London taxi somehow. And then at the end of the day, they'd stop. But they could run forever on very little fuel, on diesel fuel. And that made them enormously—vitally practical things for the horrible weather in U.K. Now, for reasons which can't be imagined, the French at that time loved the look of the London taxis.
MR. MCELHINNEY: The boxy, big –
MS. HEISS: The boxy look.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Boxy thing.
MS. HEISS: And they were particularly wanted by rock bands and movie guys. So we would bring over London taxis, which is how I got to happen to be able to go to France during this student uprising.
I went in a London taxi with—a whole taxi full of petrol—as a journalist taking a taxi. That's how I got into Paris; Paris was all blocked up and cordoned off. You couldn't get any petrol. And they wouldn't let you get within miles of it, but they let me because I was being—I was being driven as a journalist, I said.
I was actually going to Paris because I wanted to find out what was happening to a car that I owned, which was in the middle of Paris. As a used-car dealer, I was on the fringes of this society and I had no garages. These cars were just parked places. And they were also parked hopefully in places that were able to attract buyers.
So I had invested almost all the money I had gathered together—it was about six [thousand dollars] or $7,000—in ownership of a car which we'd had driven from Iraq, always by hippies. These cars were always driven by hippies who were going back and forth from –
MR. MCELHINNEY: So that was the driveaway component. You kept –
MS. HEISS: Yes, the drivers.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right. The hippies did the driveaway.
MS. HEISS: The hippies—we paid them to drive these cars. And they were usually guys from, you know, Washington state or Oregon or something who were over there. These were not—this was not the same as the drug ring that was going on at the same time. It could have been the same, but it wasn't the same for reasons which you can probably figure out yourself—having to do with the kind of cars.
So I had gotten this car that had been made for a minor member of royalty. I guess it was of Iran. And it was a huge, huge, huge Cadillac. And it had gigantic fins. It was really very, very beautiful.
The problem it had and the reason it was for sale and I could buy it, was that it had two flaws: one was it had no heater because it was made for the Middle East and there was no reason to have a heater. So there was a gigantic air conditioner in it, but there was no heater. And to install a heater would be—was going to be very painfully expensive. So we had to have someone who was in love with it, who didn't really need a heater—a poseur situation.
The other problem it had was that no seats—there were no seats in it except for one seat in the back, which was higher than everything else because it was for a royal family member. And that was a big problem because even the most decadent person usually wanted to have people with him in the car.
So we were going to fix all that. And it was this brilliant, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful royal blue. And the car had been driven to Paris. And I had parked it in front of the Café Select hoping that with all that traffic around there, that people would say, "Oh, we must have that car." And we had very discrete for-sale signs. I had Arabic license plates and everything so that the police wouldn't touch it and there it was.
And I was watching television in London at the time of the May '68 riots. And I started seeing them, you know, burning these cars. The French, for some reason—French teenagers love to burn cars. I never figured it out. But you know, the James Franco showing here tells us a lot about boys and what they like to blow up.
Anyway, so –
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: The students were using cars to build the barricades. Flashed in front of me this horrible image of the Café Select with rampaging, raging students pushing cars around the Café Select: oh my god, I got to get there and rescue my large investment somehow. And so I took a London taxi, which I could also deliver and sell to somebody with lots of petrol, and took it over and got in and saw the whole riots because I couldn't get out then.
And saw my—I didn't see it in person, I saw it on television—I saw my car being used as the primary barricade. It was—it was so big that it was most of the barricade. And it was burned. And "pig" was written all over it. It was assumed that it was owned by a capitalist pig, you know, despite the fact that it had Arabic license plates. You'd think they could have been a bit—but, you know, it was just horrendous seeing this.
And then, I had to see it again and again and again and again and again because it became part of the films that were done of the Situationist shows, which –
MR. MCELHINNEY: It was the canonical clip that they –
MS. HEISS: It was the canonical clip.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —they ran with every –
MS. HEISS: You can see it. You can see it. And I saw it in Boston when the ICA did that show. I saw it two years ago in Paris when I saw the big Situationists' review—the Guy Debord situation. He loved that car. He used it in several of his books because it was so classically awful American that they wanted to use it, that Americans would be having that kind and shape of vehicle. But it was mine and it really put me out of business. It was really sad.
The other thing that put me out of business was greed. I liked a lot—I love cars. And I like some cars more than others. And the Deux Chevaux were all going to England because people thought they were cute and they would drive them around. And I think models had them. The taxicabs were all going to Paris because these people liked—rock stars liked them.
Then, crazy collectors like different things. And so we were always bringing to the collector—and that's very much like it is about art—the collectors' cars don't actually have to function. Nobody who has a collectors' car even thinks that it will. That's hard for me to understand. I come from a practical farm country; cars have to work.
But no, what really has to work is the story has to work. And the story should be real. If the story is not real, then you were just a faker. And for instance, we had Diana Dors's Buick. My partner, who was in Rolls-Royces—I was in other cars. And it was banned in somewhere in Scotland.
I had seen it on one of my trips and found out that it had belonged to Diana Dors, who was a, maybe a C-list American actress who for reasons we can't even imagine had her own car brought over when she plays that role in a movie, and then had driven it up and abandoned it in a very narrow road somewhere, and that had been drug into a bar and there it was.
So I brought that down to London and the car didn't run. And I can't tell you, I probably had hundreds of people fighting over that car just because it was Diana Dors's Buick. This is—it's amazing. It shows you how the mystery of human nature and the mystery of legend and the mystery of attraction, the mystery of desire and art comes into all this because these were—these cars were actual things.
In performance, in music, people become enraptured and excited about the person. So they will have to touch Elvis, they have to touch this person, they have to touch a Beatle, they have to touch—but with an object, is the object of desire. It's the—it's the touching that is so important, the being in and the owning of that becomes so important, and no matter how idiotic it seems.
And there's no length to which the idiotic behavior doesn't stop anywhere. My own behavior is very idiotic. I recognize this in myself. I had a penchant for three-wheeled cars. Most of them were Isettas. An Isetta is a car with two wheels in the front and one in the back. And it opens from the front. I'm sure you've seen it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative.]
MS. HEISS: And then, you jump in. It's run by a kind of lawnmower engine. And then, you close the front. And then you go away. And I had at one point, 30 Isettas. Thirty Isettas. I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop buying Isettas, even though none of them would run because Isetta has a remarkably bad system for –
MR. MCELHINNEY: You mean, the engine has a short life? You're constantly changing?
MS. HEISS: It was not the engine that was so bad; the starter was never correctly designed. Most lawnmowers start, but –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: —they actually—the Isetta starting system wasn't worked out.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So like, you didn't have to take a rope and you didn't have to wrap it around and pull it. [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: No, you didn't need a rope. You tried to do it with the ignition key. And it just wouldn't work. You would have to jumpstart it all the time. But the Isetta should have worked. It was—unfortunately, it was—the internal design was really done by the—by the Italians, and the outside design was done by the Germans. These collaborative cars didn't work out—[inaudible, cross talk].
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's like the Carmengia –
MS. HEISS: The Carmengia is another example of this.
MR. MCELHINNEY: The Volkswagen as the sort of, you know, the one that worked.
MS. HEISS: That was the good one.
MR. MCELHINNEY: That was the good one.
MS. HEISS: The English did a lot of work with something called the Goggomobil, which is—it's a box with four wheels, one on each corner. The Goggomobil is quite cute. The Americans did something called a Metropolitan, which made it –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, Nash Metropolitan.
MS. HEISS: Nash Metropolitan. It's like—that's exactly that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: My wife covets that, you know? She –
MS. HEISS: I love it so much. If you can find one, I'll pay anything for it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I know where there's one in –
MS. HEISS: Where?
MR. MCELHINNEY: —in the middle of Pennsylvania.
MS. HEISS: Fantastic. Just call them up. Ask them how much they want.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, I have to remember where it is. I'll –
MS. HEISS: Okay, think about it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: I love Nash Metropolitan. But they are—they are funny.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's turquoise and white.
MS. HEISS: That's their best color: turquoise and white. They are the ones that—Donald Duck cars.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: And that's a cartoon image. A cartoon American would drive that. And then –
MR. MCELHINNEY: And Lois Lane.
MS. HEISS: Lois Lane. The perfect car, however, of all that genre—and I had so many Isettas; of course, Deux Chevaux are something else—was a car called the Messerschmitt. I mean, there's a great car.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's a great plane too.
MS. HEISS: It's a great plane. And the great-plane people have made this great car. And Messerschmitt is this—it looks like a cigar, a long cigar –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, I remember those. Yeah.
MS. HEISS: —with one seat in front and one seat behind. It has two short wings which balance it. It has two wheels in back and one wheel in the front. Just to balance it, it's balanced mostly by the—by the—with the little wings, by going very fast; it's a little bit like skiing on roads. And then it has the dome, which you pull up and over like you would a cockpit of a plane. And one person gets in back, and one person gets forward.
And the Messerschmitt, which I was a proud owner of—through my life, I've had three Messerschmitts. And they're just—they're just incomparable cars. Even a Nash Metropolitan does not stand up to a Messerschmitt. And the Messerschmitt has a couple of flaws, of course. Everything in life and everything perfect has a flaw.
It goes exactly the same speed forward, which is very, very fast—60 miles an hour starting first gear. It's only one gear forward. And it goes the same speed in reverse. And the difference between forward and reverse in a Messerschmitt—it's not always easy to plan. So many Messerschmitts were crashed immediately.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So you have to have a really good clutch foot.
MS. HEISS: You have to have a perfect clutch foot. And you don't have a wheel to start out; you have a lever bar like you have on a plane.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh. So it's essentially just adapting, you know, the Nazi fighter into a road vehicle.
MS. HEISS: That's right. Exactly, James. You've got it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Amazing.
MS. HEISS: It's amazing car. And the Messerschmitt that I finally got working, repaired in perfect shape and actually imported it into the United States of America, which is one of the hardest things—it teaches you a lot about transporting art because first it came in as a car, an antique car. And they wouldn't accept it. This is '71. Then it came in as a motorcycle, and it wasn't accepted. I finally brought it in as a motorized tricycle. I also had tried wheelchair. I tried everything, every category, and finally motorized tricycle.
MR. MCELHINNEY: And that worked.
MS. HEISS: That worked and it was on the streets of Baltimore. John Waters saw it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: John Waters? I bet he coveted it.
MS. HEISS: I bet he did, too.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah, so—it didn't appear in any of his –
MS. HEISS: No.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —in any of his films?
MS. HEISS: I'm sorry to say it didn't. He might have been working on his location and his accessories and props as –
MR. MCELHINNEY: And what color was it?
MS. HEISS: The one I—well, I had it painted. But it was the Messerschmitt color, which is red. It had been painted by the Belgians some—they were using it, you know, in sort of quasi-war capacity. They had painted it brown camouflage.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So like the Red Baron. But you didn't paint an Iron Cross on the side of it, or anything like that?
MS. HEISS: No. I didn't do anything like that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well –
MS. HEISS: Now, we've talked mostly about cars. And so we can talk more about other things. But you—the cars are important things.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So you were in London for a long time.
MS. HEISS: About four years altogether, but I came back. I was always bringing cars or dogs back—[laughs]—hopefully to make some money. We never make any—we never made any money.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh.
MS. HEISS: Brought a 500 single cylinder racing BSA by—I brought that bike back with the intention of selling it in San Francisco because it was the top—the top bike. It was, really, a kind of collector's bike. But not correctly understanding the mood of America and what was really going on here because it was so hard from abroad—America was changing –
MR. MCELHINNEY: This is—now, this is the late '60s.
MS. HEISS: This is the late '60s. It was changing and it was so explosive and even to people of the age and generation that was making the changes, it was hard to determine what was—what was going on. And I had two opportunities to do that. Both cases were motorcycle trips across from New York to the West Coast and then riding back, usually by car, which was astonishing education. When I was looking at Alastair—what's Alastair last name?
MR. MCELHINNEY: Cooke.
MS. HEISS: No, no, Alastair, the art—he did the book, Spaced Out. Jeannie, do you remember?
MS. : Gordon.
MS. HEISS: Alastair Gordon's book, Spaced Out.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Gordon.
MS. HEISS: I was looking at the photographs and realized that we had driven through and met lots and lots of the people that were making and living in those communal structures across the United States. Drop City, all those places. You should see the book that—and it was a part of finding out what Americans—young Americans were going to do with their great country because it had slipped out of the grasp of the rulers and it was sliding into the grasps on how—the very slippery hands of the young.
Being in that generation was so exciting and so –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, you seem to remember it very clearly.
MS. HEISS: Well, I was in a kind of odd situation. I didn't drink and I had a very bad experience with LSD the first time I took it. So I was completely straight all the time and I was taking notes all the time on everything. I had a recorder. I was recording or taking notes. I kept a lot of notebooks. So—and I always—I had a job.
You see, I wasn't an artist. The artists were always trying to make art—the artists I was with. And I was also a person working, having outside jobs and being an organizer with the art, you know. So as a worker, it was a lower caste—[laughs]—of the hierarchy, but it also was the perfect hierarchy to be an observer. And I wasn't vulnerable. Like the artists are always vulnerable because they're exposed to everything from ridicule to failure to –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Success.
MS. HEISS: Success. And I was not exposed to any of this except that my success was getting a place open and closing it and getting things there or getting them up and. It's very practical.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So how did you avoid becoming the head of a road crew for like a rock-and-roll band?
MS. HEISS: Well, I did—of course, I did that. I enjoyed that very much. I did it a couple times for short parts of tours because it very much combined all my interests.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah. Who'd you work with?
MS. HEISS: Bands you won't know because if you'd known them, I, of course, would have stayed with the bands. I later on was very proud to be invited to—to become a manager or a road crew manager when I was—this was about 15 years ago—when I was organizing the exhibition of John Cage, a tribute exhibition for him the year that he died and I'd been invited by the Venice Biennale to organize a show about Cage.
He was alive at the time and for two years, I worked to do this show, worked with a lot of people that he knew and we were doing things like recreating the—this sort of meeting place that John and all of his friends met on the Bowery, where they would all do a lot of the recording and talk—it wasn't a recording studio per se.
It was a big kitchen table like Rauschenberg had a big kitchen table and Cage organized his things mostly out of the old Rothko studio, which was John Giorno's place. So we created a kind of combination of John Giorno studio and Cage's house. So the books, they had—so the people coming into the show could sit around at the same table and look at things.
And it was this kind of touchy-feely exhibition we did. And plus the piano that he'd done in felt and—carpet, I should say—Beuys did the felt one. A lot of the tangible work that he did that you could actually touch or here. And this was a huge exhibition with maybe, I don't know, 180 things in it? No money to do the catalogue, as usual. But I did organize a CD that was attributed to Cage, who had by this time, died, so that I could do it.
He hated rock-and-roll. I couldn't have done heavy metal. And I went to different rock-and-roll people that I knew and that others knew who saw Cage as a very important influence because he was. I mean he was, first of all, the whole idea of sampling has everything to do with Cage. He was fooling around with records. He was taking things off and on. He was sampling different pieces. Everything about appropriation, everything about sampling.
All this came out of Cage and his friends and John Giorno, who helped me with this enterprise, knew it and was a very good advisor. I had John Cale, who was with The Velvet Underground, who was an enormously well-informed musician. He was a trained musician who came out of London. I think that his professor was Cornelius Cardew, who was a very tough, tough, tough composer.
And Cale had to know everything before he came over here. He had to know composition, the rules of—you know, he was as informed as other people in The Velvet Underground were not informed, Nico being a case in point. I mean there would be nothing that she knew because she could receive no information. She was complete closed—closed system.
Anyway, Cale was my producer. He was a great producer and he did it because of Cage and his respect and one by one, either through my knowledge or his reputation or John Giorno's friendships, we got together about 30—35 artists who either made a new piece for Cage or did a piece which, of theirs, which they felt was relevant to Cage.
And in some cases, with people who are performers more than composers like Joey Ramone, I asked them to perform one of Cage's composition and Joey did a beautiful Cage song from the '40s. Joey was a baritone and he was not a trained musician, but Cale was and I was. So we could work through that with Joey very—very, very slowly. [Laughs.] It was very difficult.
And in arranging this whole thing and being on the phone and getting people to studios and getting it done and trying to get it—I had to made a record before so this was pretty new. I was really thrilled to have a number of the musicians who worked with me on that, instead of just thinking oh, hell, one more thing we've gotten rid of now with this—people from the contemporary art world who are always on us.
I was actually invited to be a manager various—certainly, the Ramones said I could, you know, manage one of their tours—not manage them because they had managers, but just working the road crew. And Rufus Wainwright is on our board of directors here and I respect him and his musicianship very, very much and I respect his mother and his father, too. He comes—a very good stock. I know both—knew Kate [McGarrigle] and know Loudon.
And when I was leaving MoMA, the year of my last year at PS1, I really thought a lot about what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the radio station and—which was going splendidly at PS1. It would go splendidly by itself as it is today. But I also thought, maybe I'd like to go on the road again and I asked Rufus if I could go on the road with him. He is on the road all the time. And he said "Yes," he would let me do that.
And that was one of my dismissed plans—dismissed because it would actually been so much work. These people—these people who go on the road all the time work their guts out.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, it's a—it's a grueling life.
MS. HEISS: Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: You wake up in the morning, you eat something, you go to sound checks. You go back, you take a nap. You go back, you do the concert. You get in a limo, you get on a plane. You're in the next town, 1:00 a.m. and then you wake up in the morning and –
MS. HEISS: You sound like you did this yourself.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I knew people who were in the business.
MS. HEISS: Who did you know?
MR. MCELHINNEY: Or know. Well, my ex-wife was friendly with Sting's lead guitarist, Dominic Miller, and –
MS. HEISS: So you knew people who were functioning at a pretty high level.
MR. MCELHINNEY: And I—yeah, I knew other people and you know, in the theater world and movie world too, just socially. And you know, it sounds romantic, but actually, it's a huge amount of work and a lot of –
MS. HEISS: I like that part of it. There's a very curious—it's real, too. I think that it has to do with not being the artist and wanting to exercise power because if you're the artist, you exercise the power through your art. But if you're not an artist, then you—you want to be—the good side of it is—what I said—you want to be working with the good people.
The slightly bad part of it is you want to have some power over something and you know, power comes in various disguises and it's just power. I mean to be the person who's in charge of getting the rooms for the band, making sure that they have the right rooms and that the motel will let them stay there is a great power, you know. I've done that and I like that a lot.
I mean I have the list. I have—I get out of the bus, I go in. I've made the reservations. I'm the person who made the reservations and they're all completely dependent on me. I found that very satisfying.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, you're the vehicle. You were talking earlier about how people were crazy to buy a car that belonged to an actress. The thing is, it's being the car, being the vehicle.
MS. HEISS: [Laughs.] Yeah, I'm being the car.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Being the vehicle.
MS. HEISS: I'd be the car.
MR. MCELHINNEY: You're the car. [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: Also, I like the simplicity of the—what looks to me, by the way. And this is, in a drug-free world, because I was drug-free. So everything was much easier to me than it was for other people because I wasn't trying to go do these things in a kind of—with a film over my head and I never really understood that but I understand it now but I didn't understand it at the time.
It seemed that their requests were so simple. They could be happy in such simple ways that is not true of the artists that I've worked with my whole life. Artists are, at least in the ways that I work with them, more complicated and they want more complicated answers and they have more complicated demands.
Now, I love the naïveté of the rockers who—well, they come off the stage and they'd had this experience with thousands of screaming people—usually girls—usually screaming, screaming, screaming and in the mosh-pit days, picture lots of boys, you know, all this surfing all over the audience, there's people's bodies being thrown.
Well, anyway, they get off the stage and they ask you—they come off and they say, "Was I good?" And you have only one thing to say. You say, "You were great." Then they say, "Was I good? Was I really good?" And you say, "You were great. You were fucking great." And then the third question is, "Was I really good?" And you say, "You were great." And then they say, "Did they like me?" And you say, "Hear the screams. You were so good, you were so good, you were so good."
That's pretty much the entire dialogue that I've ever been involved with. Now, of course with people like John Cale, you're not going to have that kind of conversation. He doesn't have conversations with anybody. I don't know Brian Eno, but I imagine it wouldn't be so easy.
But the artists I'm working with—the conversations are going to be much, much different than you were good, you were goddamn good. It's going to be much more quiet and much more long-term because the art is stationary and the performer is temporal. So for starters –
MR. MCELHINNEY: You're talking a lot of ideas into it. You're talking to the art with ideas and they want to know precisely how that works.
MS. HEISS: How that works and how it emerges.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Makes sense.
MS. HEISS: And they don't get the rush of going off the stage. So they have to have their rush talking about it for a year before the show and a year after the show. So it's a very long-term process of relationships, which is another interesting thing that you and I will be talking about in the future, which is the kind of relationships that you have with living artists, which is the kinds of relationships that my career has been about is so very different from that of a gallerist because the gallerist, by definition, is setting up a family and the curator, by definition, is having a romance—an affair, something that's going to be broken off.
It's not going to continue. It's preceded by seduction. It culminates in having an affair and at the end, it ends with the memories of that great experience. If you keep showing the same artists again and again and again, you're not a very good curator.
You know, I think that curators who work with dead artists—dead great artists like Picasso or so—and show Picasso endlessly because they are Picasso's scholars, but people who are involved in living artists, particularly living young artists who are doing things don't become overnight scholars. They have to work with lots and lots of different people.
So the category of psychological relationship you had that is meaningful is a very different on than a gallerist. And if you're a—a collecting institution is also very different because if you're a collecting institution, it is really about the shopping aspect, what piece you're going to buy, what piece the artist is going to let you buy and how you seduce your colleagues into buying that. So seduction of the object rather than the person. Anyway.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Interesting. I—it's all great. It's all wonderfully interesting.
MS. HEISS: But not to the American Archives. [Laughs.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: Comment—no, no, no, no. This is perfectly—this is perfect. But one of the questions I keep wanting to ask and the conversation keeps evolving is how did you—how did you fall into wearing so many hats because I think about putting myself in the place of a person reading the transcript in another year, six months from now thinking wait a minute, piano, violin, Midwestern, Southern Illinois, Egypt, small-town, rural person goes to London and all of a sudden is like running cars around Europe, is doing art tours, is—I mean it must be a very social person as well.
MS. HEISS: Oh, I'm a completely social person. I'm almost completely non-reflective.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Your husband at the time –
MS. HEISS: Yeah, he was an artist. That's key to everything, of course.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Can you—can you share his identity?
MS. HEISS: Oh sure. His name is Jene Highstein and he was—and is—a member of a group of artists that I was very much identified with. My activities in New York—not only grew out of his friendship and our friendships with different people, but were much influenced by two people.
One is Richard Nonas, who was a very good thinker. He was a sculptor, but trained as an anthropologist. So he and I were quite—he could—he was a very good teacher because he thought anthropologically. He thought in terms of tribes and gangs, which I call gangs and he would call tribes. And our discussions were ones which were very positive for me.
The other person that contributed a great deal from the same circle was Gordon Matta-Clark, who was also intensely social. He was much more social than I was—anyone can be more social I am. He was a hundred times more social.
So Gordon, who loved to cook and see a little farther than most of us because he had actually grown up in quite sophisticated summers in Paris, although quite non-sophisticated winters, when his mother, who had been left by the painter, big Matta, his father was—supported herself as a schoolteacher here in New York.
So he had a foot in both environments, which were quite radically different and he was able to translate back and forth between these environments. One is American South and one is French south. And Gordon would often identify places as places of social interchange and then that—the dinners would come with that.
So he had a rolodex which, you know, unbelievable rolodex of friendships in France and he shared that all with me and that's how we did the shows—the first one, Under the Brooklyn Bridge, in '71 when I was still with the Municipal Art Society in a little office. It was right next to the very little office where the American Archives of Art was perched unhappily. [Laughs.] With Woolfy [William E. Woolfenden] coming in from Detroit—[laughs]—on weekly visits. We were all crammed together in two rooms.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So you just got to London and just found your way?
MS. HEISS: Oh yeah, yeah. I can do it anywhere. That's—I'm an unafraid, garrulous, interested, curious person.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So that would make it easy, obviously, for you to make friends with people, to establish connections, to find out what's going on –
MS. HEISS: That's what I did.
MR. MCELHINNEY: You also had to be a little inventive with your working situation in the U.K. because you didn't have a proper work permit.
MS. HEISS: That's right, exactly. And so that—so I think about interns today and how codified that experience has been—internships. But there's really nothing better than the superficial five different jobs a week situation where you're really jumping around and discovering more every minute. And that's just—so I haven't told you about the whole criminology thing.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Let's write that down for the next.
MS. HEISS: That was a big, important influence.
MR. MCELHINNEY: When did you make the decision to return to New York?
MS. HEISS: It was around 1970. We did it during the summer. So we were trying to think where we would—what country we would come back to.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It sounds like everything in England was going fine. Why leave?
MS. HEISS: Well, the real reason to come back was that the best work was being done out of the United States and the very best work was being done out of New York City. And –
MR. MCELHINNEY: And you and your husband wanted to be –
MS. HEISS: We wanted to be in the—in the epicenter of where that was happening.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Where it was happening.
MS. HEISS: I mean I wanted to stay in England the rest of my life. I was going to be in Scotland or something, but I thought—I never thought I was giving it up. I thought I was just giving up living there full time. I thought I would return, but I didn't.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I think this might be a good time to take a break and we can resume with your return to New York.
[End of disc.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: This is James McElhinney, speaking with Alanna Heiss on Thursday the 28th of October, 2010.
MS. HEISS: Hello, James, nice to see you again.
MR. MCELHINNEY: You, too. Last time we spoke, we sort of brought your story up to the point where you were leaving England. You had decided to get out of the car business, and—I'm joking, of course, but—
MS. HEISS: Yeah, sure.
MR. MCELHINNEY: But—and you decided to move to New York. Could we just review that again, and maybe you could elaborate again on—
MS. HEISS: This is probably about 1970, and I'd been coming back—throughout the course of the years I'd been away, I'd come back at least two or three times a year. But I wasn't living in the United States.
And where I was living was London, and I was reminded when I was there last weekend once again that that made my visits to Germany, where a lot of the important shows of young American artists like Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman were being made—it made me able to share in—uniquely, because not many Americans interested in contemporary art were doing that—the experience of those shows, and also the shows at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which I just went to again a couple of days ago and was reminded by the show that's reviewing their history how important that museum was to American artists.
In any case, I came back to settle in New York and face the issues that had been largely avoided in the opportunity to live abroad during the Vietnam years—the bad years, the difficult years.
And when I came home, we faced an America that we all have, through stage, screen, Bob Dylan songs and everything, noted that had greatly changed America—America which was no longer innocent, that was surprised to find itself an unpopular player on the world stage, an America whose young people had separated from the ruling class, in many cases their own mothers and fathers, to demand the freedoms that they felt would go along with their new politics.
Important in all this was art—visual art—but also important to all this was music and was a new feeling of political—I guess the word is fever, fervor, F-E-V-O-U-R [sic].
MR. MCELHINNEY: Fervor.
MS. HEISS: Fervor, thank you. Fervor—fevered fervor. [They laugh.] So as I say, the New York that I was first in was in, like, 1966. It was a very different New York that I came back to in '70.
MR. MCELHINNEY: How had it changed?
MS. HEISS: And—well, just as I just said, the nature of the responsibilities between the two generations was completely changed.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, how had the art world changed?
MS. HEISS: Well, the art world had begun to become—they were beginning to move out of the complete dominance of abstract expressionism, which happened in the '50s and '60s. Pop art had taken a strong stance in both studios and the marketplace and as a representative American art. And minimalism had been, near the end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s, been—was for the young people probably the leading school—I use these terms rather obliquely.
But artists who are of my generation were after minimalism—this is a three-year period—they were called post-minimalists, and the minimalists and the post-minimalists, the artists that I primarily worked with, felt that they had been and were going to be excluded from the museum and gallery scene because what they were making was largely unappreciated by collectors or museums. Installations were not recognized as art, art which was—could not be on a pedestal was not particularly valued, and so on down the line.
So I was absolutely, at that time, in the middle of those kinds of very internal, but to us in the community vibrant and important, discussions. I was a part of it because I said, "Fine." I do understand that installations are art, and I do understand that art does not have to be on a pedestal. And I do understand, as a child of minimalists, that—what the minimalists are searching for, both in the United States and, in this case, mostly Germany—not England, England was not so much involved at the time.
So I was able to start a series of activities which would take advantage of the unused real estate which was in, particularly in New York, the sign of a tremendous '70s depression. There were many, many stores that were shuttered, there were many buildings that were dark, and not unlike the recession that we just are in the midst of experiencing now, which is, in fact, a much deeper depression-recession, the depression at the time was largely a real-estate one. And it was specifically related to New York City.
New York City was considered dead weight on the country. It was considered the home of opposition to the moneyed classes. It was considered dangerously—almost sliding into the ghetto communities that affect most of our large cities, sadly slid into in the next 10 years. I think—
MR. MCELHINNEY: White flight, they called it.
MS. HEISS: White flight, and the largely controlling—or, shall we say, occupying forces being those of very poor blacks from ghettos. And this became true in St. Louis, to a point that it is very, very rare to go into St. Louis—I know, because I lived quite near, I grew up quite near to St. Louis, and you'd drive in and you wouldn't stop. You wouldn't get gas—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Not recovered really, still.
MS. HEISS: It's just an extraordinarily Oz-like and beautiful city, compared to what it was at that time. I mean, really, you would fill up—it was like Mad Max, you would fill up with gas so you would not stop for gas within the city limits of St. Louis. Detroit took longer to fall, but when it fell, it fell more dramatically. And now, it's in the situation which is quite interesting, where Detroit itself is being taken over by contemporary avant-garde artists and it is becoming a newly claimed agricultural area in the middle of the city.
MR. MCELHINNEY: That is interesting. In Cleveland, too.
MS. HEISS: I think it's one of the most interesting things that has happened as a utopian dream, because this activity shares utopian dreams of the '60s. They're not immune to that. They're very aware of that. I've talked to many of the artists and the people who are active in Detroit. And I think the leaders of the contemporary art field who have moved there have had a lot to do with this visualization of a strange agrarian dream amidst Detroit.
And there are so many important art pieces being made right now by everybody from Matthew Barney to York to—so on. But New York was a place—it was very, very dark. And the loft areas in SoHo were occasionally inhabited. The areas of Tribeca, where I now live comfortably in a very large loft, which I had since the '80s, were completely shuttered.
They were not used, and to be down there was to put yourself in a situation like I did, where I couldn't buy milk without going on a 10-minute cab ride up to the Village. Raising children in the Tribeca area was a real challenge, because you couldn't—you didn't have the easy access, and you don't have the cars that you have in the suburbs.
So in the midst of all this, it was a great time for art, because we had all these spaces and smart, energetic people like myself decided that I would get as many of those spaces that I could and label them and use them, repair them to the extent that they could be and use them for different kinds of projects.
And that's how the first show that I worked on, which was in concert with the Municipal Art Society, was Underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. And that was a very large show, that was in situ sculpture, including Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt and all the great names that we have—George Trakas and Mary Miss—on and on and on and on. There were like 30 artists for that. That's become a show that's much more talked about than it was ever visited.
This is true of many shows in the past, but this was a particular one, because it was a sort of a moment when there was a crossing over of the downtown artists/sculptors into not only visibility, but visibility without the after-effect of going to jail, which had been commonly—[they laugh]—the most interested people throughout the first five years of my curatorial work in New York City were definitely the police.
They were an expected arrived audience, and we were usually prepared with a variety of protection, which would include, among many others, the permission from the New York City Film—I believe it was the Film Board, but perhaps it was another name—which gave us permission to do a film of people doing X, Y, Z, listing the artists as actors. So we were doing a film, but not a film that we ever edited. And we did have these people involved, and we were alerting the city to what we were doing.
This is a routine which has become quite commonplace in the end of the '90s with—because it's so much easier format to describe yourself as organizing a group of actors playing this or that than it is to actually try to argue with somebody in the city government about whether this is a good piece of art or not. With a film, you don't need to say it's a good piece of art. The very virtue of it being a film makes it good.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Why is that?
MS. HEISS: Well, because films are an accepted mode of transfer of visual information, and they're usually run by people who intend to turn them into a feature which will show in a theater, which is a normal kind of activity, and then you might make money.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Also, in a capitalist environment, it's indicative of a person who can raise enough in order to make one.
MS. HEISS: You're certainly correct, James. But the police weren't thinking so much about the fundraising of the filmmakers. They were thinking more about the fact that film itself is an accepted vehicle. That's why you can see people run down streets, shooting and shooting and diving under cars and nobody pays any attention in New York, because they're always filming either—usually Law and Order because Law and Order is our hometown TV show, which has employed so many—outputs—permutations of it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: All of the different permutations of it.
MS. HEISS: I mean, they spend most of their time on Franklin Street, which I live on, and we know the camera team and everything very well. We're all used to it. We've all grown up with Law and Order and thank god they have put so much money into the art community, especially the actors.
So quickly summarizing this, I came back to a city which had very little activity in museums of the kind that would be interesting to the artists that I was with. And without bitterness but without even engaging in the system, we went outside the system to find these other temporary locations for exhibitions—the Clocktower is one such place and still is.
Most of these I surrendered in 1976 because of a number of reasons. One is, I was offered the opportunity by various borough presidents—Brooklyn, Queen, the Bronx, I don't believe Staten Island but certainly Manhattan—to open a really big art center that was formed over some of the same principles that I had been involved with. In other words, it was their interest to decentralize our activity.
It was very clear that the major museums were not going to be interested in decentralization, and the economic advisors to the City of New York, to Lindsay, to Koch and so on, were quite aware that there wasn't anything bad or evil happening with contemporary art. Far from it. It wasn't a political movement, as such, and it wasn't like the organizers of MOVE in Philadelphia, where they were actually occupying many, many, many, many tenement buildings in a semi-cult—
MR. MCELHINNEY: There were two buildings. There was one in Powelton Village and one on Osage Avenue that burned.
MS. HEISS: Yes, that burned, and you know how they burned and why they burned, James?
MR. MCELHINNEY: I know more than I can say on this recording. So we can—I can share later. I was there when it happened.
MS. HEISS: Okay, so—yes. What I mean to say is, the occupation there was seen in an entirely different context than the occupation at contemporary art scene. In fact, we weren't posing any valid political manifesto.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, did the leadership of the city see what was happening as being an asset in some way to the community or to rebranding New York as something other than a dangerous—
MS. HEISS: In a very—in a rebranding. It was in a very—yeah. Yes, the sales had not been made at such a high level that this was an articulated desire or comment. It was just a sort of low-level, can't hurt kind of idea.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Guerrilla, grassroots—
MS. HEISS: Oh, it can't hurt because it's a grassroots art thing. You know, why not? Why not? And remember, the leadership in our cities at that time was primarily—in New York City, was very—when I say very democratic, I mean very—not Republican, but rather Democrat-based.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Liberal?
MS. HEISS: I guess you'd say liberal. And the liberals have been the people who were coming—the older part of the generation that had encompassed the revolting—the revolution teenagers—their older brothers and sisters are now becoming the leaders in various city agencies.
So they had some understanding and some desire for this. It wasn't a marketing thing like it is now—oh, let artists in your building and everything will go up and there won't be any more rats. Mainly, it was more like, oh, well, it can't hurt much. You occupy the building and maybe there won't be so many rats. It was okay. But in any case, I was offered five or six different buildings that were very large.
And for me, the deciding move came when I was offered PS1, because I fell in love with it. It—many other buildings, including the Brooklyn Naval Yards and including Fort Apache in the Bronx and—looked at a lot of them, and a very large old nursing home building which had been vacant in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I think was Manhattan's potential lease.
But what I saw in PS1 was isolated space which was only a few minutes from Manhattan, which was between the airports and Midtown, which had every transportation known to mankind in New York, from the LIRR to two bridges to five subway different line stops and so on and so on and so on. And yet it stood by itself in this very tiny neighborhood, sort of like an Italian Brigadoon. [They laugh.]
And one could see it from both bridges as you came over. On 59th Street Bridge, you'd see this ludicrous pink/red phony—not phony, because they didn't know enough to be phony, they were—vaguely Richardson building of red brick—red and pink brick with lots of towers and lots of gargoyles. And it was huger, much huger, much, much huger than most primary schools. It was, I think, called a double school.
And it was almost two square city blocks in the area, which didn't have many blocks anyway, so it wasn't a big concern to anyone. And it had been the first school under the system of Board of Ed that was organized at that time. And it had a long history in the neighborhood. It was very keen to not have it be torn down. Most of those buildings in the '70s got torn down and turned into parking lots and never got built on for anything.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Urban renewal.
MS. HEISS: Yes, we were all facing urban renewal, which was put on us by, of course, liberals who thought that urban renewal was a kind of functional utopian scheme. But when they were funded by their various—
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, it was a '60s thing—
MS. HEISS: It was a '60s notion, yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —people like Robert Moses and Edmund Bacon in Philadelphia and others who were trying to promote the redesign of urban areas to interface with the Eisenhower highway system, among other things.
MS. HEISS: You know, I can tell from your few comments that you're very experienced in this, which I'm much less so, although because of my habit of doing exhibitions in unused, untenanted buildings and vacant lots, I became a kind of strange avatar of representing urban planning. And I was on many, many, many panels throughout my professional career, especially related to urban renewal. Not only am I not knowledgeable about urban renewal, but I'm also very antagonistic to it, so it was a strange tradition to me.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.] A lot of people today are.
MS. HEISS: Yeah, it was a strange way for me to be. I was very in favor of empty buildings—old buildings being used for art instead of new buildings, because first of all they were available and second of all they were cheap, but thirdly, the spaces in them—certain kinds of institutional buildings, such as schools, had a very human division of space which is usually—in the case of PS1 is a prototypical schoolroom. It's '20s, eight feet by about 24 feet. Not quite a square, just wonderful for art and windows on one side.
So it became a sort of mission of mine to not have everybody tear down these old buildings, these post offices, these other things around the country, but say, well, why not have a contemporary art museum and why not have it be in this space?
MR. MCELHINNEY: So did you consciously make a link, a connection between the exhibiting of challenging contemporary art and historic preservation of architecture? You talked about working with the Municipal Art Society.
MS. HEISS: I didn't make that connection very vehemently because it seemed to me laden with too many negatives, because people who are often very in favor of historical preservation are also very in favor of historical preservations—the last thing they want to see is something—they're not in favor of contemporary restoration. [Laughs.]
But my colleague, Brendan Gill, who is the person who became the chairman of my board, was the theater critic of the New Yorker, was a fabulously entertaining but also big heavyweight at every architectural facet you could imagine.
He not only was a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar, but he indeed was truly a historical person. He knew about everything. He loved PS1, and one of his interests in being the chairman of our little, tiny Institute for Art and Urban Resources, was what we called it, was the fact that he was behind the movement to save rather than destroy.
So we made very good companions on the road of urban-renewal life. And I attended panels, you know, as I say, throughout those years with ferocity—maybe one to two a week. As long as they paid my airfare, I would go. But what didn't happen was that I didn't find anyone falling in love with contemporary art, nor any of the shows I'd loyally do slideshows of, nor did I find a sponsor nor a patron who said, "Oh, I see the light, I see the light, now can we fund your space?"
So I don't know what I was expecting, but I had hoped that one or two of these major developers or people could be co-opted to the cause of contemporary art. That really happened later, and certainly not with me and my organization. But it happened in a very huge way in other—and I'm happy to say in some American cities, and in a huge way in England, much later.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, if we could step back a little, could you share, perhaps, anecdotes about one or two of your first projects upon your return to New York? How did you actually insert yourself into this conversation shaper?
MS. HEISS: Well, I was looking for jobs, and I had had a lot of research jobs before I left. I was usually a kind of—pet is the wrong word—I would be a—mascot is perhaps better.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Sidekick?
MS. HEISS: A sidekick's too high. [They laugh.] Because I attended the University of Chicago and knew a lot of the people who were doing remarkable, remarkable studies for which they needed researchers for this or that and they knew other people who were doing remarkable studies—for instance, a man named—I believe it's Roger Starr [ph]—was in Cambridge University in London, not Boston, and he was writing a book called Double Murder Suicide.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Leopold-Loeb?
MS. HEISS: And he—no, it was all about the—it was about a statistical survey of this incidence and how many—which ones were women and men and what were the underlying causes—a completely statistical, sociological text. But he needed a lot of information, and in England, that wasn't such a common incident that a person would kill two people and then kill themselves. It had to be a specific number that Dr. Starr [ph] was interested in. It wasn't my book, so I can't explain the rationale for this other than it was a very distinguished writer and a very distinguished publisher, Cambridge University Press.
So in '66, I had been recommended to Starr [ph], and it dribbled down to me in a job which was so strange that I mention it to you. It's just my yearlong job as the first woman parole officer in the state of New York in 1966.
And they needed somebody who could pass the—pass the sort of tentative regulations at that time for parole and police officers, which involved shooting—being able to carry a gun and shoot, which I could because I had grown up in the country, so I could do that sort of thing and wasn't scared of it. It didn't seem strange or unusual to me. I wasn't an East Coast urban person from a rural place. Everybody I ever knew had carried a gun, and mostly two.
So I was given that assignment and went to the parole offices. I had an office, as everybody else did, and I was specifically assigned to 18- to 22-year-old felonied guys, because I was closer—I was almost their age, I was about their age.
And there was a study that was going on whether or not parolees might be more anxious to confide their dreams, their visions or their malpractices to a person their own age who represented the future, as opposed to the gigantic Irish cops who are the people who were primarily parole officers at the time, who are not only not black, but they were father-figure type men. So I was supposed to be the sister-figure type woman, unthreatening, and a person who could possibly effect change.
Now, we can all imagine the—what happened with that project. What did happen eventually was that a lot of women became parole officers at one point. I learned a great deal from my year on the streets with my young friends from felony.
I had the South Bronx, and this extended down to the waterfront, and I would go out in the field every day, and in my case, learning much more about New York City and what made the city up, what kind of buildings it had, what the South Bronx looked like, all that sort of thing that an outsider would not immediately learn about. When you're just coming into the big city, you're usually downtown with the arts crowd.
But they also might—I hate to call them—we were supposed to call them clients, actually—took me under their respective wings and took me to a lot of the things that were endemic to cultural activity in Harlem. I was at the Apollo Theater every Wednesday. We would go, and all my parolees and I would go to that amateur-hour event on Wednesdays, and they would explain, this is what's interesting, this is what's not.
So they weren't at all fierce, and I was in no way a threat to them, and they also took me gambling. I went to places in the South Bronx where there's a lot of dog racing and informal cockfighting—all the sort of thing that's really part of the city that isn't part of my city.
But also, I saw an amazing amount of empty space. And so when I came back in the '70s, I was very familiar with that kind of broken-down, bombed-out almost looking areas of the city and felt very comfortable in it. I wasn't afraid of it when I came back in the '70s. My way of inserting myself into the community was no more than just trying to get a job, which is what I was trying to do. And I got lots of jobs when I came back.
One of my most helpful and sympathetic people—sponsors, I guess you would call it—was Joan Davidson. She had on her own, with the advice of others, created Westbeth, which was—reused a giant telephone company into artist's housing. And I was enormously interested in that and impressed by what her Kaplan Foundation had done. That was a huge commitment to her. She, herself, with her family, had seen that that would happen and backed the investment there.
In fact, when I then came back a year later from having a baby in Scotland, it was Joan who helped find a very temporary two-month place for me in Westbeth, where there was heat, because my loft had no heat or no plumbing. And she was always kind to me, and she also introduced me to the Municipal Art Society, where I did get a job—originally part-time—as a combination receptionist and program director for Kent Barwick.
And it was in that job, which I did, like, bus tours or promotion or things that I could do particularly well because I'm an outgoing and gregarious person, so I was just in charge of organizing events and programs. And I'm well-read, so that was no problem.
But what we did do is share an office on the very top of the 66th Street mansion with the Archives of American Art, which is how my agreeing to interview you or you interview me happened, because of that outrageous and funny experiences that happened to me sharing this extremely small top floor. The Archives had its immensely important offices, I believe in Detroit. They weren't in New York City. I never saw them, but I imagined them—
MR. MCELHINNEY: They're in Washington.
MS. HEISS: Was it Washington? Okay.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah, it's part of the Smithsonian Institution.
MS. HEISS: Smithsonian. Well, now, yeah. I'm not sure it was in 1970.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Before my time.
MS. HEISS: Before your time. But they had, outside the city, big offices. So this was only really a kind of pied-à-terre office, and the director of the Archives—Mr. Woolfenden I think is his name—was a very distinguished looking man—not remotely funny and not looking for the humor in life. And he had a couple of lieutenants who were extremely well-educated in archival, and also in social history, because what they were often working with was the social network of America and how that could be preserved, particularly in the artistic world.
So he would make maybe weekly or bimonthly visits to New York City and come up the elevator, open the door into what could only have been an appalling situation for him, because before—it certainly wasn't just my arrival—but before our arrival, it had been a very calm oasis, and now at this point it was full of lots of young people and people planning bus tours and hippies, basically, people looking a bit like hippies.
And the director of the Municipal Art Society was then and is now Kent Barwick. And Kent was and is an extremely funny person. And he called Mr. Woolfenden "Woolfy"—he'd always call him Woolfy because he knew that it would annoy him. And when Woolfy was expected to come from the outside into check on the American troops, Kent—and this is in the winter—would wear this horrible, horrible raccoon coat, which he had slept in probably for years at some college, and a kind of long muffler and a kind of ra-ra situation, almost from the '30s.
And the problem with the raccoon coat, which Kent knew full well, was that it would shed. And so Kent mainly occupied the only closet that we shared with the Archives of American Art and there was only one closet. And he would stuff it with his raccoon coat and with other odd or emblematic or costume-related things which he wore all the time. And Kent, at the time, was a bachelor.
So he was a bachelor with a good job and very good looking and he would often not go home at night. He would go somewhere else and then he'd come into his office at the Municipal Art Society ready to change like Superman into his Upper East Side outfit to go and testify at City Hall or to have lunch with some beautiful woman.
So he changed in the offices there, something else that used to drive Woolfy crazy. He'd keep all of his clothes and all of his underwear and all of his laundry and all of these things. See, poor Woolfy, the door opening, he had this beautiful, beautiful dark—if I remember correctly—dark, navy cashmere overcoat and he'd open the closet and all things would spill out and he would have to go hang it up and he'd go out with raccoon fur all over it.
So because of this, it wasn't in any way warfare on our part. It was sort of delight that someone was doing this with some of the lieutenants of Woolfy that I got to find out about what the archives are really doing. I was very interested in what they were doing. And they were trying to keep some sort of—collect diaries and almost laundry lists that were being found and turned up by friends, in particular, of the abstract expressionists.
And I would, through my contacts, happen to know a number of people who worked for them or knew them so we had some basis of friendship and indeed, there was a kind of limited friendship and that's certainly been my feeling that the archives, certainly is far beyond hanging their coats and closets with bad shedding raccoon coats.
They now are part of the Smithsonian and they're very revered and I'm sure they have big offices in New York City. And I'm very happy to be interviewed by you, James, as a representative of this important academic institution.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, it's a pleasure. It's a pleasure. So what was the first exhibition you organized?
MS. HEISS: It was called—in this country, it was Underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and I just spoke about it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Is that before they called it Dumbo?
MS. HEISS: That's certainly before they called it Dumbo.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Because that's now become a very tony neighborhood.
MS. HEISS: Yes, yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So and where exactly –
MS. HEISS: It was at the foot of the bridge on both sides, on the Manhattan side and on the Brooklyn side.
MR. MCELHINNEY: On the street?
MS. HEISS: It wasn't a level street. It was a sort of cliff.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yes, yes it's the bluff there.
MS. HEISS: That go down through brick and cement pile-ons, wrecked cars. There were no trees. There were a lot of jagged pieces of concrete that had been bulldozed out. There was no pier and there were these rooms underneath the bottom of the pile-on that—the doors had been torn off or they'd been blown up with explosives. But they were still room-like in nature.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: And they had like three sides and all those indoor rooms, I used. And then there was the—sort of archives. I'm not sure what they were called but Creative Time used them a lot—a lot in the ‘80s. They used those—there were a series of underground roads and I used about four of them.
And on the Brooklyn side, I didn't use many at all because we didn't have—there were very few people who would go to Brooklyn and it was certainly not the cultural, artistic young people's capital it is now. There were a few people—Dennis Oppenheim lived over there. The only reason you really would live there is because if you had some kids and you wanted to send them to school, that would be a possible reason, but –
MR. MCELHINNEY: A little cheaper than Manhattan.
MS. HEISS: Yeah, but as an artist, you wouldn't live there.
MR. MCELHINNEY: No, no.
MS. HEISS: It wasn't –
MR. MCELHINNEY: So were you looking at any other paradigms? Were there any other urban spaces where people were organizing exhibitions?
MS. HEISS: Not with the—not with the intention that I was doing it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: No, well, these like abandoned, blown-out, anthropic, post-calamity.
MS. HEISS: Yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah. I mean like now, you look at Eastern State Pen. [Penitentiary] in Philadelphia or MASS MoCA, you know, this sort of –
MS. HEISS: Well, yes, that's of course, at best, a—they say the '80s or early '90s.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right, but that would be having a look at what you were doing as being a kind of an inspiration.
MS. HEISS: Oh, yes, yes. But those people weren't even out of kindergarten yet so that—they weren't much influenced. Somebody might have been influenced by it. People were most influenced by it, I think, were—well, I mean they don't know. I think it was artists who thought that they could make work there.
I mean I did a lot of performances during that exhibition time. I did Phil Glass. I did Mabou Mines. I did Beckett pieces out on the piers. By the way, it was a very good training for me. I'd done shows in England before in those circumstances, but I hadn't done them in the U.S. and let me—you know, find out who I would be working with.
My most important collaborator was Gordon Matta-Clark, who was very social—was a sort of leader of the clan here. He was a person who had graduated from Cornell, from the—I believe—the architecture school which—the art in architecture at that particular time turned out a lot of contemporary artists.
One of them is Suzie Rothenberg. One of them was Gordon Matta-Clark. There were so many of them that were clustered together. And the famous—the infamous Mary Woronov was up at Cornell, too. So she was a big participant in the—in the Warhol activities. Mary Wronov, before she went to Hollywood and married—I think she married Paul.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Paul Bartel? Yeah.
MS. HEISS: Bartel and did those—Eating Raoul is certainly one of the most important movies of our time.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's terrific.
MS. HEISS: And we're so happy that Mary was in that. But this was a kind of a hilarious uncommitted and very courageous and you know, we weren't—we weren't like the Black Panthers who were going for broke. We were involved with art and it was less of a commitment to do or die. You didn't have to die doing this art.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Hopefully not.
MS. HEISS: Hopefully, and but you could take some pretty big chances.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So were you—were you kind of having a look at this enterprise as being related to like a consciously noncommercial or anti-commercial like Hélio Oiticica, you know, the Brazilian artist and you know, the Tropicália.
MS. HEISS: Who was there at the time and with a friend who I didn't put in the show. He was a very talented artist, but also an extremely talented drug dealer.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: And he—everybody knew him very well because he was one of the –
MR. MCELHINNEY: It was a day job.
MS. HEISS: It was a day job. And he was from a very educated and good family and the only reason he was working as a drug dealer, not for the money but because he had so many friends and he eventually had to just sort of figure out things because he was quite clever and organized. So he just sort of figured out how to supply his friends. It wasn't that he was making much money.
I was never thinking about money at all, not in England, not before, not now, not then. I wanted to work as an organizer of exhibitions. That's really all I ever wanted to do. And thanks be to God, that's what I ended up doing and I have organized the exhibitions in the framework of a big building or a temporary building or a biennale somewhere like Shanghai, China or Paris, France, as we say in Southern Illinois. Where are you going? Paris, France. Paris, Illinois is only a few blocks away. Anyway –
MR. MCELHINNEY: You've got to make the distinction.
MS. HEISS: You've got to make—where I come from, you have to say, yeah, Cuba, IN. [Laughs.] You know, especially Cuba. So that was all that was in my mind and it's—I'm glad that you gave me the opportunity to clarify that. I, of course, when I came back, went for interviews at the museums, at the Whitney, at the Modern.
I didn't have and don't now, a Ph.D., so I wasn't going to be an academic curator or historian. I was going to be a very—and people knew it and I knew it—I was going to be an effective show organizer. The museums didn't need or want that at the time. They had a couple people who were pretty good or not at this, but were actually doing it because the really good original museum people like Alfred Barr—they weren't academics either. They actually were more –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Connoisseurs.
MS. HEISS: They were connoisseurs. And so they were connoisseurs and sometimes, the balance came down on the side of installation. So if they could make it look good enough and look right, then they were doing a good job and at the same time, bought it, they were doing an even better job like Alfred Barr is so you know. And so many of his ilk.
Other people were doing what I was doing but for somewhat different motives. The only—first group that I became really aware of—and they were talking about a period of five years, so people at the end of the five years were years away from me—was a group at 112 Greene Street in SoHo, which was owned by a very, very interesting man named Jeffrey.
And Jeffrey had either won the building in a poker game or gotten the building as a result of a—of a drug deal gone wrong. That's the story he liked best to tell or in fact, had just gotten some Bar Mitzvah money and put it down, much more boring and more probably idea. But in any case, Jeffrey had bought that building at 112 Greene Street.
He lived in the top floor. He had rented other floors out to other people who were very interesting artists and the ground floor was a constant menace because people were breaking into it all the time. So Jeffrey, with the intuition which gave him and all of us years of pleasure, thought, well, I'll just start a gallery there and then it can show my work.
He was only self-directed, but it turned out that he just knew exactly how to start something like this. He was so selfish that he couldn't even put up the barriers that would have kept it in an institutional framework. Instead, he randomly and arbitrarily gave it out—often to two or three people at a time who had to duke it out.
And it became an interesting and lively not-for-profit gallery. So they were the nonprofit gallery and I was the nonprofit and non-organized museum space and we started almost together. Gordon was active in both and we shared mailing lists. We shared everything. And we shared artists.
Richard Nonas was a person who was extremely active and sort of one of my—I hate the word "mentor"—one of my bestest friends in the world. And he lived at 112 Greene Street. So you see, there was just—this was a big crossover.
A couple years later, and this was—it was a terribly important distinction, we received some help—both Jeffrey and I—from the NEA through the guardianship of Brian O'Doherty who, at that time, was also—that was his day name. He was also an artist.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Patrick Ireland?
MS. HEISS: Patrick Ireland.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: So he truly was—he was an—one half of his body was an artist. The other half was a very brilliant demonstrator.
MR. MCELHINNEY: He's got a lot of characters that he's –
MS. HEISS: He has three or four characters. He's also playing doctor.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh yeah.
MS. HEISS: He's a very good doctor.
MR. MCELHINNEY: And a good writer.
MS. HEISS: A piece of—you know, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He's just incredible, incredible.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Extremely fine writer.
MS. HEISS: Very fine. And he also has a—he is, himself, another cross-dresser, but he has all these written—had a woman writer's name that he writes under also. So he has many, many different permutations.
But he was extremely important in Washington because he's such a good advisor and the Washington people recognized that he was so smart and such a good advisor. And also, he had that beautiful accent which well, he even told me. He said, "You're smarter and better if you have an English accent or an Irish accent," at least if not poor Irish. Anyway –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Whoa.
MS. HEISS: You know, no one wants a poor Irish person—and he gave money to us. He gave us a name. He called it "alternative spaces." He had a former category called workshops. He sort of shifted the workshop into the alternative space, bunched it up together and put it out as a support mechanism in cities throughout the United States.
This—it was a like a wildfire and in a couple years, they started proliferating. L.A. started one. San Francisco started one. The Museum of Contemporary Art—there were different reasons behind each, but they were all getting money from Brian's program and they were all pretty much run under those guidelines.
Hallwalls, which became very important in Buffalo, was functioning with Robert Longo as one of their advisors. He was in school there and I knew a little bit about it because of some of the music people that were coming out of Buffalo. And I knew that they needed money, so I took their information with me when I was traveling on the plane to Washington to be a jury and filled it out for Hallwalls and that's how Hallwalls got its first grant. And I just forged the names of the people and put, you know.
So this was a very—it was a very great sphere of very tiny people. We weren't being—we weren't in the museum world and we didn't really want to be in the museum world. I never did join the American museum directors association, although I do wish that I had done that now. Marcia did.
The difference between the New Museum, which started—I don't know when—five, eight years later. With Marcia [Tucker] gotten fired from the Whitney over the Tuttle show and she'd been irritated anyway. She was an extremely good show organizer and a very gifted person who was very plugged in.
And so when she started the New Museum, it is exactly what she said. It was a museum and it was new museum. [Laughs.] So she had everything, trustees. She had documentation, book catalogues. She had collector—collector organizations like Meet the Young Artists. All of us—most of us were really not—we're working against that.
So the New Museum and PS1, which I became largely identified with, were not really rivals in any real sense because they had such radically different working modes and one being Marcia's, one being mine. Both organizations were mirrors to the founders. There you are.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So –
MS. HEISS: They still carry on the same way.
MR. MCELHINNEY: A divergence of purpose.
MS. HEISS: That's right.
MR. MCELHINNEY: A divergence of purpose. Can we talk about how you came to PS1 and how you organized that how –
MS. HEISS: Well, because of the success of the other projects –
MR. MCELHINNEY: —it evolved.
MS. HEISS: —in addition to the Clocktower, which was, I guess, second in my little crumbling real estate empire.
There'd been something called the Bleecker Street Warehouse, which Kent Barwick had been quite interested in. And—as the Municipal Art Society. He was sort of interested in this whole plan because he saw it from another angle, which is city revitalization. He saw it more as something that would be helpful to the life of the city, these sort of grassroots arts things.
And I was much more interested in the—what would be helpful to the art or the exhibition or to the artist, different motives, again. However, the Bleecker Street was a little scary for both of us—Kent and me. It had—it was owned by a private person who was extremely eccentric.
And she was—I mean she was a woman who's married to a man who was paralyzed. Not only could he not walk, but he couldn't speak. And he was in a wheelchair—[laughs]—and he was from Texas and he owned a lot of everything. They lived in Central Park West. And in order to get to Bleecker Street, I went to—with Brendan, my knight in shining armor and we went to visit this woman, who was very young-looking.
Now, I now realize now that she had a great deal of plastic surgery. At the time, I didn't understand what it was that was unusual about her. I mean her face didn't move at all. And Brendan and I explained what we wanted to do with this six-story building on Bleecker and Bowery and she was very interested because her husband owned it and she was trying to think that it could be like a—she could sell it if she could just get rid of the gangs and the rats that occupied it primarily. So this was in her mind, none of this spoken out loud to any of us.
And in any case, I was interested in using unused spaces under different kinds of ownership. Now, I realize I talk about this; it's of no interest to any living person except for myself. I wanted to get a municipal building—that was the Clocktower. I wanted to get a federally owned building. I wanted to get a state agency building. One of those was the Sculpture Museum warehouse in Coney Island.
I wanted to get a privately owned building and I wanted to show how these buildings could be occupied for the use of art and the owners could give them without fear of squatters. So a lot of this had to do with my trying to strategize how people could loan buildings to you without fear of being punished by having squatters move in.
And we were always developing maneuvers which would make owners feel more comfortable. So she was the private owner that we—Brendan and I, and from time to time, Kent, worked with. I think I should tell you that she also largely dressed in southern belle costumes with –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Hoop skirts and peplums.
MS. HEISS: Hoop skirts.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Large straw hats?
MS. HEISS: Sometimes, yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, fiddle-dee-dee.
MS. HEISS: Well, it was really unusual –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Scarlett O'Hara.
MS. HEISS: It was really unusual.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Interesting, though.
MS. HEISS: She had—[inaudible, cross talk].
MR. MCELHINNEY: You said eccentric. You said, "She was eccentric."
MR. MCELHINNEY: I said she was—Brendan was absolutely obsessed with us. He had never, ever seen anyone—I mean, I remind—I remind you that these people weren't in any integrated into the functioning life of New York City. They weren't members of, you know, high society where—they didn't know who Jackie Onassis was.
So anyway, so she didn't always wear hoop skirts. But she had those kinds of clothes, a number of which she gave to me when she tired of them. And I had them—I had them for many, many years. We were somewhat the same size. And I just couldn't—I just couldn't think what to do with them.
MR. MCELHINNEY: You just weren't off to cotillions every week.
MS. HEISS: [Laughs.] I tried to wear them because they were pretty much admired, you know. Anyway, she was an ominous and very, very probably almost evil person, despite—in spite of her bland, wrinkled face. And we took Bleecker Street on as an actual lease and signed it with them, and then tried to underpin it with certain kinds of—with all kinds of clauses which would give her the opportunity to reclaim it.
And Bleecker Street was a building which had suffered a fairly serious fire in the ground two floors, but had been allowed to stay standing for the rest of its four floors. And I did exhibitions in the downstairs two floors, which were charred-black, burned-out spaces without any light and certainly without any water.
And then on the sixth floor, I actually had a space that had both water and it wasn't—it had windows. I never had any windows in Bleecker Street exhibition center that we used. People—you'd go into the exhibition space by crawling over the burned-out window frame. Well, being a big, old-fashioned building, they were two feet from the ground. It wasn't an inconvenience of any kind. You just stepped over this –
MR. MCELHINNEY: What was the street address of the building?
MS. HEISS: The street address was Bleecker. I remember it because I had to put it on so many forms, but I can't actually remember the name right now.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Or you know, the cross –
MS. HEISS: It was Elizabeth and Bowery.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, okay.
MS. HEISS: And Bleecker is across. This is—it's quite a fancy building.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Still standing?
MS. HEISS: Oh, it's full of very, very fancy—a lot of condos. And it has been for thousands of years. The top floor, we tried a studio use. This was a—you know, and the people who had the studios were Mabou Mines and Phil Glass, and some other studio people who became sort of well-known because when I gave up the building, I turned my lease over back to Laura and her still minimally alive husband. And then these people carried on with her.
And it tangled in very long series of post-Greenwich Village Voice fights, which we were not ever involved with. But that was such a—it was a scary situation. It was a very rough situation because Bowery is full of bums. That little corner was full of mostly Italian gangs which used the building on Bleecker Street as a kind of transfer. It was almost an inside highway and they'd run through it all the time. And then they would turn fire hoses on the audiences that would come to see the shows.
Well, Leo Castelli and I worked on those warehouse shows together. I mean, he was very, very interested. He said he had never seen anything like that outside of strange landscapes, burned areas from the Second World War. He couldn't imagine, you know, that there could be such a landscape that would be viable for art. But in fact, there was. And not only did Bob Grosvenor do beautiful shows there, but also Ronnie Bladen did shows there. And it—Cecile Abish did a show there—Richard Nonas, of course.
It claimed a certain kind of art, but it was almost too heavy on the atmospheric side. Grace Glueck reviewed the first show. And at that time, and for many years later, Grace dressed like, I guess, a 1940s movie version of a New York Times girl reporter. She wore very high heels and sort of checked, pencil-thin skirts with suit tops. I never saw her with a hat, but I know she could have—and she came to review that show.
And she didn't mention the fact that we were in an unlit, burned-out building. She never mentioned it. It was—she was the perfect Times reporter. And after that, she was a little shaken when the gangs moved in with the fire hoses.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: So I suggested to her that it was time to go. And we went across the street to the Bowery—to CBGB's, which was a very active place then, as it was until a few years ago. And Grace Glueck interviewed me for the New York Times at CBGB's, which, by the way, she had never been to before. But I think she was able to follow some events there later.
MR. MCELHINNEY: It seems like what you were doing amounted on some level to urban reclamation that inspired other –
MS. HEISS: James, I'm so happy that you decided to be the one to interview me because you've now make my life meaningful. I never thought of that, but of course that was the—that was the major –
MR. MCELHINNEY: What's urban—we talked—we started out the conversation speaking about urban renewal and what really, as you're talking, I'm thinking this is really about urban reclamation, also a way to bring art into the community in a fresh, innovative way.
MS. HEISS: I guess. I'm not so happy signing up for the last—one of the best things, and clearly one of the worst things about me as a leader of these kinds of spaces is that I'm not completely willing to sign up for the arts as a benefactress of the community.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Or just as a way to bring people together in the community.
MS. HEISS: You know, to me, I have—I had a very narrow goal. [Laughs.] And if it got too fuzzy on the edges, then my programs would get very fuzzy. I was making exhibitions of art, the best art that I knew, and putting them together in the best way I could. For me, the best places to do them—I have to tell you, I've become very disenchanted by museum spaces.
And when I worked at museum spaces in London where I was an intern for several museums in the late '60s, I mean, it just wasn't so exciting to do shows in the spaces of the Whitney or MoMA because you couldn't alter the walls or the floors; everything had to be put up on a pedestal, which made anything that was being made at the time meaningless. That's what Richard Serra was all about.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Or hung on the wall in a frame, and light levels –
MS. HEISS: Yes, yes, yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —humidity controls, and all that.
MS. HEISS: Yes, yes, yes. So if you're involved with a living art that is ferociously claiming its time, I wasn't much interested in being a tamer, an art tamer. [Laughs.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right. Making it behave.
MS. HEISS: And then—and I also wasn't—my motive was not just to be nice to the community, which I'm sure will be said about me [in places ?]. Because the really good argument, where all the money was, was to say, "Oh, you're bringing arts to community. Oh, you're making a bond between community and artists."
And I want to tell you that I think that a lot of those things that were successful were simply not—were not—were not broadcast that way. And the ones that were broadcast that way, if that was the primary purpose—purpose isn't—if that was the primary reason, the choice of the artist was probably not, in my mind, right.
So when all the public art panels became convened, initially, I was on a number of them. It is very, very interesting, of course. It was fun. I was making decisions about it in my life as a curator and I was a frequent participant. But I grew disenchanted because I realized that just wasn't for me. I'm not a public-art person; I don't believe that public art should be done by a community, you see.
I used to have a lecture I would give called "Community Brain Surgery". And I did nothing but copy the cant of the appropriate way to address a community meeting talking about art. And instead of "art," I put in "brain surgery."
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: Regular surgery was too close to the actual normal because people would punch, you know, holes in your ears, and things for earrings. But I would say, "Don't let people from outside your community be surgeons for your brains. Your brains should be in the hands of community members. Look at your neighbor; look at yourself and ask yourself, who would I rather have do my brain surgery—my neighbor or some doctor who doesn't care?"
And that was really a pivotal—a pivotally important thing for years. It wasn't only just funny; I thought it was very true. I didn't see why an artist should be good for a community. And I didn't see why community members should be part of the choosing mechanism. And I still don't understand it. I think that that's how you get bad art. But you know, I'm alone in this.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Interesting. Well, there has always been a debate in America between the responsibility that government has to cultural endeavors and that goes back to the 19th century. And it just occurs to me that as we're talking, this period of time that we're in—mid-'60s to 1980 is also the period when you see the rise of the percent for art programs.
MS. HEISS: Yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Empire State Plaza up in Albany, just as another—
MS. HEISS: Yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —example; the rise of alternative spaces in urban areas where artists are the pioneers in urban reclamation.
MS. HEISS: Right.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Inhabiting and saving a lot of buildings that were not razed by [Robert] Moses, [Edmund] Bacon and others in the name of urban renewal.
MS. HEISS: We're talking about a conversation which you and I are having now, and which fortunately for me a very, very able, critical and—participant in this conversation for many years.
But the conversation itself is really very, very narrow between the participants. They all want the same thing; why they want it is a little bit different. And my problem with it is, I really don't believe that the—I have to say, I don't believe that it's moral—[laughs]—to use great art for community reasons, mainly because I think it doesn't work.
But I also think that there's a—there's an immorality in the order in which that's looked at. Obviously, that's not a popular position and I stopped being on public-art panels. I decided that was not something I should be a part of because I shouldn't have that attitude and be on those—on those deciding –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, but it's a voice. It's another point of view.
MS. HEISS: It's another point of view, but it's probably not the best voice there when people are struggling or trying so hard to see it kept down. My colleague, Tom Finkelpearl, who is my—I'm so proud that he was a protégé. And I've worked with him off and on for many, many, many years, Tom.
He started working at PS1 as a part-time press person. It was—he was hired because he had a—his other part-time job was delivering flowers with a flower truck. And I thought that he could use the opportunity—I could use the opportunity for this guy driving around with flowers to also deliver, you know, press releases and stuff.
And then, as he became—it became clearer and clearer that he was really a horrible press person. He couldn't, you know, put together a press release; he couldn't deliver; and he couldn't sell it to anybody. Tom is an extremely gracious and civilized man. And he could no more get on the phone with the listing service of the Village Voice and say what they have—what we were doing than he could, you know, fly a kite.
But since he proved an untenable employee in all these issues, but since I liked him, he proved to be a brilliant colleague in the developing PS1, which he did do. And he was one of the several people who are integral to that. And he worked for six or seven years with me at that time. One of those years, I asked him to be the manager of the Clocktower, where you and I are sitting now. So Tom and I are very close; and we remain close to this minute.
I thought that if he went to the Clocktower, he wouldn't do something which I would figure as going native. When people were sent over to the Clocktower from PS1, which is a highly, huge social meeting place always with all the staff—we only ever had 17 staff, but we were in everybody's spaces all the time and eating and going out together at night.
And you go to the Clocktower, people would go native. And you wouldn't see them anymore. They wouldn't come home; they wouldn't give reports. And sooner or later, you'd start hearing about these things happening, or I would hear about things happening that I didn't know anything about. So they'd be running away. Like in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the Clocktower represented a kind of African version of Colonel [Walter E.] Kurtz. And that, you know—
[End of disc.]
MS. HEISS: [In progress]—and I pulled him back. He left PS1 and went directly to the Percent for Art Program. So you see, something that I'm proud of that I've done all my life is support and work with people whose motivations are different than mine but who I believe in and—they believe that it's healthy to have these growing, strong, independent organizers.
Mainly what I want, I want smart people who look at art in an important way but also have a great deal of ambition. And I like to work with those people, and in many cases, I've made such good judgments that now they're placed in places where they want to be, where we want them to be also, more importantly.
I mean, Thomas, the head of the Queens Museum—which is a smaller job for him than he could have had but one which he wants because the Queens Museum is a place where he can actually try out his principles of community interaction and so many of the things that he worked towards when he wrote the book on public art and when he did the Percent for Art Program.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right, that's over there in the old campus of the 1963 World's Fair.
MS. HEISS: He's kind of a lefty, you know—yes, yes. And Chris Dercon, who worked at PS1 in the mid-'80s, is now—just been appointed the head of the Tate Modern. And Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who is a curator, along with Klaus Biesenbach in the '90s, who I plucked out of Rome and insisted that she come to New York, where she was missing the raising of her little toddler girl and everything.
But she was very, very good, a very good curator, and finally she went back to be with her family. But right now, she's the head of Documenta, which is a very important show in Europe. So and then with Klaus Biesenbach, who is a strong friend of 15 years who's now the director of PS1 and also sections of MoMA.
And so all over the world, you can see people who I've worked with in the PS1 structure, either Clocktower or PS1, it doesn't matter, and have gone onto develop their own, singularly—in many cases, more successful than me, careers. But I feel very proud that they worked on these enterprises.
And I think the strength of my organization, and certainly of the reason I would be worth the Archives of American Art being interested, is that so many of those ideas, mine and theirs, in either conflict or in resolution, have been a part of this growing thing. I think, really, the big legacy is that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, the alternative to the traditional museum space, which in 1970 was really only 100 years old—
MS. HEISS: Yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: But the need for there to be an alternative, I hear you say, is to give a chance for artists whose work is strong, speaks to the moment in which they're living and working—a way to exhibit outside of all of the constraints of patronage and the expectations of a community, that the work is going to be somehow socially salubrious—and stick it in a ruin somewhere, where people can just find it.
And my question is, I guess, if there is an alternative space, then what is the alternative expectation about audience and what you're delivering to that audience and what you hope they come away with as a result of the encounter?
MS. HEISS: Once again, you have put your finger on the most important question. Well, the most important question is who you choose. That's, for me, the most important question.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Artists who you exhibit—
MS. HEISS: Which artist you choose, yeah. So a secondary, but very crucial question, is who gets to see it and how do they get there? [Laughs.] I wasn't working with artists who wanted to do their work in spaces which were illegal and didn't want anybody to see it. I wasn't working with recluses. I was not working with Lucas Samaras.
So my promise—the kind of moral contract which I feel I, as an organizer, had with an artist—was not that I would fund their work—that has become ideally and enviably a necessary thing now to people who organize these spaces all over. But I wasn't going to fund their actual work. I was going to—my responsibility was to claim the space, to organize a space in such a way that they could put their work there and generally expect to find it if—when they returned the next day.
Now, that in itself was a very big deal. So for sure, part of my contract was, I can't assure you of this, I can't defend it, but I can try to defend it within the realms of our understanding of what could happen. So it had to be pretty discussed, because I didn't hire guards. I wouldn't hire guards for these things. That would have been the work of an insane person.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.] Well, how about hiring the gangs to guard the art?
MS. HEISS: I have hired gangs many, many, many times in my life.
MR. MCELHINNEY: How do you pay them?
MS. HEISS: Always in cash.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, okay. [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: When I turned PS1 into a high-entrance, public space, which was after we took the big city money and with the first renovation, when I felt we had to turn it into a space which was open to the public, I then started hiring real guards—not Madonna and her friends, but, you know, real guards.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Not bar bouncers.
MS. HEISS: Not bar bouncers. I just—then I hired gangs. We called them the avant-garde, and they were all from housing centers and who guards the guards? They were really, really effective guards and worked up—for about six or seven years, they were the guards that guarded PS1, and nothing ever happened at PS1 when those guards were guarding it.
Other things happened which caused me to dismantle the avant-garde, but not because anything had ever been damaged. But early on, I'm just talking about when I was a client of the arts because the space—the idea of the reason they had been asked, the opportunity to go in there. Sometimes my contract—this is all in my mind—my moral contract, sometimes it included light; often it did not. Sometimes it included water, but rarely a toilet.
And then as you go through these practicalities, the last part of the contract is, who's going to come and why are they going to come and how are you promoting this? So I had believed at the time—this was long before the Internet, which I also invented with Al Gore—that if the organizing body was made known and the shows were done in different places, the invitations didn't have to always accompany the same place.
This became truly understandable in the late '80s or the mid-'80s, when raves started happening, because in the early '70s, I was using the same organizational techniques as were later used for raves, in which I also, by the way, was so interested in raves and how they worked that I was very much a participant at about three or four different raves, to my great knowledge.
But these were—they got down to it—when a big rave would be happening and the organizers—I would never the top organizer, I assure you, I wouldn't know enough to do that—they had a hierarchy of phone calls that would go out, and the last phone call person—it would happen in phone booths all over—would have the address of the party.
And I think—I remember seeing about 2,000 people come within two hours. This is just phenomenal. And they stayed there as long as they could, and eventually the police would arrive and they would chase them out. These are both indoor and outdoor raves.
I went to two of them in Europe, one in—outside of Hamburg, one in France and then one in England and then two here in the United States, one in Detroit and one in this area, in New York. It was very, very, very interesting to observe through popular music how that can happen.
And in the '70s, on a tiny scale, because I wasn't organizing a dance party with ecstasy and Kraftwerk. I was inviting people to see Cecile Abish's almost invisible sculpture with little—a couple little whiskers of I don't know what. So we're not talking about the same era of public madness.
We're talking about a way of transmitting information. And that was through the mail and through posters, and that's—and through word of mouth and through artists' communities. That's how we did it. That's how everybody did it, but that's how I did it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: And what kind of posters?
MS. HEISS: Well, anyone that we could find the money to do.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Just anything, just anything.
MS. HEISS: Just anything. I mean, of course, they were mixed with rock posters, as our worlds were mixed, also. We couldn't do the same kinds of posters as the rock people could do, because they actually had real money behind them. But we often had the same people doing the rock posters. The artist would do it for their rocker friends and then the artist would do it for themselves. And then we used the same sniper companies. You know what those are?
MR. MCELHINNEY: No. Tell me.
MS. HEISS: The sniper companies are loosely knit organizers who themselves never go onto the street but who hire bands of people who are streetwise. Some of them could even be students. It has to be people who don't mind spending a night in jail—who just don't mind it and maybe even enjoy it, for whatever reason.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: And they just go up around the city and they snipe. They put up, with wallpaper paste, the posters and they put up over other posters. And now, with the Internet, posters are not very important anymore. But, certainly, in the '70s and '80s, posters were really, really important.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right. Right.
MS. HEISS: And so snipers were really, really, really important. And they were also part of a family which included graffiti artists but were not the same as graffiti artists. A graffiti artist would be a lousy sniper because they would not be able to walk away and leave it untagged.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: So you surely weren't hiring graffiti artists. But often in the same family, there'd be someone whose brother was doing sniping, which was well-paid, of course.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So you just slap the posters over top of anything else, on any wall, on any surface?
MS. HEISS: Yeah. Yeah. Specific surfaces, you know, you went for, where it was likely to—mostly around—if it's around clubs, like CBGB—want those. And you'd go for it. But you weren't putting up billboards. We never got any billboards.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Lampposts or –
MS. HEISS: Lampposts were hugely important.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Bus shelters –
MS. HEISS: Bus shelters were very important.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Subways, too, I would imagine.
MS. HEISS: Subways.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yes.
MS. HEISS: Well, if I remember correctly, when I was really using snipers, there were two or three loosely knit organizations. And they were very competitive. And you had to get people who had deals with other snipers because if one group would go out at 2:00 a.m., the 6:00 a.m. people—you didn't want them putting it up over the 2:00 a.m. So if the snipers were having fights with each other, then they would just be re-postering in a kind of Ramon Hance [ph] situation, you know.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Funny.
MS. HEISS: Yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Sort of like the film Gangs of New York, where you've got the competing fire companies, you know –
MS. HEISS: Yes.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Arguing over who's going to put out the fire.
MS. HEISS: That's very good; that's very good.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So that sort of dangerous edge of art—you seem to be living on sort of a—you know, the demi-monde or the sort of underbelly of art –
MS. HEISS: To the extent it—to the extent it existed. And of course, it always sounds more fun when you—and more heroic when you talk about it in the past. The people who are really living on the edge, James, were really not us.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: The people who were really pushing the edge were, first of all, the true political dissidents. And I really didn't know them.
MR. MCELHINNEY: The late '60s, though—I mean, you had had the whole hippie be-in phenomenon and love-in, which is sort of like a prior manifestation of raves.
MS. HEISS: Well, that was very important to all of us because I was 20 years old—18, 19, 20 years old when that happened. And that was a major thing in my life, to—hippies were really important to all of us. To see them, to know what they'd given up, to know what fun they were having, to know what great music they had.
And when I came back from England and went—tried to decide where to live, went across the country by motorcycle twice and—I think I told you—stopped at these communes and tried to decide. But I'm too lazy and hate domestic labor, so I would never be able to live in a commune—[inaudible].
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: Places and castles and so on. But seeing them made you aware that there were other things which one had chosen not to do. But I'm talking about the urban—the urban denizens. People were hiding. By the times of the '70s, people had gone underground. Abbie Hoffman had gone underground—all these people. And they were—it was known where they were, mostly, by the art—by the artworks.
And the end of that was—I'm not saying there was no end—Robert Fiore, who was married, at the time, to Marcia Tucker, if I have it right. Maybe they weren't married. They were a very strong couple. And he was a very, very strong political filmmaker.
And he did a beautiful movie called Winter Soldiers which we were on the verge of, all of us in the teams around 112 Greene Street and the Clocktower—we were all on the fringe of that. We all watched that being made. Jane Fonda was involved in that; Tom Hayden was involved, raising money for that. And Winter Soldiers is a very beautiful investigation of the Vietnam War veterans and what was happening to them as they came out from Vietnam and what was going on.
But the underground that were supporting activities like this were really underground. And that's, you know, Bernadine—what's-her-name was living on the Upper West Side, serving beer to Columbia students under the guise of a waitress. I forget how she was caught. I think one of them recognized her from a picture in their book or something. Bernadine Dohrn.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, right. Well, sometimes I think a lot of people want, at the end of the day, to get credit for what they did, whether it be a criminal or political refugee.
MS. HEISS: Yes. Abbie was like that. He came in. He came in. Abbie Hoffman's story: I knew a curator very well, whose name I, for reasons, will not tell you, but he was in touch with Abbie Hoffman because he was in touch with a woman who was living with Abbie Hoffman, who was an ex-model. We're talking about a lot of beautiful people here.
And so when my son, who was about nine or 10, was doing a report—his school, at the time, was Trinity—and he was very interested in anarchy, as young boys are—I think that's the definition of young boys—dash—anarchy. Anyway, I said, "Well, you should be looking at Abbie Hoffman and all the really important things he did." "Oh, well, I'd like to," he said.
So I actually put him in touch with Abbie Hoffman. It was just wonderful for him. He interviewed him by phone but not our phone—other phones on the street, public ones, the whole thing, because Abbie was really not in town. He was really far upstate. And then he did the paper. And then he somehow—he can tell the story.
I can't remember how Abbie got to see the paper but he was—he gave him two or three interviews and he did this paper. Lockie [ph] must have been 11. And he didn't get a very good grade on it. He got a C. This is amazing because this was the first interview that Abbie Hoffman had done in five years. Lockie [ph] got a C.
That didn't upset me very much. I was just glad he'd gotten it done. But it really, really upset Abbie Hoffman. He said, "I deserve better than a C." [Laughs.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: Very funny.
MS. HEISS: Yes and amazing.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Why was it—was the C just the evaluation of the merit of the work? I mean, for an 11-year-old kid –
MS. HEISS: I'm sure that was—I'm sure that's part of it. I'm sure that's part of the thing. But I think it was also a rejection by the teacher—I mean, I'm sure it wasn't written—well, I don't remember about that.
But I think it was also a rejection of the celebrity awe with which that age was beginning to have for the hippies and for Abbie and for a number of those people. It's like believing in Zorro or something. Everybody wants to be Zorro and everybody wants to be Abbie Hoffman. And the school wasn't having any of that. They weren't about to go along with a—making a figure like that, who kids should not admire, according to that school, iconic.
So that was, I think, part of it. And I think that's what Abbie was reacting to, too. He couldn't understand why he couldn't get a good grade at a good American private school, one that Humphrey Bogart had been kicked out of, no less. I mean, it was why Lockie [ph] went. [Laughs.]
I think that's the job of schools like it is of museums, is to make you feel always on edge that you can't be in a place, that you have to work hard to stay in a place which is—excludes other people. The exclusion principle in art is true for all over every form of society. It's the Groucho Marx rule: You never want to be in a club –
MR. MCELHINNEY: That would have you as a member.
MS. HEISS: That would have you as a member. So that same rule is for museums too. You don't want to be in a museum where they would have lots of people you don't think are very good.
Your question about anti-museums –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, not anti, but alternative, something else.
MS. HEISS: Not anti, but alternative museums are a very important thing to me. I transferred out of the alternative space, of which the Clocktower is a prime example, into building an alternative museum, which was about taking the responsibility for long-term paying the bills for the heat, for the light, for the roof—the very thing that, as guerilla organizers, you're not taking responsibility for.
All you do with guerilla is you take the space, you make shows, you promote them and you go and throw tomatoes at the big boys. And when you take on a space like PS1, you are saying, okay, I'm a big boy too and—but I'll run it differently. And that was my motto. That's why I stayed with it until two years ago. That also became my life.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, the museums, perhaps, in other parts of the country and elsewhere that have satellites or what they deem to be satellites see them as outreach, perhaps, more than as alternatives in the sense that –
MS. HEISS: What do you mean?
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, I don't know. I mean the –
MS. HEISS: Let's call it the Geffen Center, for instance.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Okay.
MS. HEISS: There's the MOCA building that was built by—not Issey Miyake, but what's the other great architect who did the MOCA building, which is a tiny little beautiful jewel in L.A.? Oh, yes, a great Japanese architect. Know him—had the wife in the wheelchair and da, da, da, da. It'll come to both of us.
And that's really very tiny. So when they had the—the necessity of running a huge warehouse, that became the Temporary Contemporary—brilliant wordage, by the way, by Richard Koshalek, Temporary Contemporary. He wrote that. He made that up. That was no more an annex than an elephant would be to a fly. I mean it was the headquarters.
And so then you had a kind of division between the kind of shows that would be organized, one in the Temporary Contemporary, now the Geffen Center. And the other is this tiny little marketing tool.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I see.
MS. HEISS: So one kind of person could go to the beautiful little jewel and wear high heels and see a show that had frames. Another kind of person or actually the same person in different clothes—you could—Hollywood, there's a lot of stylists. It just could be style in a different way. Then go to the beautiful Temporary Contemporary and see grand pieces without pedestals. So that's really a very schizophrenic and very well-organized dichotomy.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I guess—I guess what I meant to say or ask was that it—as it's been observed that over the last 40 years, the art business related to universities, museums and so forth has gotten increasingly corporate in its spirit and that perhaps, some of these very energetic callings that led to the birth of alternative spaces around the country and ultimately to some of these making alliances with the museums apart from which they were trying to establish –
MS. HEISS: Okay, well let me—I see, maybe you're leaning out to discussion of the merger between PS1 and the Museum of Modern Art.
MR. MCELHINNEY: I am.
MS. HEISS: Okay.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Shall we cut to the chase?
MS. HEISS: Yeah. We can also talk about a few other things that aren't—are not what that was.
MR. MCELHINNEY: But also, sort of the trend towards a more corporate model in terms of the way these establishments are being run.
MS. HEISS: Oh, that's really—you have to layer that question off.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Okay. Well, let's just talk about MoMA.
MS. HEISS: Let's talk about people who were interested in having annexes. We—sometimes, it happened because there were people within the same family of patrons. One person liked one kind of art more than another kind of art. And since these families were paying for the museums anyway, it was sort of easier to actually have one family member backing the Seattle Art Museum and another family member backing the alternative space. And they were in many ways, united by co-patrons, by co-patronage.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Consanguinity. [They laugh.]
MS. HEISS: Consanguinity. Otherwise, you had new art spaces pulling money from the museums, which they started to do at a very, very successful rate because museums just drain everybody of museum. They're just vacuum cleaners of money. You look at a museum. If your money is still in the pocket and you're standing in the lobby of a museum, you just better hold your hand on it because it's nothing but a vacuum cleaner for your money.
Every square inch of that has been fought over and named something and every square inch is guarded by idiotic principles for idiotic things and it's supporting a huge hierarchy of secretaries and conservatories and all this sort of thing.
But I believe that the major reason that a number of far-sighted, interesting—oh, we'll call them visionary—visionary museums took on large annexes which were even larger than they were, had to do with real estate and had to do with the pressures that they were—were on them to enlarge their real estate at their home base.
Such is the situation with the Tate and the Tate Modern. The Tate, although an important and leading museum in London and [Nicholas] Serota being the visibly most prominent figurehead, actor—he was more than a figurehead. He was a very active figurehead. Couldn't do much as long as it was located in same dumb, old space with those –
MR. MCELHINNEY: In Chelsea. Yeah, yeah.
MS. HEISS: Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Tate Britain, now.
MS. HEISS: Tate Britain, now, which you know, is fine. It's a lovely building, but you're not going to—you're not going to kill yourself—no one is going to kill themselves over Tate Britain and you can only organize your sort of suite [ph] shows, sometimes very nice shows, but obvious—characteristically small.
So when he took on Tate Britain, they gave him horse in the big race of the big spaces that were more—like Centre Pompidou or this or that or these big building spaces. I mean face it. PS1 is many times the size of most of the prominent museums like Tate Britain. It's like three times—[laughs]—the size. Imagine how much more we can simply do than this jewel box. And it's like a thousand times the cost.
So people get restless. And having cheap real estate, which what these alt. spaces are, cheap real estate, are a very good argument to the museum board. They also have to do with storage because everybody gets tired of paying all these storage rates, these gigantic warehouses and storing all their precious art.
And then they could be having an annex at the same time that they were—you could be part of their new—their storage thing as has been done by a number of visionary museum directors.
So we have to really look at the annexes, whether you're trying to keep contemporary art organizations from draining off your collectors who want to be with younger people or with art they love or you're trying to keep your voice in the big game with the other big museum guys. Oh, what you're doing. You know, there's a lot of reasons for doing it.
And I'm proud to say that in the case of MoMA and PS1, those reasons weren't true. [Laughs.] I mean the only reason that we had were the personal reasons that Glenn and I had. And then the depersonalized sauce which we shared with our boards. And with the activity that ended, which was a merger.
And those really had a lot to do with an interest in continuing the big alternate museum in a way that it could continue to be an alternate to a museum. And the year 2000 seemed to me the most interesting thing to do would be an actual—to set up a merger. So that question would already be done and I could, with my colleague, Glenn Lowry, the director of the real museum, answer that question as best we could.
So it wasn't a question that was being thrown out and answered sometime later when the whole building was run long after my existence. It was an answer that we'd come to right then. Well, how would that work? And how could it work? And how could we make it work? It was interesting enough to think that we could try to make it work and knew that we would give ourselves eight years to that, that it was worth doing. And that's what we did.
It was really not about moving PS1 into MoMA and it certainly wasn't about MoMA moving into PS1. Many people who are very involved with both places had quite different ideas about why it was a good or bad move. And one of those reasons was certainly discussed a lot at the time, which is would it make sense, after PS1 got cleaned up, to then put pieces that were in the MoMA collection which were not being seen at MoMA at PS1 and you could see them well there. So that's a legitimate question. And we'll see what's going to happen with that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Was, during, you know, the renovation, a lot of the collections that MoMA were exhibited ever in Queens?
MS. HEISS: Well, yes, but this is a—wasn't in PS1.
MR. MCELHINNEY: No, it wasn't in PS1, but –
MS. HEISS: Well, that's very—it's a very—that's a very important thing that you said because if Glenn had wanted to use PS1 as an annex for minimal and post-minimal work, he surely would have tried to do that instead of taking on this huge building in Queens which I had nothing to do with and which he didn't involve me in at all and which was going to be used as a future storage and conservation back office in which he made his curators do shows there for three years.
And it was dumbfounding to me that he would do that because it was a very awful space to do shows in and it was a very singularly bad location for uninstructed people to come to. I really know a lot about locations. I'm really good at it. And one of the things you ought to know when you choose it is are you—you have to know where you're there in a big city. You have to know where you're there. Where are you?
And the problem with BAM from the beginning that Harvey just—you know—wasted, not wasted because he succeeded after 28, 30 years of bashing his head against walls is not only you have to leave the borough of Manhattan, which is almost impossible to do unless you have typhoid shots, cholera shots, the whole thing, all those shots you need in passports.
But then, once you're there, you have to know where you are. And when you're at BAM, you don't know where you are because you can't see in the landscape anything that tells you you're in Devon or you're in—you're in Cornwall or Miami or wherever you are. You can't see. And the Queens annex where MoMA set up its temporary shop, you had no idea where you were.
At PS1, you know exactly where you are because when you go out in the air and you stare, you can see where you are. You can see the bridge. You can usually see the water. You can certainly see the over-subway thing and you have a geographic location in your body.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: And that's what you have to have in order for people to find you in a complex city like we have, which is not just an empty landscape with –
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's just a branded location. It's a vessel that's an interpretive tool that prepares you to experience what –
MS. HEISS: It's a vessel—that your physical body knows where you are.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right.
MS. HEISS: Now, it can be that the person with you doesn't know where they are because they haven't figured that out yet. But somebody in the group has to know where they are. That's how you get there. And MoMA QNS, which was now PS1, you never knew where you were. And after three years, I probably fled with joy.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: With joy. I had trouble finding out where I was when I was very far away from PS1. The Noguchi Museum, which is a very beautiful museum and I think extremely successful and well, well run for shows, has had different problems with knowing where you are according to how Noguchi cited it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, it's kind of, you know, industrial, anonymous setting.
MS. HEISS: Yes. It looks like a Bernd and Hilla Becher landscape. But at least it is a landscape and you can see—when Noguchi set it up, he knew where he was and then he built a big high wall because he didn't want everyone to be where he was.
The Astoria location of the Museum of Film—what's it called—Moving Image. They've always had a really big problem. You don't know where you are there. You knew more where you were—and this is all my own—Brooklyn Museum, you know where you are. You just know it.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, as one of those establishments that was created a hundred years ago or more that was a grand –
MS. HEISS: Urban.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah.
MS. HEISS: A grand park around it so you had an idea where the sky is. And the Museum of Natural History, you know where you are. You pretty much know where the park is, which is all you need to know in Manhattan.
Anyway, people from Europe are not bothered by the—Manhattan's singularity of occupation. And I ask many of my friends, including Panza di Biumo, the great collector from Italy and many other close friends of mine were on the board or otherwise to decide with me in 1996 upon whether PS1 was a place that had enough of its own location that you could do it.
And all of them—all of them felt it was and that was a good location. Now, later on, I came to regret that. I was there because it's always fun to run a new restaurant or a new, hip location. But after 10 years, your hip location becomes dead so then it has to have other reasons to –
MR. MCELHINNEY: It becomes—it becomes a conventional venue.
MS. HEISS: A conventional venue.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Everybody knows.
MS. HEISS: So everybody knows. So then there have to be other reasons that people come and I started worrying about that. It was another challenge later. However, the reasons that we merged with MoMA were—we were—Glenn didn't want to keep—he wasn't afraid money from MoMA was going to be deflected to PS1, the New Museum and these other sort of quasi-institutional estates.
And he wasn't very interested in that and that wasn't a fear of his. And why he really did it would have to be a question that we form to him. And I think that reasons for him have changed over the years as he's gone through the process of you know, digesting PS1, which is, you know, not a well-cooked pot roast. [Laughs.] There's a lot of indigestion in that meal—[laughs]—when you're trying to swallow a great big PS1. Your stomach is rumbling for years.
But I know we shared, in the very beginning, certain reasons that there were not. I do know what reasons were not. And another reason that was not is because we were not facing any financial terror. We were in the best shape. We had just finished the renovation of PS1, which took three years and we were open for business. We'd done dynamite opening shows in 1998.
And Klaus had joined the team. Then I had—Caroline [ph] was on the team. And then I have great curators and a lot of revolving shows. And the only fiscal encumbrance was $140,000 loan which we had with the bank which we had never been more than one month away from paying.
It was not a burden. It was way we just kept—we could have paid it back, but it seemed better to keep that as a kind of a reserve. That loan was a kind of bank account that we kept up. It wasn't a problem loan. I mean a lot of spaces merge because they have crippling financial future. Ours was just fine.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah, that's what a lot of people would assume, that especially in a changing environment, that this is some kind of consolidation, you're circling the wagons, but that wasn't the case.
MS. HEISS: In our case, it's that time that was not the case. Later on, years were such that I was very thankful that we had merged because I was able to, as one ideally hoped, continue on with press and various other back-office things that MoMA had very good things but that was not the—finance was not the original reason.
It was really about a new idea of how this confrontation had worked between the greatest—arguably—the greatest museum in the United States and the most—certainly, the largest—alternative space, if it weren't the greatest. There's no doubt that it was the largest because MASS MoCA doesn't really use all those spaces in the same way.
You know, I'm out with measuring tape all the time seeing how big is MASS MoCA because I'm always, you know, jealous that they could be bigger. They are bigger –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Square feet, yeah.
MS. HEISS: Square feet. Well, yeah, in the beginning, they weren't because they were only using one building. I'm talking about very practical things. And then later, Joseph and I've had lots of fun meetings about how they're bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger—and they really are bigger than we are now.
Deichtorhallen and the only museum in Europe that was as big as we were, square-foot big, the director, who was a lively man who has since—not run away, but left the position—I think retired. I make it sound like he went to jail. He didn't go to jail. But he most certainly left the position very quickly.
But he was a friend for many years because he and I were either—one of us was always the biggest museum in the world—space—exhibiting space without a collection. They have no collection either. And he finally built a kind of—what we would call a breezeway over the empty area between his building which allowed a director's car parking.
And as long as it was just the roof and I went to see it and I said, "No, this doesn't qualify because it's just a roof over this; you can't count it." And he listened to that very carefully. And then he decided to encase it and park his car next to it. So he encased it and at that point, they became bigger than us. So this was how much fun we had with the biggest –
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's like skyscraper races in the early 20th century.
MS. HEISS: It was—we would be laughing all the way to the opening on these, you know, he would be sending me telegrams saying, "Work is going well." And then I was always trying to—practical reasons, dreaming about getting the Van Alst Hardware store, which is that strange pie-shaped brick building that intrudes into the center of the PS1 outdoors—outdoor exhibition areas.
And I thought if I got that, I'd be bigger, back again.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So after the merger, how did it—how did it change the way that the space was administered?
MS. HEISS: Well, it didn't change so much for a number of years. MoMA had many people on their board who were also on the board or original founders of PS1 like Aggie Gund. And they were terribly anxious for PS1 not to turn into a MoMA. Glenn certainly said he was terribly anxious. I mean, there was no reason he wanted that space, eccentric and valid as it was, to turn it into what he just had on 54th Street. He was trying to build the new MoMA.
And that was a pain in the ass, and a lot of money and, you know, horrible—horribly burdensome project which he had on his shoulders, which he was bearing a lot with all the loans and the bonds and harnessing the architects and the funders and selling out for him. I mean, that's a huge thing and he didn't –
MR. MCELHINNEY: And also, you know, the residential aspect of—yeah.
MS. HEISS: The residential thing. And why did—he didn't want to just have that same deal going on across the river. I think that Glenn is very smart and cagey and marshals his resources. And I think he was just—I think he just liked the idea. [Laughs.] I think it was the one thing in his life that wasn't begging him for money. I mean, our budgets, remember, were about a million [dollars] a year. We're talking about—their lobby would cost a larger amount.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, yeah. Well –
MS. HEISS: So what a pleasure to come in on something which was refreshing. And he was a young man, yeah. I'm only a few years older than he is, so that was fun. We had a lot of fun together. He knew that. He respected me for what I accomplished. So we were two people who were—each of us encountering brand new things. I was encountering being a senior curator within the structure of MoMA, attending all those meetings which originally were really a lot of fun to go to.
And for me, it was looking inside, looking to a museum that I had, you know, always suspected but not known very much about, and getting a chance to lob some of the PS1 ideals into that tennis court, to use a very bad metaphor. But I think that metaphor now has to always be compared to Mr. Obama's great new metaphor, which he's using about the Republicans and about all the Democrats pushing the car to try to get out of the ditch. And then, now the Republicans want to jump into the car into the driver's seat. And I've been thinking about that a lot, so –
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.] Well, it seems like the new MoMA, the renovated MoMA, has perhaps learned some of the lessons of the alternative spaces by creating some of these large event spaces—that huge atrium –
MS. HEISS: Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —and the way that the interface works between the street, the lobby, the courtyard, the cafés where 30 years ago, you would see one kind of person over in Rockefeller Center, and a very quiet, serious atmosphere at MoMA. Now, it seems like it's become more part of the street life and the community. And people who didn't go into the museum before are finding their way into those exhibition rooms.
MS. HEISS: I think MoMA is very successful.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, yeah. Sure, sure.
MS. HEISS: And I think that the—if you're judging success by numbers—which 80 percent [of] everybody is, except for me. I really see the reverse. I'm really very uninterested, fortunately for me, in numbers. But the numerical—numbers show that they're right, and show that the new structure is good and, I guess you could say, right.
I'm not a fan of the atrium. I really hated that totemic, famous—what was it, the Barnett Newman thing that they had in the center. Oh, it was just the worst possible thing.
MR. MCELHINNEY: [Laughs.]
MS. HEISS: It just was so wrong, you know, for that.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, space overpowers anything that's in it.
MS. HEISS: Anything.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah.
MS. HEISS: And so I think that particularly—and of course, I'm always with the horses in my own stable. [Neighs.] I thought—I think that Klaus Biesenbach has made the most extraordinary inroads into making successful use of atrium spaces for art by using it as a space for media art. I just think it's a brilliant solution; it wasn't one that the architect intended. I mean, they saw it as a banquet hall.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Well, it's a party room.
MS. HEISS: It's a party room. But Klaus turned it into—as a Pipilotti Rist show; he turned it into Marina Abramović. And you had all these people seeing it as a kind of art event—art event, but for art, not for some patron's wife to do her Valentine's party or something.
Anyway, I never liked the atrium; I liked the garden. Everybody loved the garden. And I think that it's still pretty good. They didn't ruin the garden.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Oh, yeah. No, absolutely.
MS. HEISS: And of course, you and I both have memories of it as a temporary music-and-jazz space. You know, I hated the interim new MoMA so much, the place where Louise Bourgeois did the opening show. And we all went there excited, only to realize that we were actually in the basement. [Laughs.] It was just horrible. I didn't know how she did that show. It was remarkable. It was like eight feet tall. I mean, it was this most shallow basement rooms, and they were all the contemporary galleries. No memory of that is even left.
And so I think that spatially, although MoMA's architecture is not what you would fall in love with, it somehow doesn't get in the way so much as other branded museums do. It just doesn't –
MR. MCELHINNEY: It's less rarified now; that's true.
MS. HEISS: It's less rarified; it's homogenous. It's not lovable; it's not—you know, you don't think about the architect—the high—which was one of the architect's goals, that you wouldn't think about him. But the highly branding architects like Gehry and now Jean Nouvel and Hal Foster, they're all about artists' egos and how they can make a space magical by inhabiting it with their work. And I just think they're terrible people to do museums because they don't understand what museums are there—they understand perfectly. They don't want to—they don't want to –
MR. MCELHINNEY: They want the building to be the art –
MS. HEISS: That's their—that's their—[inaudible]—space, yeah. They're not doing any –
MR. MCELHINNEY: Not a vessel for art.
MS. HEISS: Hold your hands, and use it as a stirrup for the person to get on the horse—that's not their game, so—[inaudible].
I think that time in the next five years will be very important to tell whether the merger with MoMA was just an oddity, whether it was an interest that could go beyond my leadership and could be in fact carried over by the next leader, who is Klaus, or whether it just—those things don't work past the actual people. It was always something that Glenn and I worried about because in the end, we ran PS1 as a personal operation. We never were able exactly to depersonalize it. There was no committee it could go onto. Everything in MoMA is a committee.
But PS1 didn't work as a committee because the committees couldn't line it up; it couldn't be corporately run in the same way. We'd make lists; like, press could be the same, finance could be the same. All these things were done—intelligently done. Everybody tried to do it. And they worked, sort of.
MR. MCELHINNEY: But leadership style, how it actually works day to day, is going to be really different.
MS. HEISS: Leadership style—that was really the question of the leaders. And it had to be done at the director's level because the MoMA curators weren't on—the senior curators who are the most important parts of the moving puzzle of MoMA, to art—they weren't interested in running guerrilla spaces. They weren't excited by it, you know? They weren't—that's not what they signed up to do. They're real museum pussycats. [Laughs.]
MR. MCELHINNEY: I imagine, though, that people from other parts of the world, other parts of the country having a look at this merger must have come to you and sort of wanted to pick your brains for ideas about –
MS. HEISS: Oh, of course. Yeah.
MR. MCELHINNEY: —how to reproduce this in their –
MS. HEISS: It was about five a day for the first year. And then, we're talking about responsible institutions or people. And then about—from then on, it was about two a week.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Have any of them worked?
MS. HEISS: No.
MR. MCELHINNEY: No. So this is just a completely—it's a unique marriage.
MS. HEISS: Well, it remains to be seen how this is going to work. Because it worked fine as long as Glenn and I could do this. Now, I'm out of the air over there. I have no decision-making responsibilities. And we'll see how well it can run.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Are you involved as an advisor or as a –
MS. HEISS: Absolutely not.
MR. MCELHINNEY: You're just gone.
MS. HEISS: Yeah. I talk to Klaus all the time—I guess, two or three times a day. I mean, we're really close. But I'm not—I mean, I go to see the shows. I'm not—I'm not running that space. I'm running this space and really enjoying it. But I'm really not involved with the problems I was involved with at that time. And although I was unhappy at the time because I had some other things to do at PS1 which I didn't get done, I was thrilled when the—not thrilled because of the financial crash two years ago. Good god, I'm not that horrible that I would be thrilled by that. But I was really thrilled that I didn't have to dismantle PS1 myself. Because if I had been the director at that time, I would have had to be the person who dismantled it—fire, you know, curators and cancel the shows.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Some people have commented that the market has basically killed the avant-garde. How is that—is that true, in your opinion, that the emphasis on money has sort of overpowered the sense of fun or innovation or excitement or spontaneity? Everything is now calculated to set record prices –
MS. HEISS: Well, I'm not a very good person to ask because it was extremely important to me that PS1 was a non-collecting institution. I don't understand collections; I don't advise on collections.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So pure kunsthalle.
MS. HEISS: I was pure kunsthalle. And I believed that for me and most of the people I know, it's very hard to run a non-collecting, exhibition-based kunsthalle exhibition program if you have one eye on the market. If you have one eye on what's going on next door in your—you start—you can't help but start to base your choices on what will fly. Because we're all real, real smart. And we're all really good observers. So it's relatively easy to be an insider trader in art, especially if you're one of the people doing the pure museum shows. You know what's going to fly, and you know the big guys that are investing in it. And you can do the show. And then, that can all be rolled into one happy package, and so on.
And when I joined MoMA as a senior deputy director, I was really nervous about having such close contact to collectors because I thought that somehow I would be affected. In the end, a very curious thing happened which—in the end, the collectors were really the only people I felt most comfortable with.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Interesting.
MS. HEISS: Yeah. Because they were so mad. So –
MR. MCELHINNEY: They write the checks—[inaudible, cross talk].
MS. HEISS: No, no. That didn't matter to me. They're so nuts because they're collectors.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Because they're passionate about what they're buying?
MS. HEISS: They got a passion; and they're passionate.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Yeah.
MS. HEISS: And they really don't make much sense.
MR. MCELHINNEY: So they're like artists.
MS. HEISS: They're, like, the craziest of the artists. And they tremble—the great collectors tremble when they get around art. They lose their saliva; they can't talk. They are hyperventilating. They lose track of where they are, what time it is. I mean, these are my people. [Laughs.] And they understand what I'm doing because they can't understand not loving this art.
MR. MCELHINNEY: Right. You're talking about real collectors, not the social climbers and the investors.
MS. HEISS: Yeah. I don't—I mean, maybe these are social climbers also. I'm not eliminating them as collectors just because they are social climbers.
MR. MCELHINNEY: No.
MS. HEISS: But these are the people who for whatever reason have been—they've been infected. And they're real—they're real tender people. And you know, those—it sounds like I've acquired a certain amount of sanity to have—to admire someone. But it's that edge of art that has to do with passion, not the marketplace, that I'm talking about. I learned a great deal in that. And I—and as the marketplace itself, I think it's a bad, bad place to do shows on the marketplace.
Now, I am being shown that I am wrong in the following ways. It's painful to see. First of all, the horrible art fairs—Basel being the best-worst—now, this point does larger—[audio break].
[END OF INTERVIEW.]
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Alanna Heiss, 2010 June 15-October 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.