Something About Mary

New York

Left: Clara Serra with artists Mary Heilmann and Richard Serra. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco) Right: John Waters. (Photo: Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan)

It’s hard to imagine an artist having a busier or fizzier moment after forty active years than Mary Heilmann. In the past twelve months, she’s taken on the Whitney Biennial, concurrent covers of Artforum and Art in America, Matthew Marks and Greene Naftali’s jumbo group show “Painting: Now and Forever, Part II” (of which she was pointedly singled out as the sole holdover from 1998’s “Part I”), and “To Be Someone,” a career survey docking now on two separate floors of the New Museum after stops in California, Texas, and Ohio. In the face of sustained attention that would hobble an artist half her age, Heilmann was insouciant and tuned-in at her party last Monday night, a touched ’tude befitting the creator of a painting called Surfing on Acid and a lifelong music lover who was only too happy to share some of her favorites via a raucous, clattering sound track, played over the museum’s speakers, that veered from Jimi’s Woodstock “Star-Spangled Banner” to all-girl punks the Raincoats’s abstruse cover of “Lola.” There was weird energy in the air from the start—a timbery smell, half autumnal, half noxious, wafted over from a fiercely burning building one block away on Elizabeth Street, and the glass fourth wall of the downstairs gallery put a bizarre zoolike frisson on proceedings by dividing drinking observers from the abstemious ones up close to the art. But Heilmann set an easy, mellow tone effortlessly and from the front.

When I suggested she seemed sanguine, she countered, “Oh, well, no. This is very psychological for me. My first home in New York was just down the street from here, in Chatham Square. The past and the present . . . It’s a little weird. I’m not sanguine, I’m excited and,” a conspiratorial eyebrow shrug, “freaked out, actually.” Yet she seemed to know exactly how to handle the situation. The calming presence of so many elder-statesmen amigos in the crowd (artists Richard Serra, Richard Tuttle, Joan Jonas, Joel Shapiro and Ellen Phelan, John Waters, and Billy Sullivan and curator Klaus Kertess) brought home the profound difference between those who’ve learned from experience how to process a freak-out moment and those who choose, pointlessly, to stay agitated. (Did I mention there were slouched armchairs, designed by Heilmann, that you could wheel around the galleries and plunk in front of the works?) Weary of fear and the circular nature of apocalyptic talk, older folk favored reflection over paranoia on this particular evening. One such conversation, with Kertess, brought us only laterally and without raised voices to the current financial crisis, and with a strong and surprising note of sympathy for dealers, the group in this scene who may be shouldering the biggest burden right now. “I think dealers have a more profound connection to art than critics and curators,” the long-ago dealer mused.

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips, Mary Heilmann, and 303 Gallery owner Lisa Spellman. Right: Rhizome director Lauren Cornell with New Museum chief curator Richard Flood.

Less tempered behavior abounded among the younger generations. Nate Lowman, a pretty downtown totem seemingly welcomed as a royal at New Museum events, hovered outside, collecting his crew. “Is this necessary?” he huffed petulantly, pointing at the growing crowd of firemen and cops improvising a solution to the three-alarm blaze around the corner that, according to the police blotter the next morning, injured five and took a hundred people to tame. Inside, artist Kembra Pfahler asked, “Is this too heterosexual?” as she linked arms with Jack Pierson and entered the fray. Feeling a spicier crowd take the reins, I split for dinner at the Bowery Hotel on the other side of Houston Street, already late. No one was there, so I went back. It seemed we were all going to amble, peacefully, through this night on Heilmann’s own terms.

The dinner hour, eventually, arrived. Chicken, potatoes, and veg for a few hundred, American basics care of 303 Gallery and Hauser & Wirth, were delicious. Speeches were neat and unamplified. Heilmann dubbed the New Museum “such a cool place” and referred to the museum board as “you guys.” Chief curator Richard Flood said that working with Heilmann “changed who I am.” Those more intimate with the garrulous curator’s after-dinner manner might know whether he sings hosannas like that every time, but I was prepared, at that point, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why argue?

Left: Dealer Susanne Hillberry with curator Klaus Kertess. Right: Artists Jack Pierson, Kembra Pfahler, and Brian Meola.

Left: Artist Doug Aitken; Douglas Fogle, curator of contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum; and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator at the Studio Museum. Right: New Museum president Saul Dennison with Ellyn Dennison.

Left: Artist Nate Lowman, Carlos Quirarte, and 303 Gallery's Kathryn Erdman. Right: Artist Matt Sheridan Smith with Drawing Center curator Joćo Ribas.

Left: Collector Sue Hancock, New Museum curator Laura Hoptman, and artist Anne Chu. Right: Dealer Elizabeth Dee with Christian Rattemeyer, associate curator of drawings at MoMA.

Left: Artist Marilyn Minter. Right: Artists Keith Sonnier and Lillian Ball. (Photos: Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan)

William Pym