PRINT February 2001


Pat Hearn

THE PAT HEARN GALLERY on East Ninth Street and Avenue D faced a wide-open field. The concrete ruins of demolished tenements poked through tall shaggy grasses. Occasionally a dazed junkie, still swooning from a recent fix, would wander up the deserted block. Inside, the gallery blazed with sunlight. There stood Pat, high spiked pumps, high beehive hair, little print frock, talking about the art on the wall. In this case, it was Peter Schuyff’s uncanny biomorphic Op paintings. Milan Kunc showed there too, and his Eastern European Pop art fit the exotic drift. Then there was Mitchell Algus, a geology teacher and bicycle racer who made surrealist sculpture, and Philip Taaffe’s re-creations of ’60s Feeleys, Rileys, and Newmans. Historically and stylistically, everything was a little out of whack. And a little magical. This strange space, this slot in the midst of the familiar: That was Pat Hearn territory.

The gallery was a huge success. Openings were packed. Cameras clicked, flashbulbs flashed. Limos lined up, although people arrived in hired cars partly out of fear of the neighborhood. On warm evenings the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk; everyone lounged on automobiles, sipped drinks. It was at once simple and real and rich and grand. Pure ’80s. But this is the middle of the story.

THE THIRD CHILD in a family of five, Pat Hearn grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. There was Catholic grammar school, mass on Sunday, a big public high school. Pat played the accordian and did Irish step dancing. She was a great tap dancer, remembers Index Magazine writer and editor Mary Clark, who met Pat when she came up to RISD to work with the college kids as part of the tap-dancing club.

After high school Pat moved to Boston to study performance art at the Museum School. She and her gang—which included Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson, Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Stephen Tashjian, George Condo, Shelly Lake, Penelope Place, the Starn twins, and Pia Schacter—were always putting on events in which they were both audience and players, a kind of death-metal version of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie.

From the beginning, Pat was notorious for her fearless performances. There was the piece where she ran across a stage naked, slim, swift, until a flash of what looked like fire blazed across her, illuminating her perfect body, the flame an illusion created by light flashing onto a clear sheet of vinyl. Then there was the night she staged mud-wrestling matches with Shelly Lake. The two hauled a huge pile of dirt into their loft and wet it until it became a soft ooze. But since it was ordinary topsoil, full of rocks and twigs, the wrestlers were scraped and cut. After totally vanquishing her opponent, Pat switched to her role of mistress of ceremonies and stood, muddy and bloody, in the center of the ring to announce the upcoming match. The next day their landlord caught on because the mud they were dumping out the window was falling into the air conditioner of the loft below. Shelly and Pat moved out the following day.

To make money so she could spend the summer in Provincetown with Morrisroe, Pat took a job as a stripper. She would appear on stage covered with balloons that patrons would pop, one by one, with their cigarettes. On her last night on the job, as each man popped a balloon, she shot him with red paint from a squirt gun. By day she could be found at MIT, having received a grant from the Museum School visual-studies department for her work in performance art.

IN 1983, after a postgraduation stint in Paris on a grant from the American Center, Pat returned to the States, moved to New York, and started her first gallery, on Sixth and B. Built by her boyfriend (and later, her first husband) Thierry Cheverney, it opened in November with a group show that included an old friend from Boston, George Condo. The gallery was a fabulous scene in the still shabby East Village, a provocative mix of high life and low. The works of such fledgling luminaries as Schuyff, Taaffe, Condo, Kunc, and Donald Baechler were collected by art-world heavyweights like Larry Gagosian, Charles Saatchi, Barbara Gladstone, and Thomas Ammann.

By 1985, Pat needed more space, and she bought the huge storefront on Ninth and D, at the extremes of the East Village. Nobody went that far. Reconfiguring her style—a constant in Pat’s career—she began to sport a James Bond-type attaché case, a gift from Tom Cugliani, who had joined her as the fierce director of the gallery. He required employees, who included her old friend Jack Pierson, to observe a conservative dress code and arrive at work at 10 AM on the dot. Pat continued to prosper, and through charm, knowledge, and the aforementioned style shift to a perhaps less flamboyant chic (no more Nefertiti eyebrows!) she was able to form relationships with museums, uptown galleries, and collectors to borrow works for annual historical shows. There were exhibitions of Lucio Fontana, Eva Hesse. Dan Flavin, Louise Bourgeois, Sigmar Polke, Larry Bell, Larry Poons, and Ellsworth Kelly.

That didn’t stop Pat’s sense of play. I remember one time when her wraparound skirt fell open to reveal a pair of high-waisted old-fashioned white cotton underpants, not what you'd expect to see on her. When we teased her about them, she said with the usual sparkle in her eye that she was going over to see Larry Gagosian and flash them, and try to sell him a Philip Taaffe painting. Maybe it was true.

It was around this time that Pat met Colin de Land, another East Village pioneer, whose Vox Populi gallery was a few blocks away on East Sixth Street. Colin sent roses to Pat’s space every day for weeks, and when they finally joined forces she gave him the gift of a gun. The artist John Miller, who was installing a show of his work at Vox Populi at the time, remembers that Colin played a phone message Pat left saying that she’d love to go out with him over and over for a whole afternoon, alternating it with the Velvet Underground song “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” He moved into her Eleventh Street loft shortly thereafter.

But coinciding with Pat’s increasing prestige was the recession that started with the stock market crash of ’87 and the move of a number of her successful painters to richer, more established galleries. With the bust, the far East Village was now actually becoming dangerous. Maybe if the humvee limo had been invented at the time things might have been OK, but as it was, the East Ninth Street location became untenable. Pat sold the gallery and used the proceeds to renovate a Wooster Street space in lower SoHo. Her program also began to change: In response to the politicized art gaining force at the time, she started to focus on neo-Conceptual and feminist work, taking on such artists as Renee Green, Lincoln Tobier, Kirsten Mosher, Patty Martori, Jason Simon, and Lutz Bacher. With Linda Yablonsky she founded the Night Light reading series, where we heard then-underground writers David Sedaris, Luc Sante, David Wojnarowicz, Lynne Tillman, Deborah Eisenberg, Patrick McGrath, and Gary Indiana, to mention but a few.

The recession was turning into a depression. The cash was gone, and the cash cows (or cash bulls) too. But through clever downsizing and creative business maneuvering, Pat survived, moving (yet again), this time way west to Twenty-second and Eleventh, where she teamed up with Paul Morris to divide a taxi garage into two galleries and formed a strong friendship with their next-door neighbor, Matthew Marks. With Colin, Paul, and Matthew, she started the humbly scaled art fair in the Gramercy Park Hotel, an exhilarating forum of art, ideas, dialogue, entertainment, dealmaking, and fun. The Gramercy evolved into the enormous Armory Fair, which is giving the established Art Dealers Association fair uptown a run for its money.

It’s funny—I had expected this remembrance to be about Pat’s magical sex appeal, her power, her beauty, the dada sense of fun that stayed with her even as her art-world stature grew. Of course it has been about those things, but it has equally been about her canniness as a businesswoman. That was a quality we never saw as admirable in the old days, something suspect in relation to art, but things have changed. Pat helped change them and built a context for art both equal to and better than her time. It makes sense that she chose to abandon her considerably acclaimed performance art in favor of opening a gallery. The acute attention she paid to her sense of architecture, fashion, and style became her art—a radical gesture for the time.

Bad things happened to Pat. She lost artists. She lost money. She was treated rudely and betrayed. But she fought for her due, and if she didn’t prevail she never held a grudge. Often she even renewed friendships with those who had betrayed her. Since she seldom complained, it’s hard to know exactly when she got sick. Once in a while she would say in her sweet high voice that she didn’t feel very well, and in 1997 we finally learned the terrifying truth. Liver cancer.

All through her illness she worked. Hard, long days. And she shopped, buying smaller sizes and different styles. If someone didn’t recognize her on the street as her appearance changed, she’d say, in her playful, singing voice, “It’s me. It’s Pat.” She was neither pitiful nor angry.

We loved her, for all these reasons. We felt love in her gaze. It was her gaze, the quality of her attention, that was so seductive. When she was with you, you were the only person there. When she didn’t return a phone call, or was across the room at a party face to face with someone else, it was agony. And that was what gave her power. When she was with you, she was totally with you. And now that she’s gone, there is an emptiness. A silence. It’s very quiet now.