It’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle, but it may be harder still to stuff the squirming facts of an artistic and social scene into a museum exhibition. Valiantly, and perhaps slightly quixotically, co-curators Jeannine Tang, Lia Gangitano and Ann Butler attempted to do just this in ‘The Conditions of Being Art: Pat Hearn Gallery and American Fine Arts, Co.’ at Bard College’s Hessel Museum. A retrospective snapshot of the intertwined contributions of Pat Hearn and Colin de Land, the redoubtable couple whose galleries cut a storied path through the New York art scenes for 21 years, the show is a reminder of the vital energy that dealers have occasionally injected into the art world. However, through no fault of its own, it feels less like a rousing road map for the future than an elegy for a lost time, both professionally and aesthetically.
Hearn and De Land championed diffcult, nearly unsaleable art. De Land, in particular, was known for his desultory approach to the art business, despite his role in founding what would become the Armory Show. (The catalogue notes that De Land frequently owed his artists money and struggled to pay his rent, while Hearn ran a significantly tighter ship, presumably partly owing to her early advocacy of 1980s market darlings like Philip Taaffe, Peter Schuy and George Condo – the latter’s work was notably absent from the show.) It’s hard to imagine an approach less suited to our time, where the scramble for mountains of cash, especially among galleries of comparable size to Hearn’s and De Land’s, has become less about greed than about a struggle against rising rent. (Ramiken Crucible, the claimant of De Land’s throne, closed this year.)
Hearn, among her long list of accomplishments, is remembered for her advocacy of artists and activists who were affected by the AIDS crisis, particularly the photographers Mark Morrisroe (represented here with a collection of his grubby, sexually charged portraits) and Jimmy DeSana (whose black and white pictures of people as sexual sculptures recall Erwin Wurm’s ‘One Minute Sculptures’, 1997– ongoing, crossed with Robert Mapplethorpe’s ‘X-Portfolio’, 1978), and for almost single-handedly founding the East Village gallery scene. De Land’s programme, on the other hand, was associated with artists like John Knight, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green and Peter Fend, who were grouped together under the imprimatur of Institutional Critique, as well as überhip avant-gardists like Alex Bag, Kembra Pfahler and Art Club 2000 (a collective of Cooper Union undergraduates for whom De Land acted as ring leader). Both Hearn and De Land died tragically young, both of cancer.
The pair were long due for a retrospective, and the exhibition and comprehensive catalogue amply fill in the history. Many of the works on view were familiar, like Joan Jonas’s ritualistic films and the lush paintings of Jutta Koether and Mary Heilmann. Others, however, were welcome surprises, like the trio of wall works and a sprawling sculpture by the unjustly forgotten Tishan Hsu and a hilarious installation by Alex Bag, which bitingly satirizes art fairs as venues for artistic prostitution. The show’s lamest ducks are sententious, bone-dry works by Peter Fend, Jason Simon, Lincoln Tobier and their October-toting ilk, which embody the worst impulses of the era’s snooty academicism and political windmill-tilting. But despite these small pitfalls – ticks
of De Land’s academic training in philosophy – the exhibition’s total picture is one of insatiable intellectual and aesthetic curiosity and uncompromising integrity, the likes of which are rarely seen today.
'The Conditions of Being: Pat Hearn Gallery & America Fine Arts, Co.' runs at Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, until 14 December 2018.
Main image: Renée Green, Bequest (detail), 1991, panels of lath siding printed with words leading to a door locked with a pad lock. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler
First published in Issue 198