V99: Alanna Heiss, Pioneer Of PS1

V99: Alanna Heiss, Pioneer Of PS1

WHEN LADY GAGA ASKED KLAUS BIESENBACH TO EDIT THE ART SECTION OF HER GUEST-EDITED ISSUE, THE MOMA DIRECTOR RESPONDED WITH A PROPOSAL TO CELEBRATE A TRUE PIONEER OF CURATION: ALANNA HEISS. WITHOUT HEISS, DOZENS OF NEW YORK ARTISTS WORKING THROUGH IDEAS OF PRETENSION AND PERCEPTION WOULD NOT HAVE FOUND THEIR ULTIMATE ARENA. HERE’S HOW THE MOMA PS1 FOUNDER CHANGED WHAT A MUSEUM PEDESTAL LOOKS LIKE

WHEN LADY GAGA ASKED KLAUS BIESENBACH TO EDIT THE ART SECTION OF HER GUEST-EDITED ISSUE, THE MOMA DIRECTOR RESPONDED WITH A PROPOSAL TO CELEBRATE A TRUE PIONEER OF CURATION: ALANNA HEISS. WITHOUT HEISS, DOZENS OF NEW YORK ARTISTS WORKING THROUGH IDEAS OF PRETENSION AND PERCEPTION WOULD NOT HAVE FOUND THEIR ULTIMATE ARENA. HERE’S HOW THE MOMA PS1 FOUNDER CHANGED WHAT A MUSEUM PEDESTAL LOOKS LIKE

"Dearest Lady Gaga, I feel very honored by your letter inviting me to be the editor of the art section in this issue of V Magazine. I am so impressed by how you support other artists and also how you displayed your admiration for Tony Bennett, bringing his virtuosity to a completely new generation of loving audiences. You are supporting a mentor in making sure that the history of your art exists as an ongoing dialogue of one great artist to the next generation, to the next generation. I was very inspired by this and would like to do something similar for the profession of curator. Concerning curators, very often only male heroes, like Walter Hopps and Harald Szeemann, are mentioned as the inventors of what it means to be a contemporary curator. But actually, Alanna Heiss, who is now in her 70s, was an absolute pioneer of what it means to be a curator. She was instrumental in starting the Alternative Space movement; she was there very early to do site-specific exhibitions in the city, in the open urban space. She also founded P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (later MoMA PS1) in 1976, inviting artists into the abandoned old school building. She has curated everything from sections of the Venice Biennale to the Shanghai Biennale. She has discovered and rediscovered many emerging, re-emerging, and celebrated artists. My idea for V Magazine is to exemplify her work and her incredible character, and to explore the idea of discovering artists from 1976 into the future. I am looking through the most groundbreaking exhibitions she ever did, and at some of the most innovative artists she discovered and is still discovering."—Greetings, Klaus Biesenbach

Alanna Heiss is a master of setting art in strange places. Museum sanctuaries and gallery walls can accommodate the artistic pursuit, yes. But how about a boiler room? Or a grotty spot beneath a bridge? Or the ticking, clicking hands of a giant municipal clock?

All of those and more have served as environs for new kinds of art that Heiss started championing in New York in the 1970s. Everything was wild then, after the heady brooding of Abstract Expressionism and the deliciously fizzy forays of Pop. So the settings should be wild too, or at least not constrained by conventions that worthwhile artists are always looking to break. Out of that impulse came the Alternative Space movement, which Heiss—as a visionary organizer with a keen artistic eye—helped pioneer.

Her first big move was a legendary event called “Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” which featured odd installations and performative happenings in 1971. Under Heiss’ s supervision, newly emerging and eventually epochal New York sculptors (including Carl Andre, Richard Nonas, and Dennis Oppenheim) made work involving rolled metal, discarded furniture, and dirt, among many other materials. The artist Gordon Matta-Clark roasted a pig. Philip Glass, a composer then making his name downtown, performed an outdoor concert, with power for his synthesizers pirated from a bootleg arrangement.

“I tried to organize it through the city, but it didn’ t work out,” Heiss recalls now. “The way we did it was by plugging into a light post. I remember climbing up ladders on the back of a pickup truck. It was a terrifying thing to do, but that was the way people organized things.”

Protection from gangs who haunted the waterfront then was provided by a nearby cement company whose intimidating services Heiss secured. “You can fill in the blanks on who the cement people were,” she says.

After that came the Clocktower Gallery, which Heiss founded in 1972 at the top of a landmark building in Lower Manhattan, near the Financial District but worlds away in terms of the creativity on display. The strategically strange gallery played a crucial role in setting up SoHo as a locus for artists and art, which in the years to come would creep and crawl into all kinds of different circumstances and surroundings. (Among the different forms then coming into their own: performance art, installation art, conceptual art that swore off objects in favor of “ideas” instead, etc.)

From Clocktower, Heiss made her biggest and most lasting play in the conception and creation of P.S. 1, a rogue art space situated in a massive old public school building in Queens. It’ s still there—now known as MoMA PS1, after its acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art in 2000—but its beginnings track back to 1976 and an inaugural exhibition with 78 artists titled Rooms. Richard Serra made a sculpture for the attic. Vito Acconci installed a sound piece with stools, a light bulb, and sound on magnetic tape in the boiler room. Marjorie Strider slathered the outside of the building with urethane foam, and the enigmatic Walter De Maria covered a wall with black-and-white photographs of pornography and a woman sitting by a swordfish.

P.S. 1 proved huge in its effects on museum culture and art-making too, inviting projects that would consider action and space as part of an equation that has continued expanding ever since. “The number of people who were interested in contemporary art in any significant way,” Heiss says of her formative time, “was almost the same as the number of people who had an interest in higher chemistry. It was a small and neighborly world where you could have fights and they really mattered.”

As the art world has billowed and ballooned into the present, she has continued her fight for art as something separate and distinct from the kind of market talk and glamour gazing that often attends it. “Part of it is an unexplainable, nearly psychotic aversion to the sale of artistic objects,” Heiss says of her sensibility. “I have the greatest difficulty even talking about money and art. It’ s sort of like how some people feel about rats. I’ m not equating dealers and rats, though there would be some justification"¦”

However the art world might change, her passion remains. At the age of 72, Heiss holds court over numerous projects working under the aegis of Clocktower Productions, which continues as a roaming, nomadic enterprise after the original building her gallery inhabited was sold for more numbing commercial use in 2013. She continues putting up shows in alternative spaces, such as Pioneer Works in Brooklyn and the Knockdown Center in Queens. Her Clocktower Radio project recently broadcast signals from a station at the Ghetto Biennale in Haiti.

“I was and am to this minute only very excited and optimistic, overly so probably, perhaps without foundation,” Heiss says. “In high school I was a cheerleader. Does that tell you anything? This sense of enthusiasm was part of what I could do for art. I find a sense of elation in watching artists come together in spaces I have been able to snare.”

ALANNA HEISS

KLAUS BIESENBACH

JAMES TURRELL. MEETING. 1986. COURTESY MOMA PS1

LAWRENCE WEINER. A BIT OF MATTER AND A LITTLE BIT MORE. 1976. PHOTO MATTHEW SEPTIMUS.

JULIAN SCHNABEL. 1976.

 PIPILOTTI RIST. SELBSLOS IM LAVABAD. (SELFLESS IN THE BATH OF LAVA). 1994.

RICHARD SERRA. UNTITLED. 1976. PHOTO MATTHEW SEPTIMUS

KEITH SONNIER. TUNNEL OF TEARS. 1997.

RICHARD SERA. UNTITLED. 1976. PHOTO MATTHEW SEPTIMUS.

Credits: TEXT BY ANDY BATTAGLIA PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL AVEDON

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