Art House: Revisiting ‘The All Night Movie’

Mary Heilmann reads from her 1999 cult-classic memoir, just republished in a new facsimile edition by Primary Information

A spread from ‘Mary Heilmann: The All Night Movie’

  • Jan 30, 2021

More than a run-of-the-mill memoir or a straightforward exhibition catalog, Mary Heilmann’s revered 1999 artist’s book ‘The All Night Movie’ is an extension of her creative practice: its casual but precise juxtaposition of different forms, narratives, songs, and sentiments inspire the same feelings as her paintings’ hybrid spaces, compelling backstories, and keen and joyful sense of color. Published by Hauser & Wirth and Offizin Verlag in only a single print run, the book is now hard to come by; it remains a covetable title among those who dabble in rare art books not only for its radical design, but also for its compelling account of Heilmann’s life and the art world in which she was enmeshed.

As she told Ross Bleckner in the Spring 1999 issue of BOMB, ‘‘The All Night Movie’ is the story of my life told in words, painted images and photographs—most of which are taken by me. The pages are designed like paintings or to have a similar effect as paintings, where you put forms and colors together to get a certain emotional hit.’ Heilmann explains in the book’s preface that she was writing down stories from her life when Iwan Wirth suggested publishing an exhibition catalog for her 1999 show at Galerie Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, and that ‘the two projects converged.’ The latter half of the book takes the form one might expect of such a catalog: there’s a brilliant essay from artist and writer Jutta Koether that parses Heilmann’s work, ‘following her paths, suggestions, not free of associations… like reading words and the world, and other images’; there’s also a beautifully illustrated section of plates of paintings from the show, dating from 1972 to 1999.

‘The All Night Movie’ by Mary Heilmann, Offizin Verlag with Galerie Hauser & Wirth, 1999

Spreads from ‘The All Night Movie’

The main feature here, however, is ‘The All Night Movie,’ which unfolds like an experimental biopic over eight chapters of purely transporting recollection. Beginning with Heilmann’s youth in California—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Berkeley—these memoirs also chronicle her move to New York in 1968 and the developments in her creative practice and its artistic and social milieu through the ’90s. Heilmann’s circle—at various points including artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, and William Wegman—happened to coincide with some of the key actors in the artistic movements of the day, like post-minimalism, new performance and video art, and conceptualism. Each chapter in ‘The All Night Movie’ calls out the songs and musicians Heilmann was listening to at the time, giving the ‘movie’ its soundtrack. As Heilmann writes in another introductory text, ‘Looking at Pictures,’ ‘each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker, a cue, by which I evoke a moment from my past, or my projected future, each a charm to conjure a mental reality and to give it physical form.’ Heilmann’s stories are paired with her paintings as well as archival photographs that show her and her cohort through the years. Heilmann worked closely with Mark Magill on ‘The All Night Movie’’s radical design, which presents an immersive environment—paintings’ edges meld with their backgrounds, photographs are collaged with text, musicians and their lyrics float across the pages. Narrated by Heilmann’s frank and witty text, these chapters offer the vibrant sensory rush of memory itself. With the book out-of-print and hard to find, presented here is a glimpse of the stories within, brought newly alive online: Heilmann reads the account of her early years in New York alongside an excerpt from the text, reconstructed here in the spirit of the original publication. More than recounting this Californian’s move East to give New York a go, Heilmann’s text sketches a dynamic portrait of a particularly prolific period for the city’s artists, giving a spirited account of the scene. Also featured here is the unofficial ‘soundtrack’ to ‘The All Night Movie’—a playlist of the songs Heilmann mentions in her text, with her colorful anecdotes to set the stage for listening.—Jake Brodsky

Opening spread of ‘New York’ in Heilmann’s ‘The All Night Movie.’

New York

[audio mp3="//downloads.ctfassets.net/y3wgx2ncas6t/3pf5MG0ZFyEd77QQKPMWUT/1b553789c02d82a93b6866fd900ff75b/Audio_File"]

Mary Heilmann reads from ‘The All Night Movie’ While I was finishing school, some things started to come out of New York that were really important for me: Dick Bellamy’s ‘Arp to Artschwager’ show at Noah Goldowsky Gallery; Lucy Lippard’s ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ show at Fischbach; the ‘Primary Structures’ show at the Jewish Museum. I also saw a Don Judd show at Pasadena. I knew that my work related to this kind of thinking, and as soon as I finished school I headed for New York. But when I was in town for a little while I found out that I was not to be included in any of the shows that clocked the moment. This was for a lot of reasons. Mainly, I was a woman, young and naïve, but arrogant, determined and a little bit rough. A rude girl in the old and the new sense of the term, very aggressive, very strong, but terrified. Being a female was definitely a disadvantage in those days when girls weren’t supposed to have fun. They were supposed to be fun. It took me a long time and a lot of maturity to learn to negotiate the complexities of that situation. But at the time, I was devastated not to be included in ‘Anti-Illusion,’ a turning point show in 1969 at the Whitney. As a result, I abandoned the sculptural work I was doing and, as a rebellious move, switched to the much-maligned practice, painting. Color Field painting was going on, and I hated it then (love it now). What I turned to was a materials-based sort of conceptual, anti-aesthetic, earth-colored, ironic painting that was often hard to look at.

Michael Kern, Tina Girouard, and Barry LeDoux, 1970, from ‘The All Night Movie.’ Photo: Dicky Landry

I had arrived in the Summer of 1968. I remember looking out of my window into the loft across the street and seeing the Chicago riots at the Democratic convention on the TV there. I went to Max’s Kansas City, where I met everybody: Robert Smithson, Ted Castle, Dan Graham, Lee Lozano, Carl Andre, Jackie Winsor, Tina Girouard, Dicky Landry, Dennis Oppenheim, Neil Jenney, John Duff. In the back room under the red light of the Dan Flavin piece in the corner, you could see the Warhol entourage, but not Andy, who had been shot earlier that summer. I lived on West Broadway and Duane Street, which was then the butter-and-egg neighborhood, and around the corner on Greenwich Street you could always see and smell big piles of smashed eggs. It was a wilderness there because the old Washington Market had been demolished, so there were vacant lots, open space, weeds, even trees, parts of wrecked buildings, fieldlike stretches leading out to the elevated West Side Highway. There were people living there in encampments. One guy, Dooley, was our friend, and we always gave him money, making him promise to buy food, but then later he was always drunk. We hung out at the Four Eds Bar, which later became Barney’s, the ’80s New Wave bar. We ate breakfast at the Tower Cafeteria, now the Odeon.

Left, Chinatown, New York; right, the hallway at Chatham Square, 1971, from ‘The All Night Movie.’ Photos courtesy Mary Heilmann

I lived there a year and then decided to move to a building in Chinatown on Chatham Square with Michael Kern, Tina Girouard, and Dicky Landry. This building was a wreck. It had been vacant for years. It was dark. There were big holes in the floor. The windows were boarded up because they were all broken. There was a kitchen in one loft that had layers of hardened cooking-grease on the walls and floor where a stove had once stood. This grease was so thick that when we were gouging it away we found the shriveled preserved corpse of a rat buried in it. The drains were rotted, the water pipes corroded. It smelled. Stray cats lived there. The electricity was still turned on, and an occasional dim bare light bulb hung down. The gas was still on too, which caused us trouble later because we never bothered to change the name on the account, and then had to pay a huge bill. I was so traumatized by the prospect of getting this derelict place into shape, and by the thought of sleeping in it, that I stayed on and on at West Broadway. Susan Rothenberg, who had just arrived in town, rented my place and had moved in before I moved out, and she had to camp there, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Finally she told me I had to leave. She had been paying the rent for two months. Still, Susan and I became friends and drinking buddies. I used to ride my bike across Worth Street from Chinatown to visit her.

‘In the Chatham Square building, we rented the six floors above a cigar store. . . . In our time, artists arriving from all over stayed there for long or short periods as they became adjusted to living in New York.’

In the Chatham Square building, we rented the six floors above a cigar store. A dusty glass sign over the door said ‘Chu’s Family Association.’ In the past, immigrants from China had lived there as they worked their way out of indentured servitude. Sometimes they stayed there for years. In our time, artists arriving from all over stayed there for long or short periods as they became adjusted to living in New York. There was the Louisiana contingent, the friends of Dicky: Robert Prado, Richard Peck, Jon Smith, and Rusty Gilder, musicians who came to New York to play in the newly formed Philip Glass Ensemble. There were the Europeans, traveling artists, mainly members of the Arte Povera or of Art and Language groups – Emilio Prini, Germano Celant, Kathy Bigelow, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth. There were Columbia and NYU students, people from the West Coast, mainly conceptual artists from Los Angeles: William Wegman, John Baldessari, John Knight. Alan Saret brought Gordon Matta-Clark around after he graduated from Cornell. There were Chinese kids from the neighborhood who wandered in because they heard the music.

Left, Norman Fisher, 1973; right, Heilmann, roof garden, 1975, from ‘The All Night Movie.’ Photos courtesy Mary Heilmann

And then Norman Fisher started showing up at Chatham Square. He did some kind of office work with Michael Kern, where he also picked up extra change selling nickel-and-dime bags of pot. He supplied us with grass too, and pretty soon he started coming around with cocaine. Shortly after that he quit his job to devote himself full-time to the night life. A completely charming guy, Norman was a deal-maker, a trader, a producer, and all-around flimflam man. At that time I was an art professor at a Long Island university. And since I had quite a bit of disposable income, I began to loan bits of cash to Norman, to fund him in his fledgling business. I gradually loaned him more and more, and his business grew. This was not pure friendliness on my part, by the way; I extracted considerable interest from Norman on my loans, and kept close tabs on this cash flow, to the point of collecting the principle from him regularly, along with the interest, before I would give him any more money. These dealings were always handled with a severe but playful attitude. It was fun, it was sexy, and we were making a lot of money.

‘It was fun, it was sexy, and we were making a lot of money.’

Norman lived in a tiny apartment on Madison Avenue, right down the street from the Whitney, and he filled it with all kinds of beautiful and funny things that he collected from the thrift shops uptown. It also began to fill with beautiful and funny people. ‘What happened to the mirror, Norman?’ Norman’s prized blue-glass mirror lay in pieces on the floor where it had stood. ‘Don’t ask,’ he said, rolling his eyes as he fussed, scurrying around tidying, moving things from here to there, ‘You don’t want to know.’ It turned out that someone had been there the night before, someone who had scared him and robbed him. He wanted to move, that day, to a place on Abington Square. It was a penthouse. Two gay prostitutes lived there. Well, actually one gay prostitute and his friend. The hustler, the one who actually went out on dates, was gorgeous, but he had the personal style of a New Jersey trucker. The other one, who took the phone calls, looked like an aging trucker but had a deeply seductive telephone style. Between the two of them they were very successful, and they were moving uptown. So could I come up with the money for him to make the move? Yes, I could. I went to the Chinese American Bank downtown, came back and gave Norman the money, while some of the boys who were always around him began to pack his things. After that everything changed. It got much better. First of all, Norman was closer – it was just a short cab-ride home, straight across Bleeker Street and down the Bowery. Second, the place was fantastic. A penthouse, one big square room with a fireplace and a high ceiling, a little slice of a kitchen off of the foyer. There was a tiled terrace all around with views of the Village rooftops and the river beyond.

Left, Joseph Kosuth and Keith Sonnier; right, Jackie Winsor and Keith Sonnier, New Orleans, from ‘The All Night Movie.’ Photos courtesy Mary Heilmann

Now this was 1976, and things were really starting to heat up. We were all starting to work. The biggest thing was Philip Glass and Robert Wilson collaborating on ‘Einstein on the Beach.’ There was so much energy and excitement around that. The musicians were rehearsing at Chatham Square, and Lucinda Childs was always with Wilson helping to write the play. Dicky Landry was one of the main musicians, and he was making working photographs as the images of the piece took shape. Keith Sonnier was making bicoastal video pieces. He was one of the main movers. He and Norman had a deep friendship. They were both from the South and were possessed of the style, smooth and sharp, that seems to be an innate trait of Southern boys across all class lines. They were both so fey, so light, Norman’s often vicious wit playing nicely off Keith’s sweetness. Keith was married to Jackie Winsor. The main thing about Jackie was that she never drank very much or did any drugs, so was constantly alert and there in a way that was sometimes quite intimidating. I mean who really knew all the details of what went on? It was the ’70s, it was New York, the stakes were high, and it was an intensely cliquey, factionalized, competitive, heady time. But it was basically a pretty sweet scene. People had no fear in the middle of the night in the middle of things. The next morning, though, was often another story. Of all of us, Jackie was the one who never did anything embarrassing. She had tremendous dignity, was almost six feet tall, beautiful, and was already successful. Norman was in love with Jackie. She was privileged above all of us. Jackie had a lot of power. And Jackie had Keith.

‘It was the ’70s, it was New York, the stakes were high, and it was an intensely cliquey, factionalized, competitive, heady time. But it was basically a pretty sweet scene.’

And then there was Suzie Harris, engaged, wired, wild, active, aggressive, and generous. Suzie hadn’t gone to art school – she came into the downtown world through music. She was always the first to arrive and the last to go. Everyone liked Suzie. Everyone wanted Suzie. She was beautiful. Not in the conventional sense, but she had poise, presence, and athletic grace. She was energetic, courageous, and daring, ultimately to the point of self-destruction. Suzie was part of The Natural History, a dance group composed of Suzie, Barbara Dilley, and Rachel Lew. Dicky played his saxophone tape-delay echo pieces for them when they danced, and as part of their dance they undressed. It was the ’70s and we all were always taking off our clothes for whatever reason. It was before AIDS. It was even before herpes. The soundtrack for this period was disco. The Savannah Band, Peggy Lee singing ‘Is That All There Is?’, David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust.’ I saw the New York Dolls upstairs at Max’s in the early ‘70s. It was amazing sitting there in the dark and din, the Dolls wearing bouffant shag wigs, high heavy platform shoes, full makeup. I was there with Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Lois Lane. David Bowie was often at Norman’s. He was a friend of Craig Gholson, and Craig had a magazine called ‘New York Rocker.’ He had every record. Norman had every record, too. Oh yes, we listened to a lot of Zydeco, because of Dicky and the Louisiana connection. Cajun. Lots of Cajun cooking. Tina, Dicky, and Keith would get together and cook. They cooked gumbo, shrimp étouffée, dirty rice. Once they even had crawfish shipped up from the South for a party.

Left, Jackie Winsor, Heilmann, Liza Bear, and Norman Fisher; right, William Wegman, Keith Sonnier, Liza Bear, Norman Fisher, and Heilmann, Fire Island, 1976, from ‘The All Night Movie.’ Photos courtesy Mary Heilmann

Gordon Matta-Clark cooked, too. Cooking was a part of his art. The pieces he made when he first came to New York involved cooking, and for this he made an elaborate cooking urn, which hung from the ceiling and was heated by a gas burner fueled by a portable tank. One of his early works was made by frying bull’s blood, another by the frying of photographs. It was Gordon who had the idea for the restaurant, Food, which he opened with Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, and Dicky Landry, down the street from 112 Greene Street, the cooperative gallery started by Jeffrey Lew, where everyone showed their work. This was in the very early days of Soho. At Food, artists would make guest-chef appearances. Bob Rauschenberg made a supper of marrow bones and Gordon was a part of that event, serving as sous-chef and adorable boy. He was cute. He looked like the Matisse slave. Anyway, cooking, fabulous elaborate cooking, was a major part of ’70s social life. These feasts took all day, and we drank gallons of margaritas, tequila neat, Tsingtao beer, syrupy iced Buffalo Grass vodka, and wine. If Norman ever cooked it was delicate portions of creamed mushrooms on toast served with flutes of champagne. Norman loved to drink Southern Comfort. He carried it in his pocket in a little flat silver flask.

View from Heilmann’s window at Chatham Square, from ‘The All Night Movie.’ Photo courtesy Mary Heilmann

Al Jolson, ‘Avalon’ . . . 1947, another vacation, this time Catalina Island. We took the Daylight train to Los Angeles, spent the night at the Biltmore Hotel downtown, and then the next morning took the Pacific Electric Railroad down to San Pedro and got the steamer to Avalon. When we arrived we moved into a cottage on the side of a hill where we were to stay for the month. . . . The song of that year: ‘I Left My Love in Avalon.’