About 15 years ago, a cousin who collects contemporary abstract painting sent me an image of a work by Mary Heilmann and asked what I thought. At the time, not having seen her work in person and being unaware of the subtleties of her execution (which, in my defense, are often not visible in reproductions), I replied, “It doesn’t knock my socks off.” Apologies all round!!
A fine opportunity to view her work is found at Hauser + Wirth, Los Angeles, in Mary Heilmann: Memory Remix, the artist’s first show in this city in over 20 years (it continues through September 23rd). It consists of paintings and ceramics that span her career as well as a table and chairs dating to the last decade. Heilmann, who was born and raised in California, attended University of California Santa Barbara and then Berkley. There she studied ceramics with Peter Voulkos and took notice of the work of visiting professor David Hockney. Upon moving to New York in 1968, she began to focus on painting.
What is immediately striking about Heilmann’s painting is the degree to which it appears spontaneous and casual. The bright candy colors (the influence of Hockney?) and the predominance, particularly among the works in the first gallery at Hauser + Wirth, of “girly girl pink” flirt with a seeming lightness of being. However, in each of her paintings, the layering and juxtaposition of forms, the underpainting and overpainting, the direction and quality of the brushstrokes, the contrast of textures, and the shape and configuration of the support are all deliberate and by design, playing significant roles in the impact of the whole. There is not only a keen eye, but an acute intelligence at work. It comes as no surprise that when asked, Heilmann says she does not make preliminary drawings, but conceives of the paintings in her mind. She finds inspiration in things seen, experienced, and felt, her titles often referring to favorite landscapes, musicians, and songs.
Among my favorite paintings in the show is Rio Nido (1987). Dominating the work is a large black perforated wedge, the colors of a series of solid-color (implied) squares and rectangles that it overlaps peeping through. At the same time, the irregularly shaped colored dots sit upon the surface of the mound, as each features drips cascading downward. Although it is flat, the mountainous form suggests a mass that exists in three-dimensions, while the solid color elements surrounding it seem to fold either forward or backward in space, such bending of forms in space being a characteristic of much of Heilmann’s ceramic sculpture. Objecthood is further pronounced in the painting by Heilmann’s practice of extending her surface images over the sides of the canvas. It lends yet another aspect to Rio Nido to know that the title derives from a Northern California town where her family went for summer vacations. The painting’s multi-colored spots have been said to refer to the colored lights the people of Rio Nido would string on their porches.
Green Kiss (1990) is one of any number of pieces in the exhibition, including ceramics and chairs, that employ the form of the grid and operate in the realm of pure abstraction. Minimalism was dominant at the time Heilmann arrived in New York City and, as has often been said, she combined a penchant for geometric abstraction inherited from this tendency with a free spirit linked to the Beat Generation of California artists (like Voulkos), a thirst for art born of the self. While a penciled grid and red “zip” subdivide and would seem to control the field of Green Kiss, frothy white brushstrokes extend across the whole, providing movement and a sense of freedom. Four green blobs–dark green flourishes that overlap squares in a brighter green–“kiss”/punctuate the surface, while the painting’s edges are painted in the brighter green.
Although a giant leap was involved in moving from one medium and way of working to the other, the connection between such wholly integrated abstract paintings and her functional, everyday objects, like Clubchair 47 (2008), which carry such paintings into actual space, are clear. In her furniture and much of her ceramic work (costly serving pieces available at Hauser + Wirth’s L.A. shop), clean lines and pure form meet colors so bright and pure as to connote joy and freedom.
One of the most recent paintings in Heilmann’s exhibition is the painting Right (2015), executed in acrylic on a shaped wooden panel. Like much of Heilmann’s best work, it is small and has an offhand quality, although it also possesses a certain elegance in its reductive form. While it is again a pure abstraction, standing before this work with its brushy white surface and deep blue expanse, I find myself transported to the beach, the sun in my face, the wind in my hair, gazing out at the sea. From the beaches of California where she spent her girlhood to the beaches of Bridgehampton, where she currently resides, Heilmann’s genius is to capture such experiences in her art.