Two Major Mary Heilmann Exhibition Give the Artist a Long-Overdue Attention

Mary Heilmann is getting a lot of attention right now, which she would probably be the first to admit is all she ever really wanted. That is not a critique. I am only paraphrasing what Heilmann told the Guardian in an interview in 2016. When she was young, she wanted to be an athlete because it got her attention. So she became a diver, but then later, when surfing was the rage, she became a surfer so she could make the scene. In college she studied poetry. It was only as she started getting attention for her skill at throwing pottery that she gravitated toward art. But what is wrong with that? What is wrong with doing something because it brings you attention? What is wrong with not having some altruistic reason for making art? Some artists claim they make art out of a compulsion to create. Others claim haughtier philosophical or poetic reasons. Then some artists simply refuse to explain why they do what they do, as though it is unfathomable, or inexpressible with mere words. Heilmann, who turned 77 earlier this year, is comfortable enough in her skin to tell the truth: she simply enjoys making things, and since it is interesting, fun, gets attention and pays the bills she has kept doing it. But compared to her friends, which have included over the years Richard Serra, Philip Glass, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and dozens of other famous artists, Heilmann has lived a life of relative obscurity. That all changed in 2007, when a major retrospective of her work traveled the United States for two years. Since then, she has gradually begun to claim her rightful stake as the influential force in contemporary abstract art that she truly is. If you have never heard of Mary Heilmann, several elements of her massive oeuvre are currently on view in two simultaneous solo exhibitions close to each other in New York, making this the perfect time to discover her work.

Two Major Mary Heilmann Exhibition Give the Artist a Long-Overdue Attention

The Art of Honesty

Mary Heilmann has generously given dozen of interviews throughout her career. That alone would not necessarily set her apart from any other artist. But what does set her apart is that in her interviews she is so willing to be brutally honest. In her relaxed and casual way, she says exactly what she is really thinking, making it difficult, if not impossible, for anybody to truly criticize her—although plenty of people over the years have tried. For example, there are those who have called the work Heilmann makes derivative, suggesting that she is just repeating the tired tropes from the past, and even outright copying the achievements of some other famous artists. But in an interview with Ross Bleckner for BOMB Magazine, Heilmann spoke proudly of the fact that she often draws inspiration from artists from the past whose work she admires. At one point in that interview, she points out a new work to Bleckner and says it is a Calder. And it is not only famous artists that Heilmann mimics. In multiple interviews she has said, with a smile on her face, that she loves the color combinations of The Simpsons television show. She copies the colors on her canvases, only hoping to achieve the same vibrance and purity that they had when she first saw them in the cartoon. Some critics call Heilmann lazy. But in her interview with ART21, she took the wind out of the sails of her detractors, laughing about how lazy she is, remarking that she could never have struggled the way the Abstract Expressionists did. She admits that she actively seeks the quickest, easiest ways to realize her works. She openly talks about using Photoshop to develop her ideas, and jokes that some of her paintings take her only minutes to produce. And then there is the most famous criticism she has received, when the art critic David Hickey accused Heilmann of knowing nothing at all about the craft of painting. When asked about that essay today, Heilmann agrees, acknowledging that when Hickey wrote that essay he was right.


mary heilmann is an american painter born in 1940 in san francisco californiaMary Heilmann - installation view, The Dan Flavin Art Institute, Bridgehampton, New York. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York


Fools and Their Follies

But there is something exactly backwards about the thinking of all of those critics, who mistakenly take Mary Heilmann for a fool. First of all, they forget the wisdom of the poet William Blake, who pointed out that the fool who persists in his folly becomes wise. Indeed, though Heilmann may have known nothing about the craft of painting when she first started painting in the early 1970s, she taught herself. She studied the work of her idols. She conversed with the other artists with whom she socialized and worked. She relied on her competitive spirit, her genius, and her persistence to be learn so much about the craft of painting that she came to teach it professionally. And for a supposedly lazy artist, Heilmann certainly has produced a remarkably massive body of work, one which, incidentally, finds itself represented in many of the most prestigious collections in the world. And for an artist who is supposedly derivative, it is remarkable how concise and instantly recognizable that body of work has become. Perhaps what the critics fail to understand is that it is not up to them to decide what the prerequisites are for being an artist. The American author Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out in a letter to his brother, an aspiring painter, that what makes a good work of art is that people want to be around it. In the case of Mary Heilmann, her work definitely fits that bill. It fits it so well, in fact, that one of the things for which Heilmann has become most well known is her tendency to include chairs in her exhibitions, so people attending the shows can sit down. She designs and hand-makes the chairs. They are iconic of her palette and the world of forms she has developed in her other work. The fact that they are needed at all—that viewers attending her exhibitions have the need to sit for a while because they are interested in staying for such a long period of time in the presence of her work—is all the validation Heilmann needs.


mary heilmann is an american painter from san francisco californiaMary Heilmann - Sunny Chair for Whitechapel (2016) (Mint), 2016, Painted plywood, 25 1/2 × 8 3/10 × 24 3/10 in, © Whitechapel Gallery


Shows of Force

When Mary Heilmann first came to New York City, after earning her MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968, she was a self-described “aggressive hippie.” She believed she was as good as Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse or any of the other artists dominating the scene at that time. She used to show up at the bar where such famous artists hung out and start arguments just to get a rise out of the competition. She got some attention back then, but was denied the fame she badly wanted, and thought she deserved. Today she is contemplative about those experiences. She reflects that it is maybe a good thing that the attention she is getting today did not come to her earlier in life. She feels that her earlier work would not have been understood back then in the same way as it can be understood now. This idea touches on a common theme for Heilmann: the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi. Essentially, Wabi-sabi is the idea that beauty is found in impermanence. A thrown ceramic teacup that possesses imperfections is more beautiful than something machine made because it accepts the imperfections of the materials, as well as those of the person who made it. As things age, time takes its toll on them and they become more beautiful—this is Wabi-sabi. Back in 1976, had we had the chance to see the red, yellow and blue paintings Mary Heilmann was painting, who can say how we would have reacted to them. But now, forty years later, they are physically older, as are we. We see their imperfections, as well as the imperfections of the artist who made them, which she has never tried to hide. Somehow through that experience we may also notice the imperfections in ourselves, and recognize their grace.


canvas arts by mary heilmann born in 1940RYB: Mary Heilmann Paintings, 1975–78, installation view at Craig F. Starr, New York 2017, Light Blue Studio


Mary Heilmann Currently On View

If you would like to discover the art of Mary Heilmann, five canvases, a hanging ceramic piece, and five ceramic cups and saucers are currently on view at the Dan Flavin Art Institute at the Dia Art Foundation in Bridgehamton, New York through 27 May 2018. Simultaneously, through 28 October 2017, the exhibition RYB: Mary Heilmann Paintings, 1975-78 at Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York features an installation of three ceramic bowls on a mantle, as well as 12 canvases Heilmann created during her breakthrough period of the late 1970s, when she used only primary colors and simple geometric shapes as a challenge to re-imagine what painting could become. Meta Description: Two current New York exhibitions of the work of Mary Heilmann feature examples of her paintings, sculptures and ceramics, showcasing the varied oeuvre of an influential artist.


museum and hauser and wirth galleryMary Heilmann - installation view, The Dan Flavin Art Institute, Bridgehampton, New York. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York



Featured image: Mary Heilmann - installation view, The Dan Flavin Art Institute, Bridgehampton, New York. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

By Phillip Barcio