Mary Heilmann 1970s
So what are the schematics for abstraction? How many sketch books by abstract artists have little 2″ x 2″ hand drawn thumbnails of geometric forms arranged on a plane – tiny representations of possible paintings to be machined into 6′ x 6′ productions. Most of these abstractionists erase their hand from the final work, and the wresting with the ideas inherent in the quick sketch is perfected. But what if it wasn’t? What if all that geometry, all that flat even surface, all those 90 degree corners are better when they are imperfect, wonky things formed in the translation from the mind to the hand? What if these small dashed-off ideas are in fact the things that should be made just as they have been drawn? What if an artist finds a landscape in the closet?
‘That distinct lack of preciousness and a delight in elements of randomness and chance is what makes Heilmann and her work so charming. Nothing is precise, either in form or application of paint; and you get the sense that she’s not a woman who would make you take your shoes off when you walk in the door. The show opens with two canvases, The First Vent from 1972 and 1973’s Little 9 x9 which were both created through primitive, messy finger painting. “I was working with kids at the time,” she explains. “We were spending a lot of time at Max’s Kansas City [a New York bar and venue] in the evenings, getting drunk and people would get into fights, but in the day I was teaching children. It comes from everywhere, my ideas.”’ [Emily Gosling on Mary Heilmann]
“My vision of what it was to be an artist,” Mary Heilmann writes, “was to be quietly moving around the studio all alone, energetically fabricating assemblage-type sculptures, or smoothly streaming brushes across canvas panels leaning against the wall of a rough barn. My identity was that of a solitary person, shielded from the world. Because of that, I moved to Long Island. At the time of the move to Bridgehampton, however, my identity began to evolve from silent loner to someone energetically engaged in the discourse surrounding the practice of art.” [Dia Art on Mary Heilmann]
After finishing her graduate work in sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley, Heilmann moved to New York City in 1968. Soon after her arrival, she was eager to engage with the artists occupying the Minimal and Postminimal art scene. As Heilmann describes in her memoir, The All Night Movie, it was difficult to break into the scene at that moment, and her status as both a woman and an outsider did not help in her quest to become a recognized artist. Disappointed at being excluded from several important exhibitions (including Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1969), Heilmann made the decision to turn her focus to painting. Within the context of the time, her decision can be described as provocative, contrary, or, in her own word, “rebellious,” turning to a critically maligned practice as a means of stridently defining herself and her work against the norm. [Dia Art on Mary Heilmann]
“The image and the style of painting are simple—it is the layering of the paint, the textures along two thickly painted strokes, and the gradual fading away of the stroke at the end of the canvas when the paint runs out, which are interesting. For example, a stroke finished off at the top left hand corner of a painting looks more as if it was improperly silk-screened (like the under-inking of Warhol) than painted robustly with a wide brush. As in Warhol, the “mistake” takes on the quality of the handmade, the human, the fallible.
Heilmann’s strongest point is her craft—doing things with materials which repudiate the impersonal and machine-made. Again, this brings us back to the last painting style which was founded upon the notion of the individual “touch,” Abstract Expressionism.” [Jeff Perrone on Mary Heilmann – December 1976]
Most of the abstractionists that I know – those who are pure and those who are not so pure – all have great respect for Mary Heilmann’s work. These paintings seem easy enough – bright, abstract, beautiful. There’s the connectivity to past greats – Ellsworth, Piet and Barney. She also earns props for mixing it up with the towering douche bag contemporaries of the time. She went looking for trouble at Max’s and jousted with Smithson, Marden and Serra. Mary Heilmann was taking no prisoners.
But there’s one connection a bit further back that I like – Matisse – and one bad ass “painting” in particular – “The Snail“… In fact much of Mary’s painting has the flavor of Matisse’s late work – the same kind of hand-edged color and an insouciant disregard for style and form. But her works have a different energy and play. They are ironic and knowing, cheeky and subversive while being extremely open and attractive. In fact most times after seeing her work I’m left with a very pleasant memory, like a wonderful holiday romance on the Cote d’Azur. Until it begins to dawn on me… my clothes are not on the chair, the money’s gone, the plans have been stolen, and I’ve been seduced and left to settle the bill for my uptight Modernist expectations … “Yes – Isn’t she wonderful!“