Born 1940 in San Francisco, California; lives in New York, New York
For the past thirty years Mary Heilmann has been championed as the consummate artist’s artist: Her unfussy approach—born of the Southern California surf culture of her childhood and paradoxically refined by a lifetime’s practice—is as notable for the unremitting intimacy it admits as the quixotic sociability it invites. One of the few women abstract painters of her generation, Heilmann actually trained as a sculptor and ceramist and continues to make pottery, design lighting, and even produce furniture, such as the rolling painted-wood and polypropylenewebbed Clubchairs (2002– ) that offer viewers a comfortable place to linger. Indeed, Dave Hickey notes in the catalogue for her 2007 retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art that “Heilmann began painting canvases as if they were ceramic objects, as if, more specifically, they were pots, informal domestic accoutrements with no specific shape and no lateral edge.”
Perhaps this is why “casual” is one of the most common words describing Heilmann’s paintings, which so gracefully traverse craft traditions, popular culture, and the fine arts. Owing in part to her works’ messy assurance, by turns glib and erudite, Heilmann also confounds irony and sincerity. With their visceral convolutions of color, runny streaks of paint, and riotous compositions, her recent paintings wear their pleasures on their sleeves. As if the title and nestling biomorphic forms of Sea of Joy (2006) were not enough to inspire an answering elation in the viewer, take Heaven (2004), a lush turquoise and white froth, or Surfing on Acid (2005) and Winter Surf, San Francisco (2006), two striated works that conjure the wall-like force of water, effortlessly if voraciously subsuming everything in their paths.
A different appropriative strategy obtains in works influenced by music (e.g., new wave, acid house)—a mainstay in Heilmann’s body of work. Save the Last Dance for Me (1979), The Blues for Miles (1991), Billy Preston (2002), and Go Ask Alice (2006) mine song lyrics or reference musicians, while the title of the Los Angeles Orange County Museum of Art exhibition, To Be Someone, summons a 1970s rock ballad with equal parts ambition and poignancy. Although the influence of her oeuvre on artists including Laura Owens, Elizabeth Peyton, Monique Prieto, and Jessica Stockholder has been widely noted, in a recent conversation with Dodie Kazanjian, Heilmann puts it differently: “I just think that in the midst of all the digital stuff, people sort of crave seeing something that’s still and quiet and on the wall.” SUZANNE HUDSON
Mary Heilmann, Spill, 2007. Oil on canvas, 30 x 54 in. (76.2 x 137.2 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich and London.