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The West Coast Culture influences of modern art powerhouse Mary Heilmann.
By Alex Weinstein
Light / Dark
As a child in the 1940s, Mary Heilmann accompanied her father to Kelly’s Cove in San Francisco where he soloed in the heaving shore break, the kids transfixed. One day he vanished out there, swept off by a current. In the decades since, Heilmann has established herself as one of America’s most admired and influential painters—one whose decidedly open-minded pictures and relaxed style have consistently chafed at conformity and swum tirelessly against dominant currents and en vogue trends in contemporary art. (Her dad came back, by the way, later that day, but he was gone—floating out there in the steely Pacific—for quite a while.)
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the mid 1960s, Heilmann fell in with a small crew of hardcore surfers and joined them every chance she got on trips up to Big Sur and down to Rincon and Ventura. She also drove a lot on her own back then, to and from the Bay Area, eventually following the blacktop along Highway One to Berkeley for an advanced degree, studying alongside both Peter Voulkos (whose sculptural approach to ceramics, virile and ultra-muscular, singlehandedly altered the use of the material) and David Hockney (who, out-of-the-closet, ebullient and direct from London, brought fresh color, and thinking, to the stained burlap vibe of the nascent Manson/Jim Jones failed-hippie-state of California). While at Berkeley, Heilmann also hung out with budding art-wunderkind, Bruce Nauman, who would help inspire in Heilmann a deep and personal inquiry into the nature of making art: how and why rules should be recognized, obeyed, obliterated.
In 1968, New York was the art world. It was small, cliquish, smart, critical, and competitive. It was also mainly dudes. Mary Heilmann the sculptor arrived with ambition and confidence (traits her work has never lacked) but found it difficult to gain traction and critical or commercial support early on. When the death bells of painting tolled in the streets of lower Manhattan—its demise essentially agreed upon by critics and artists alike—Heilmann, a contrarian in many respects, found a calling.
Her paintings come from a deep love of reductive, minimalist work and geometric abstraction as espoused by artists like Donald Judd and Josef Albers. However, one senses in Heilmann’s work little of the stringent, almost-cruel rigidity of these two titans of American art. Instead the looser, relaxed hand at work in her studio is perhaps closer to the painters associated with Abstract Expressionism. Here again though, the association falters. In a wonderful documentary about the artist made by Art: 21 for PBS, Heilmann recalls working on a large washy painting called “Heaven,” while reading a biography of Willem de Kooning—an abstract expressionist T-Rex if ever there was one.
In the film, Heilmann describes reading about the torment de Kooning experienced while working: the anguish and heroics of building and destroying the picture over and over again, constantly “poking at it” while trying to wrangle it into existence. Heilmann herself was witness to many blusterous ego-clashes at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub where all of New York’s art luminaries partied. In the documentary, exasperated with de Kooning’s theatrics, she finally pops off: “Get a life de Kooning!” She then catches her breath and realizes that she is indeed having the same experience with “Heaven.” She’s sloshing the paint around looking for something deep and struggling with it—existentialism in studio. On camera, she says, “My gosh, this is hard to do! And I stopped at that point,” at which she cracks a splendid chuckle, easing into her chair.
But here’s the thing: “Heaven” is not abandoned as an unfinished work. Neither is it reworked and labored-over to conclusion. The picture is finished right then and there, when Heilmann says so. This is radical. This type of anti-method is closer to punk-rock sensibility than establishment thinking. Heilmann’s refusal to work in this angsty, bloodied-knuckles tradition is typical of how she operates: consistently identifying and eschewing convention, running against the grain.
Heilmann has continuously worked to a personal beat where volatile and ticking contradictions are defused. Her work is sparing and reductive without being stingy or undernourished. It’s geometric and purposefully non-figurative, but coyly guised in gesture and implied space. How does she get these antagonistic notions of art to get along so well? When compared to other New Yorkers of her heady and often solemn epoch, her colors are loud and proud with blood in the veins—upbeat and smiling. She’s been called “Californian” for this, which may ironically speak more to New York’s own brand of provinciality than otherwise. That said, Heilmann’s approach can be seen as an amalgam of bucked trends and deep insights from a life lived on both coasts—and of a willingness to embrace imperfection while working with tremendous focus (something she learned from immersions in both ceramics and Japanese art). Somehow, through all of it, her work has an aisance to it—a confident, underpinning vibe of not forcing it.
That day at Kelly’s Cove marked Heilmann and, over the years, countless more days would be spent at beaches around the world including pilgrimages to the North Shore and Mundaka. Today Heilmann lives and works a mile from the Atlantic, on Long Island. While her paintings are essentially non-figurative and her status as an abstract painter is well established, she does, on occasion, make overtly realist pictures. And they are inevitably of the sea.