Sea Memory 

The West Coast Culture influences of modern art powerhouse Mary Heilmann.

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. 

SAN GREGORIO 2012 Oil on canvas 15 × 12 inches. Photo by Thomas Müller. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.

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. 

OOZE 1967 Plywood with roofing tar 86 × 48 × 24 inches. Photo by Mary Heilmann. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.

Heilmann’s “Ooze” is a large sculpture made of staggered, cutout plumes of arcing plywood, painted black with tar. The piece looms at seven feet tall and seems to jet from the wall like a ruptured water main or severed artery. The shaped panels of wood eventually cascade to the floor where they seem to rebound upward and inward. “Ooze” looks like a giant wave of imploding crude oil but it also looks like a giant, gestural, painterly move writ large. It’s the Abstract Expressionist performative-painting-act transformed into sculpture. Ultimately, the piece convincingly makes the case that painting and sculpture needn’t be quarantined from one another, as this work literally connects the floor (the spatial domain of sculpture) with the wall (painting’s countryside).

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.

GREEN ROOM, TURQUOISE LIGHTS 2015 Acrylic on canvas 18 × 24 inches. Photo by Thomas Müller. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.

A small rectangular canvas, and a perfect example of a “less is more” ideology. Big things really do come in small packages, and Heilmann’s economy of means is bold stuff. It’s a tiny work, almost portable, like something you could fit in your backpack. And it’s also a quick read: one dark viridian brush stroke washing over a lighter Kelly green ground and that’s about it. The painting has almost nothing to it. It seems to barely exist with its diminutive size and swift execution. It’s just one color pass, draped over another color pass…but it packs a wallop if you like waves. The subject is cropped in such a way as to reduce it to its geometric bones and consequently the painting operates dually as flat abstraction and, paradoxically, as thunderous space: a pitching lip of a big, heavy, lefthander, backlit by the sun it’s obscuring. The reductive scheme here, the boil-down, is a gut punch to painters everywhere fussily trying to get at the hydraulic menace and ecstasy of powerful waves. Consequently, this might be the last wave painting that ever needs to be made. Along with painting, this is also surfing distilled to its core primacy: after all, what are waves if not one band of colored energy folding over another?
SURFING ON ACID 2005 Oil on canvas 60 × 48 inches. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.

A vertical rectangle of hot and frisky pink upon which is painted a mound of stacked and squiggly shapes—like Wonderland caterpillars spazzing out in a jumbled pile-up. It’s also just a flashy stack of painted-out gestural moves, like the genetic code of painting itself. Its mathematical formula: make a stroke, add a stroke, add another stroke, and a painting will be made… But hang on, it’s also a pulled-back view of the ocean with stacking sets of closeouts looming, one after the other, bugging out your dilated pupils.

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.

SURF STUDY (RED BREAK) 2007 Oil on Canvas 14 × 11 inches. Photo by Hauser & Wirth. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.
SUNSET 2005 Printed vinyl and aluminum, digital video and 45 chairs Dimensions variable. Photo by Nic Lehoux. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

A mixed-media installation, all of which lived on the rooftop terrace of the Whitney Museum of American Art. This portion of work is composed of a group of brightly painted chairs, which the artist has designed. The chairs’ coloring and their placement admiring the skyline are transportive, moving from the concrete jungle to the ephemeral wash of the coast, the horizon, and the setting sun. The chairs owe their inspiration and much of their design to the late, great poo-bah of Minimalism, Donald Judd, whom Heilmann admires very deeply. Judd made boxy sculptures of cast concrete, wood, and steel with fabricators who worked construction, and his output is, to some, as dry as possible. In addition to sculpture, Judd made furniture, and his chairs have 90-degree angles everywhere—in complete defiance of the human form. They are incredibly elegant structures but ergonomically toxic. In Heilmann’s hands, the silhouette of Judd’s work has been observed and beautifully preserved. However, where his backrest would lurch at a perfect right angle of glistening hardwood, Heilmann has canted the angle back into something deeply comfortable for your back to nestle into. Judd would have likely blanched at this take on his work. And while, up until that time, all of Heilmann’s chairs were also always built with wheels, this design was altered due to the winds on the Whitney terrace. Had it not, it’s easy enough to imagine poor Donald having a stroke.
BEACH BREAK 2008 Oil on canvas 13.875 × 11 inches. Photo by Christopher Burke Studio. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.

[Feature image: Photo by Philip Mauro.]