Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016

Heilmann_Cup Drawing -®Pat Hearn Gallery.jpg

Mary Heilmann, Cup Drawing, 1983, Oil on ceramic, 30.48 x 48.90 x 4.45 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Lucio Fontana thought of ceramic as the most aristocratic of sculptural materials. And it is likely that at about the time he began to work with ceramics at the Manufattura Mazzotti in the 1930s, the medium was still held in some degree of reverence for the delicate craft it often demanded. Fontana was one of the first of several modern artists to appropriate ceramics as part of their wider body of work, to stand alongside paintings even. In turning their attentions to it however, they also tended to drift far from the aristocratic.

Mary Heilmann has also built up a body of work which incorporates ceramics and painting, but one in which the presumed appropriation of the traditionally ‘craft’ medium belies a more intimate relation between the two components in the artist’s work. Heilmann studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley from 1963 to 1967, before moving to New York in 1968, where she took up painting. It is easy to see ceramics as an adjunct to the artist’s painting, especially given the scale of some of the early paintings we encounter as we walk into the first room of the Whitechapel Gallery. But it would be negligent to assume that this formative period spent working with such a raw and pliable medium did not have a sustained influence on Heilmann’s painting.

Heilmann_The Thief of Baghdad.jpg

Mary Heilmann, The Thief of Baghdad, 1983, Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 106.68 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The exhibition opens with some canvasses in which the impact of the male-dominated New York painting scene is tangible. There are some large and loose colour field works which seem to riff off the experiments of Joseph Albers or Mark Rothko. While the scale is substantial and the effect from a distance is one of a solid, carefully built up surface, these paintings are surprisingly unkempt. The slightly wobbling edge of an area of painted surface indicates hurried execution, as do the splashes and drips which enliven the chunky sides of the canvas. There are experiments with the square; often blocked in with thick satin interlocking strips of black acrylic over candy striped washes which bleed into each other like distinct river currents. These are nominally investigations into the kind of optics which occupied Albers over the course of a lifetime. With the newly arrived Heilmann however, we see a bold and almost irreverent hunger to work through what was current or recent in American painting.

Heilmann_Primalon Ballroom -®Oren Slor.jpg

Mary Heilmann, Primalon Ballroom, 2002, Oil on canvas on wood, 127 x 101.6 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Oren Slor
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Were it to be seen as no more than a period of sampling and experimentation, this early body of work might have been given a less visible presence in this Whitechapel survey. The most interesting thing about these early paintings however, is just how much of their treatment of medium and attitude to colour interactions was carried on into the next stage of the artist’s career, when there began to emerge a signature approach, almost a style, which was Heilmann’s alone. Despite an impulse to disregard the artists’ early explorations in New York as momentary, unstudied, and deferential, on closer examination it becomes clear that there is consistency of intent throughout. If Heilmann felt it necessary to try to emulate the heft of popular large scale painting of the time, then she still could not resist applying the paint as though it were a ceramic glaze. These joyfully sloppy lines and incidental drips are what Heilmann has gone on to ‘refine’ in the work which forms the mature period of her career.

Heilmann_Crashing Wave [-®Thomas Mu¦êller].jpg

Mary Heilmann, Crashing Wave, 2011, Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.60 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo: Thomas Müller
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Heilmann’s work looks not so much effortless as like joyful effort, and this is partly down to the ease with which the artist manipulates paint. This ease, in turn, comes from those critical formative years spent pressing and shaping clay and applying glazes. For any observer who sees Heilmann’s mid-career work as an abandonment of the potential touched on in the early New York paintings, I would suggest that the application of lessons learnt from a traditionally craft medium constitutes a highly appropriate evolution from the era of AB EX. After all, the processes demanded by the medium, and the ways in which these stages inform the final product, mean that crafts such as ceramics or blown glass for example will always speak more of their own formal qualities than any illusory content we may hope to charge them with.


Mary Heilmann, Maricopa Highway, 2014, Oil on canvas, 106.68 x 106.68 x 3.175 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Marie Catalano
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The idea of content then is the other key element in Heilmann’s work. The artist speaks of being influenced by music and movies; individual songs and individual scenes. One might expect this to push the work in many directions. We could end up looking at a roomful of paintings entirely different from one another. However, Heilmann never strays too far from her signature elements, either her colours or her fluid geometrics. There is rarely any musical or filmic reference in any of her paintings which is so explicit as to appear to have informed the look of the work. These are impressions which the artist has grafted onto the work or simply thrown into the mix. They hardly seem to be essential. Yet for Heilmann, these musical or cinematic references exist as equals in the work alongside the continued exploration of colour values and geometric abstraction, and alongside the immanent physicality of her paintwork that comes from the lessons of working with ceramics.

Mary Heilmann came to painting having already received an initiation into ceramics and sculpture. Coming from this direction, an artist is bound to view their new medium through the prism of the one they are more familiar with. She also came to painting at a time when the spell of large scale abstraction was starting to break, if not already broken. Perhaps it is due to her discovery of painting during such a time of transition that Heilmann is less beholden to the medium of paint, but instead allows everything to flourish simultaneously in her work. This is a very contemporary attitude; to see an artwork as a ground on which to work out patterns of interaction between disparate, sometimes irreconcilable elements. The artist doesn’t need to impose a hierarchy, but instead can admit content, form, craft and intellect into the work in equal measure.

Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in Madrid

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