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. Continue reading “Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016”