Mary Heilmann, ‘Looking at Pictures’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery 8 June – 21 August 2016
Among the paintings that conclude Mary Heilmann’s ‘Looking at Pictures’ at Whitechapel Gallery is ‘Maricopa Highway’ (2014). One of Heilmann’s most recent works, it is evocative of driving at night along scenic highways and the familiar narratives of road movies and video games. ‘Maricopa Highway’s’ nocturnal palette is uncharacteristically naturalistic and subdued, Heilmann’s vibrant choice of colour having been quickly established in her shift from ceramics and sculpture to painting in the early 1970s. In many ways this, like the other paintings of roads and oceans in the final section of the exhibition, feels like Heilmann making a definitive move into more overtly representational painting; diagonal stripes suggest perspective recession and more literally, road markings illuminated by a car’s headlights. The real Maricopa Highway is a little-travelled state highway in Southern California and the route taken by Heilmann’s parents as they drove from San Francisco to LA during her childhood. This describes well the way in which Heilmann makes paintings in which a personal narrative is alluded to through her choice of title, for example, ‘311 Castro Street’ (2001), which was her grandmother’s address, ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ (1989), the title of a book by Jean Genet, of whom Heilmann says she is a fan. This personal connection to her own work is consistent through titles that denote significant memories, friendships, places and songs. Heilmann herself assumes a self-referential position in her 1999 memoir The All Night Movie, in which she wrote, ‘Each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker’. ‘Looking at Pictures’ makes much of Heilmann as an artist who paints her own life – the exhibition title itself is taken from a section of her aforementioned biography – but there is nothing pure or definitive about Heilmann’s approach to painting. Where she embraces abstraction as a referent for personal experience, she also denotes its more formal concerns, albeit with a casual and knowing imperfection. In ‘Maricopa Highway’ the duality of Heilmann’s methodology is well illustrated. She presents not just a scene of driving at night towards a distant vanishing point but a fractured reality of two different viewing positions placed consecutively. The diagonal lines are both road markings and a reduced abstract form composed on a shaped geometric canvas. Her application of paint is in part dense and almost flat, in part a translucent gestural wash. Throughout ‘Looking at Pictures’ Heilmann’s paintings reveal an adjacency of formalism and narrative, simultaneously telling stories of the proximity of herself to the work and also her objective distance while working towards an established language of abstract motifs.
Born in 1940 in California, Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics and sculpture before moving to New York in 1968. Here she took up painting at a time when it was hugely unpopular, if not considered to have died altogether (again). ‘Looking at Pictures’ begins at this point, with a selection of her works based on the square, the grid and architectural details, such as ‘The First Vent’ (1972) and ‘Little 9×9’ (1973). Both paintings depict irregular grids, made by Heilmann manipulating the painted red surface with her fingers to reveal the dark ground beneath. Heilmann’s gridlines wave fluidly across the canvas – her lines are loose and hastily rendered on a surface that reveals the paintings’ making through their disrupted top layer of smeared pigment. Heilmann cites the modest vocabulary and flawed perfection of Agnes Martin’s canvases as an influence at this point, but both artists exhibit a widely divergent treatment of the grid. For Martin the grid was a substitute for the most fundamental form of drawing, a rational system of lines that formed organisational structures on a canvas. They are quiet and meditative, produced methodically and with great control. The flaws in Martin’s lines are temporal, identifiable only after looking closely at her paintings. Heilmann’s grids have none of this subtlety. They are spontaneous and vibrant. The imperfections in the regularity of the grid’s rendering are at the forefront of the experience of looking, the artist’s hand is assertive and her colour palette highly saturated. What ‘Looking at Pictures’ does well is to avoid any sense that Heilmann is on a direct journey towards creative genius. Instead, the initial part of the exhibition demonstrates an honest clumsiness in her early attempts to scrape, handle and drag paint into the loose geometry that later became a personal language. Heilmann’s early paintings present themselves literally as their own experimentation. ‘The First Vent’ (1972) feels like a significant work in this regard, signifying Heilmann’s subsequent use of formal elements to explore pictorial space but that also reference real-world experiences. ‘The First Vent’ is on the one hand a self-reflexive grid painting, and on the other, a literal depiction of an air vent. Her early geometric works follow a pattern of painted forms such as rectangles, squares and grids that could be identified in the interior architecture of doors, grills and latticed windows, often produced at life size. Unlike the distant objectivity of Martin’s geometry, Heilmann’s intimations of the everyday domestic world are embodied experiences, unkempt in execution and shamelessly fixed in narrative.
Heilmann’s subjective relationship with Modernist abstraction placed her in opposition to the fundamental American position on painting in the early 1970s. In her own words she ‘didn’t fit in with the group informed by the [critic Clement] Greenberg-influenced discourse.’ Her casual approach to formal investigation allowed her to make paintings that felt new, and they had an irreverent edge. When Heilmann’s work cites Mondrian, Matisse and Albers it does so with a lack of formal etiquette. The two red canvases of ‘Chinatown’ (1976), in which one is painted over a blue ground, the other yellow, appear to reference Albers’ ideas about simultaneous contrast. If they do so, however, we are convinced that any element of formal investigation is nominal, as Heilmann’s choice of colour is also associated with the decoration of the Chinese restaurants in the area where she lived in New York in the early 1970s. ‘Little Mondrian’ (1985) is one of Heilmann’s more direct allusions to Modernist painting. She adopts Mondrian’s signature palette of red, yellow, blue and white and treats it with an informal wit; sloppy brush marks are left visible in translucent, relaxed rectangles, contoured rapidly in watery black lines. There is an evident interest in reinventing the standards of Modernist abstraction by identifying its essence and blurring it round the edges. Formal explorations are messed up with drips and blots of paint, surfaces are never flat or visually still. Her almost ‘monochromes’ such as ‘The Big Black Mirror’ (1975) and ‘Green Weave’ (2013) have hurriedly applied or scraped back layers of colour – they have not one painted surface but several. In ‘Green Weave’ Heilmann ignores the Modernist palette entirely and chooses instead the colour of the natural world, and not the abstract one, in which to make a dishevelled green square.
Heilmann’s formative period spent working in ceramics and sculpture has had a prolonged influence on her. ‘Looking at Pictures’ includes a selection of Heilmann’s ceramics and they have a clear connection to her paintings. She is influenced by the jewel-like colours of ceramic glazes, which is made explicit in the cobalt blue abstraction ‘Ming’ (1986). She uses techniques of dripping, layering and pouring to apply paint, which derives from her earlier work with glazes. Heilmann considers the whole painting – its sides, top and edges – and paint is applied to each through rapid brush marks, dribbles and drags, either intentionally or incidentally. In her early paintings such as ‘Little 9 x 9’ acrylic paint is sculpted like malleable clay with Heilmann’s fingers to create structure and define space, generating form through a traditionally sculptural process of adding or subtracting material. In ‘Gordy’s Square’ (1976) (Gordy being Heilmann’s late boyfriend Gordon Matta-Clark) Heilmann has painted a square canvas in bright yellow, then covered the yellow in ultramarine blue. With the blue layer still wet, she wiped off a border to reveal a yellow frame around a central blue square. She has said of ‘Gordy’s Square’, ‘I wasn’t really thinking about painting, I was thinking about structures’. In literal terms the painting was made as a simulation of Matta-Clark cutting through layers of a building, more formally the canvas surface is not only a two-dimensional picture plane but expands into space and becomes a physical thing. There is a sense that all of Heilmann’s paintings are objects, and that the stories of their form derive from what has ‘happened’ to them during the process of their making.
Heilmann’s journey to establish a personal language of painting is explored well in ‘Looking at Pictures’. The first half of the exhibition shows paintings that are experimental, characterised by enquiry and new ideas. In the upstairs gallery, however, the pace slows and Heilmann’s approach feels wholly established. The gestures that felt fresh and rebellious in the 1970s and 80s appear fixed and more formulaic in the 1990s. By this point her colour palette fully embraces her inspiration in the saturated pop colours of Californian sunlight and TV cartoons such as The Simpsons, not straying into new territory until the more muted works descriptive of roads and ocean waves at the end of the exhibition. There are fewer questions being asked – more answers being stated over and over again. Titles and narrative associations become increasingly personal, and humour is more pronounced, for example ‘Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David’ (2012), where colour extends from the edges of the canvas in the form of ceramic wall mounted shapes, venturing close to pure whimsy. The freshness of Heilmann’s attitude is restored in works like ‘Johngiorno’ (1995), in which a web motif covering part of its surface jolts the painting out of flatness and into an implied dimensional space alongside a flat rendering of loose, coloured dots. Heilmann has said of this, ‘the pattern in Johngiorno is like cobblestones. The adjoining of two different motifs represents a collage aesthetic, which is important in my work… In other works, especially my shaped canvases, I join different motifs together.’ This forced affinity of difference is one of the recurring themes in Heilmann’s work. She brings together a personal lived experience of memory and connotation with a relaxed formal abstract language of irregular grids, sliding squares and wobbly edges. The adjacent positions of private and public / studio and gallery are implied in the physical exhibition space through the inclusion of Heilmann’s brightly coloured chairs. They add nothing to the paintings but contribute to the overall sensation of colour coming off the canvas and into the real world, and this shifting between two and three dimensions has been embodied in her practice for the past 50 years. ‘Looking at Pictures’ shows clearly that Heilmann’s journey to this point has not been a singular experience but several running simultaneously. Her more recent paintings such as ‘Maricopa Highway’ show that she is still moving, and that there is still more than one direction of travel to explore.