‘Mary Heilmann,’ installation view at 303 Gallery, New York (November 5–December 19, 2015) (all images courtesy 303 Gallery, New York)

When I first wrote about Mary Heilmann for Artforum (January 1987), one thing I had in mind was the strong impression that her first great painting, “Save the Last Dance for Me” (1979), had made on me some years earlier, when I saw it at the Holly Solomon Gallery. In that early painting Heilmann challenged the orthodoxy that form was top dog, and that content had to be completely squeezed out of the picture. Of course, Frank Stella, who did much to give content and subjectivity a bad name, also coolly alluded to big subjects (the Holocaust) in his titles, because he was sure he could get away with it, and he was right.

Being right about something isn’t always a good thing. Heilmann, to her credit, has never been interested in being right, and this was clear from the beginning of her career. A student of ceramics and creative writing (poetry) in San Francisco, California, during the height of the Hippie movement, she moved to New York and began painting in the early 1970s, around the time many had written it off as being irrelevant, a thing of the past, and she has determinedly gone her own way ever since. No wonder she is a hero to many younger artists, particularly those who embrace painting while rejecting the art world’s love of high-production spectacle and excessive materialism.

‘Mary Heilmann,’ installation view at 303 Gallery, New York (November 5–December 19, 2015)

By combining color and geometry (three different-sized pink rectangles on a black field) — as she did in “Save the Last Dance for Me” — to convey the romantic sappiness, emotional intensity, and hormonal overdrive of an intense adolescent ritual (the last dance at a high school prom), Heilmann did more than loosen Minimalism’s repressive bounds. She offered an alternative to its valorization of literalism, which the philosopher Norman. O. Brown believed was capitalism’s “worship of false images, idolatry.”

Rather than embracing objectivity and literalism, Heilmann proposed that:

Each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker, a cue by which I evoke a moment from my past, or my projected future, each a charm to conjure a mental reality and to give it physical form.

She ended the paragraph, which opened her memoir, THE ALL NIGHT MOVIE (1989), with:

Gazing at a picture like this can amuse me for hours. It’s like watching a movie.

By using anonymous images (rectangles, bars, curved forms, and elongated clouds) to introduce metaphor and the wide range of memories and associations it evokes, Heilmann basically stood Minimalism on its head, enabling the viewer to complete the painting with his or her own personal experience. By doing so, Heilmann rejected Minimalism’s authoritarian attitude, which was famously expressed by Frank Stella’s credo, “What you see is what you see.”

‘Mary Heilmann,’ installation view at 303 Gallery, New York (November 5–December 19, 2015)

Heilmann was not alone in figuring out how to subvert Minimalism in the 1970s and ’80s, as two younger artists, Thomas Nozkowski and Stanley Whitney, were also finding ways around its preoccupation with reductive forms and post-easel (or corporate) scale, and to introduce nature, pop culture, memory, and history into the work — to, in Heilmann’s words, “conjure a mental reality.” What these artists rejected was the orthodoxy that content be banished, replaced by purely optical statements or ideal forms. Moreover, they did not try to recuperate gestural painting or to align themselves with the spiritual strain running through American painting from Arthur Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove through today. More down to earth, and disinclined to claim that they were shamans or spiritually evolved beings, they were willing to embrace aspects of pop culture, including its movies and music. What these artists share is their shameless enthusiasm.

Since the early 1970s, Heilmann has been an artist who reveled in working across a range of mediums, including painting, ceramics, and furniture. Rejecting the heroic, she combined a do-it-yourself ethic with a vision of unconventional domesticity. During this period she developed a group of motifs, which she has reprised and reconfigured. In terms of her palette, there are deep and dark blues, bubblegum pinks, and bright and moss greens. In her recent exhibition, Mary Heilmann, Geometrics: Waves, Roads, etc at 303 Gallery (November 5–December 19, 2015), she continues to mine her motifs, make chairs, tables, and functional ceramics (coffee cups), as well as do the unexpected within what avid fans might think of as familiar Heilmann territory. For one thing, in addition to juxtaposing one motif against another, she is now bringing disparate materials together.

Playfulness is Heilmann’s modus operandi. She has set up both rooms of the gallery as if for a picnic or tea party. A circle of seven simple, painted wooden chairs — each is called “Sunny Chaise” and numbered — occupies the center of the large gallery, while a red octagonal table covered with bright red, yellow and blue ceramic cups sits near the corner of the smaller back gallery, near a magenta chair. There are shaped geometric paintings on the walls in the front gallery, often paired with their mirror opposite, a row of highway paintings, along with works that combine painting and ceramic or painting and paper. Painted in either yellow-green or moss green — the colors reminded me of some ideal elementary school — the seven chairs invite viewers to relax, while the paintings offer them a chance to contemplate an alternative world (or lifestyle), based on elemental, yet challenging leisure activities (surfing) or driving on the open road (Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac) at night.

‘Mary Heilmann,’ installation view at 303 Gallery, New York (November 5–December 19, 2015)

As Whitman declares at the beginning of his poem, “Song of the Open Road”:

Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road …

Heilmann isn’t so joyful or optimistic in her paintings. The two-paneled highway paintings, with tapered yellow, pale blue, or white bands against a dark blue field in the lower panel evoke a road traversed at night, even as the dark blue or gray panel above it does not simply signify night or an overcast sky; paintings such as “By the Time I get to Phoenix” (2015) and “Overcast” (2015) are visual invitations to seek a higher state of consciousness, to see reality differently. However, instead of suggesting that she possesses the answer or is in fact enlightened herself, Heilmann also endows these paintings with a sense of being alone, of embarking on a journey unaccompanied, as the goal lies invisible beyond the horizon. Joy, longing and loneliness are just some of the feelings that Heilmann can stir up in her works. Moreover, she has taken a largely masculine subject — the quest — and made it her own.

(Heilmann’s highway paintings are also suffused with the same poignancy that I find in the pastel drawings of a desert landscape partially bisected by a two-lane highway made by Richard Artschwager in the last few years of his life.)

The rudimentary construction of the chairs and table, the brightly colored, sturdy ceramic cups, and the simple geometry of the paintings and the unfussy direct application of the paint is all of a piece. Heilmann’s message is understated and straightforward: you don’t need to possess fancy accoutrements in order to enjoy life. Gaudy materialism and Club Med should not be priorities.

In “Shadow and Splash” (2015), Heilmann pairs two disparate objects: a black, irregularly shaped, rectangular ceramic tile and a similarly sized painting of a stack of waves or clouds in contrasting colors. In “Two Logics” (2013), one of my favorite works in the show, Heilmann partially covers a modestly scaled painting (it’s 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches) of four rectangles with a stepped piece of black, handmade paper. The paper suggests that the painting might not be finished, that something else needs to be done to it, even as it completes the work by covering it. Moreover, the paper itself adds a feeling of vulnerability to the work, even as it partially protects it.

‘Mary Heilmann,’ installation view at 303 Gallery, New York (November 5–December 19, 2015)

I cannot think of many other artists who can touch upon such a variety of feelings, memories, and states of longing, all while working on a modest and even intimate scale. There is a directness to her work that is always more than it seems. By bringing together such materials as ceramics and paper with painting, she challenges the hierarchy of materials positing that one is more precious and therefore meaningful than another. There are two small works on paper, “Family Tree” (2015) and the witty and touching “First Date” (2015), in which two different vocabularies meet, which are as strong as anything in the exhibition. In these works, as well as in the brightly glazed cups on the table, one recognizes just how open, joyous and sensual Heilmann can be whatever the material. There is an unrepentant pleasure in the making, a refusal to call attention to the labor involved.

A veteran of the New York art world — its changing fads and fashions — who began showing in early 1970s, Heilmann shows no signs of slowing down or looking back. She continues to find ways to be festive and evocative, and to frame our romantic longing, reminding us that art is about freedom and celebration, as much as it is about anything else.

Mary Heilmann, Geometrics: Waves, Roads, etc continues at 303 Gallery (507 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 19.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...