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Mary Heilmann, “Music of the Spheres” (2001), oil on canvas (©Mary Heilmann, photo by Hauser & Wirth; courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth) (click to enlarge)

LONDON — When I first walked into the Whitechapel Gallery, I thought I was looking at a Barnett Newman zip painting on the far wall. But as I got closer, I saw that the ‘zip’ was in fact the brilliantly colored edge of a canvas; two paintings, side by side, giving an illusion of flatness from afar. This is typical of Mary Heilmann’s work; for her, paintings are both puzzles to be worked out and objects to be seen in the round, a unique idea that belies her training as a sculptor.

Mary Heilmann, “Little Mondrian” (1985), acrylic and watercolor on canvas (©Mary Heilmann, photo by Pat Hearn Gallery; courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth) (click to enlarge)

Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics, and sculpture at Berkeley in the 1960s, a time when the mostly male Minimalists were dominating the art scene and painting had been declared dead once more. The curators of Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures tell us that Heilmann “only began painting after realizing that she could not get any attention for her sculptures as a woman artist,” and indeed she appears to have brought something of the workshop to the studio. She began applying paint to the smooth surface of ceramics, playing with glazes in a way that paint could not afford and inviting comparison with artists like Betty Woodman. This is not to say she neglected the canvas altogether; in fact, some of her best work delves into the origins of abstract painting. She herself declared in an earlier interview: “I didn’t study the craft of oil painting; I picked it up as I went along.” This is obvious in many of the paintings in the downstairs galleries, joyous homages to masters like Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich who taught her about color and grids. But it is undoubtedly emulation not imitation, as her canvases transform an idea into something of her own; Malevich’s stark black square turns into a bright blue and yellow composition in “Gordy’s Square” (1976), the edges of the shape a little wobbly, the background bleeding through. Elsewhere she turns to grids, inspired by the geometry of domestic interiors, but instead of carefully measuring and scoring her lines she chooses to draw her finger through the paint, a direct intervention — uninterrupted by the paintbrush — with her materials that takes her back once again to the haptic world of ceramics and sculpture.

Mary Heilmann, “Cup Drawing” (1983), oil on ceramic (©Mary Heilmann, photo by Pat Hearn Gallery; courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth) (click to enlarge)

The paintings in the ground floor galleries are glossy, joyous celebrations of the medium, but it is the more autobiographical work upstairs that holds the attention. These paintings represent a later period when many of the people around Heilmann were dying from AIDS, a tragedy that clearly influenced her work. But the bright luminosity of color remains and the atmosphere is remarkably playful; gone are the tasteful color relationships learned from Albers. Here, anything goes, from glow-in-the-dark green to plasticine brown. Two canvases in lurid yellow sit side by side, crowned by a constellation of ceramic discs, while specially commissioned wooden chairs in exquisite pastels — available to buy from the gallery in editions — invite you to immerse yourself fully in her aesthetic.

In another room, we are shown a glimpse of her method with a film that presents source images and paintings side by side — photographs of sunsets and roads that become the lines of her canvases — and a selection of pages from a sketchbook where compositions are tried and tested in watercolor, the page cut up and rearranged into the Tetris-like stepped forms for which she is best known.

Mary Heilmann, “Maricopa Highway” (2014), oil on canvas, acrylic and watercolor on canvas (©Mary Heilmann, photo by Marie Catalano; courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth)

The idea of landscape is constant but never quite seems to be given concrete form. Heilmann prefers instead to explore the boundaries of geometry and color. Some iconography enters her work here, with paintings like “Ghost Chair” (1989), where loved ones are conspicuous in their absence, and “Maricopa Highway” (2014), a very Lynchian depiction of an empty black road disappearing into the distance inspired by childhood road trips.

Mary Heilmann, “Night Swimmer” (1998), oil on canvas (©Mary Heilmann, photo by Thomas Müller; courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth) (click to enlarge)

Music too plays an important part in Heilmann’s later work, from the bright notes of “Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David” (2012), to the dark layers of water that make up “Night Swimmer” (1998), an homage to REM and to the ocean. When asked about the influence of music on her work in a 2013 interview with Hyperallergic, she compared  its composition directly to her method of painting: “Feelings are expressed, not so much by the narrative, but by the way the music is put together. In non-image art, it is the same thing, through scale, and relationships to the part and the whole, different colors, and opposite colors. You compose music abstractly. You compose pieces of art in an abstract way too.”

Many may not have heard of Heilmann, overshadowed as she was by the previous decade’s Irascibles and the Minimalism and Pop art of the ’60s, but with this show she has been rightly brought to the fore, her own evolution of painting given center stage.

Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures continues at the Whitechapel Gallery (77–82 Whitechapel High Street, London, UK) through August 21.

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Maria Howard

Maria Howard is a freelance writer based in South East London. She is also curator of Telegram Gallery representing emerging painters, photographers, and printmakers. Find her on Instagram as @mimihoward.

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