Art

Mary Heilmann Disrupts the Rigid Systems of Abstraction

Heilmann’s paintings gleefully haunt those artworks which make claims on purity, autonomy, or clarity.

The Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, NY (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BRIDGEHAMPTON, NY — The Dan Flavin Art Institute is located in a small, wood-shingled two-story building, a repurposed firehouse built in 1908 that was used as a church until the 1970s. Flavin’s works are upstairs, and are as expected: monumental, cool, a little bit religious looking. Flavin oversaw the design of the upper space, and the subtle gradations of light from work to work are finely calibrated. Like everything in Bridgehampton, it’s creepily pristine. There is not a hair out of place.

This all changes, however, when you step downstairs into the temporary exhibition space. A row of domestic ceiling lights half illuminate a few smallish paintings and ceramics. The show, Mary Heilmann: Painting Pictures, immediately feels jarring. Like Flavin’s neon constructions, the works are brightly colored and ostensibly geometric. But something is off. Colors bleed between planes, pinks and reds clash, paint extends over the edges of the stretchers. The objects are unwieldy, physical, and decidedly messy.

Installation view of Dan Flavin at the Dan Flavin Institute
Installation view of Mary Heilmann: Painting Pictures

A resident of Bridgehampton since the late 1980s, Mary Heilmann seems to have somehow resisted the town’s clawing tidiness. Her practice could be characterized by its tendency to disrupt the orderly spaces around it. Heilmann’s paintings gleefully haunt those artworks which make claims on purity, autonomy, or clarity. While Flavin often emphasized that his pulsating fluorescent sculptures were “clearly, openly, plainly delivered,” Heilmann operates more subversively. She makes something that looks like conventional abstract art, but reaches impishly beyond its borders. The pinks and greens of her paintings are not part of a chic minimalist palette, but, by her own confession, an homage to the distinct color scheme of The Simpsons.

Installation view of Mary Heilmann: Painting Pictures

Take “The First Vent” (1972), the earliest work in the show. The painting looks fairly innocuous, familiar even. It’s a horizontal grid, rendered in smeary brown paint on a red background. In abstract painting, grids are often used to hold the viewer’s attention on the surface of a canvas, marking its limits and reasserting its nonrepresentational status. As Flavin might have said, the gridded picture “is what it is and it ain’t nothing else.” Yet “The First Vent” is something else. The picture is a 1:1 scale representation of the air vent in Heilmann’s studio. Taken as such, the trope of the grid is trivialized: not only is the work slyly representational, but it reminds us that a painting is simply one mundane object among many. “We all hated painting,” Heilmann wrote about her time in the New York Scene in the late 1960s. “Even me. So I started making paintings that sort of dissed painting.”

Installation view of Mary Heilmann: Painting Pictures

Over the following decades, Heilmann turned “dissing painting” into a career. Yet it is important to remember that “dissing painting” is not the same thing as dismissing painting. All the works in Painting Pictures exhibit a strange kind of rigor. “Rio Nido” (1987), for instance, is virtuosic in its play of layers and textures; backgrounds intrude into foregrounds, the paint surface switches abruptly from brushy to smooth. It’s an endlessly entertaining work precisely because of how artfully it navigates painterly conventions, raising certain formal expectations only to dodge them at the last moment. In an interesting process of give and take, Heilmann needs painting in order to make anti-painting.

In this way, Painting Pictures perfectly encapsulates Heilmann’s practice. Not because it is thoughtfully hung or curated (it isn’t especially), and not because the space lends itself to her painting (it doesn’t). Instead, the exhibition works because it captures the weird reciprocity between Heilmann’s paintings and their historical peers. Her works are at their most expressive in the places where abstraction is at its most self-assured. In the house of the “clearly, openly, plainly delivered,” Heilmann’s paintings are a welcome disruption.

Mary Heilmann: Painting Pictures continues at the Dan Flavin Art Institute (23 Corwith Ave, Bridgehampton, NY) through May 27.

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