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I visited Mary Heilmann recently in her Bridgehampton studio. At the end of our time together, she took a small painting of a wave, and turned it upside-down. It was the perfect gesture to sum up our conversation and the themes of her work — an offhand reminder of its yin-yang quality. Heilmann’s work plays with big ideas, but it does so playfully.
Heilmann, born in 1940, spent her childhood years in Southern California amidst beach and surf culture. She studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her MA in 1967. She moved to New York the next year, hanging at Max’s Kansas City with her friend Richard Serra, and gravitating toward the world of minimalist sculpture.
She soon made the radical move to become a painter (right when painting was declared dead), but her work is always object-like and idea-based. Her punk aesthetic is manifested in wild colors, fake drips, and slightly off-kilter geometries. She joins shaped canvases and designs installations that include hand-made, movable chairs. She works like a conceptual artist, executing ideas in series and repetition, based on sustained meditation. The result is a freshness and instinctual quality, in opposition to the laborious existentialism of formalist abstraction.
Heilmann’s inspiration is popular culture, and more than anything, she is interested in conversation. Her work — straddling this unique space between Pop, Minimalism, abstraction and craft — has been extremely influential to succeeding generations of artists. Heilmann is represented by 303 Gallery in New York, and was the subject of a traveling retrospective organized by the New Museum in 2008.
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Jennifer Samet: In the essay he wrote about you, Dave Hickey mentions that you “readily admit to knowing nothing about the craft of painting.” Do you think that is true?
Mary Heilmann: It is significant that I wasn’t educated as a painter. I was educated in the craft of sculpture, starting with ceramics and then bronze casting and welded steel, and then mold making, at the time that new plastic materials were invented to make molds. I didn’t study the craft of oil painting; I picked it up as I went along.
My inspiration for art doesn’t really come from the history of painting. It comes from the community of art as it is now, and also popular culture, like movies and music and books and fashion, especially street fashion, not high fashion.
JS: I was thinking about how you have articulated your desire to communicate with people through your work, for your work to be almost devotional or iconic. How is communication a central aspect of your pursuit?
MH: That desire goes all the way back to the cave men — and cave ladies! Put a picture on the wall to think about what a buffalo looks like. The gist of my New Museum show, To Be Someone, was to make something that people would look at and talk to you about. That song is about fame and celebrity, but yet, you work your way up.
The psychology of it starts from being a child and making something and then showing it to your mom and dad with pride. Every little child does it, to get love. The same instinct shows up at fourteen years old when you try to make boys look at you by showing how you are smart and clever and cute. Then, a little later on, you might try to make a marketable product, so you can have money to get something to eat or drink.
JS: Interesting — so you think it is a universal instinct to want to make things?
MH: Yes, to get love. Really, a lot of people make stuff. People who aren’t artists.
JS: The art world is also a lot bigger than it was.
MH: Yes. Back in 1968, when I came to New York, and went to Max’s Kansas City you could meet just about everybody in the art world. It was dinky in comparison. I like to think that everybody decided they wanted to be an artist because they saw what we were doing, and thought, “Hey, that’s cool. I could do that. I want to be an artist too.” That has a lot to do with the internet. Everyone in Oregon and Buenos Aires and Nepal and Morocco and Egypt started seeing stuff on the internet. It’s global now, because of us.
Working on the Art21 project was wonderfully engaging because it took a few days. We worked and talked a lot, and then they re-edited. So it was almost like making art with a lot of people. And then we communicated to the world on TV. That was brilliant, being able to do that. It made me think of those early programs, that Andy Warhol and Frank Stella were on, way back in the beginning of public television. To reconnect like that was fantastic.
When you get on television, maybe a million people will eventually see it. Sometimes you see someone staring at you, and you think, “How do I know this person.” And you don’t. They know you. So that’s cool. And then you say, “Do you want my photograph?” And they say, “No!”
JS: Ha! So, you think that it’s a good thing, that there are more artists now than ever before?
MH: Yes. It may be a good thing that it is now an economic enterprise, which we never thought it was. We always wanted to be not rich and famous, but poor and famous. That was the model, like Pollock and de Kooning.
I try not to engage with the economic aspect of being an artist. I try not to look at my work and think, “Oh that’s a good one. I could make three more of that. I’d make quite a bit of money out of that.” That’s one bad thing to do with economics. The other bad thing is the idea of the two-percenters being the ones who are buying the art, and that a certain group of artists are really working with that economics as their theoretical base. I always try to make myself not go there.
But, maybe this incredibly rich, powerful thing that has happened because people were just putting some paint on a canvas or throwing a pot could actually help the world. Strong, beautiful music comes out of poor communities. If it is managed right, the poor guys can get on an even economic basis. We’ve gotta watch out, though, that the rich guys just don’t steal it from them. But it seems like the power of art could be a positive economic force, as long as the people contribute to the government, to the world.
JS: I like your optimism.
MH: Well, you have to bend over backwards to be optimistic nowadays. But that’s my strategy. The other thing — that we’ve got going on here on the East End of Long Island now — is to be local, to work on our own community. There is the issue of local farming, but local art enterprise is also really important. It is a way to have more of a conversation with all classes of people. So doing business is one part of it, so the artists can keep going, and the galleries can keep going. The second part is having conversations.
JS: You have talked about wanting to be confrontational with your artwork as part of the communicative process. You also allude to rebellions in your past (becoming an artist, going against art school teachers, debates at Max’s Kansas City). Do you still see yourself as this confrontational person with your work — or has that shifted?
MH: Not really, I don’t see it that way anymore. It’s more narrative and conversational than confrontational. I like relational aesthetics. I like where a few people sit like this and talk about stuff. I like going to shows with people; I don’t like going alone.
JS: What music are you listening to these days?
MH: Henry Rollins on KCRW is one of my favorite Internet radio DJs. He plays a vintage mix of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, pop, punk, thrash metal, disco, and ambient rave. A big music inspiration came last year when I saw and heard “Gamelatron,” a piece by Aaron Taylor Kuffner at the Clocktower. It is a robotic performance piece, a synthesized mix of gamelan music. Awesome.
JS: Can you address the relationship between music and art in your work?
MH: It is about the inspiration of fun popular culture, like hearing a song on the radio, when you’re a kid. And I love the kind of emotional feeling that you get from music. Also, the narrative and the structure of the music are two different things a lot of the time. So you can have two emotions going on at the same time: the words and the music. 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, even if they have pictures in them, even if it’s photo-realism or a photo-collage.
JS: For all the fake drips and off kilter rectangles, your work also makes full use of beautiful color chords, and complex understandings of space. What are some of the formal issues that engage you?
MH: The idea of making one painting with Asian space. That’s what I call it, where you have deep space — sort of Renaissance perspective — and then you also have abstract marks painted flat on the canvas. You play the two against each other as you look at it. That’s a big part of my work. I like that you can take them apart and put them together like puzzles. It makes it living and alive.
The off kilter rectangles and the webs and such work in a spatial way. The imagination is involved when you think about space or a weird cut-off triangle, or a pair of cut-off four-sided figures. You can have a kind of narrative — it’s like mathematics without numbers, or symbolic logic. That keeps me obsessively entertained to the point of insanity, actually, sometimes! It’s not a clinical situation. But I imagine that insanity could be like somebody looking at the world and taking it apart and putting it back together, without ever communicating verbally — super obsessive compulsive. I think about that, especially when I’m in a bad mood. But then people like you come over and we have a conversation and I figure out how to make sense.
JS: I liked watching you, just now, turn your wave painting upside-down. It highlighted its yin-yang element. Do you think about the balancing of two contrasting elements in your work or more just their juxtaposition?
MH: Ruminating about theoretical and abstract thoughts is what occupies me now, and the logic of the yin-yang is there. I’m looking out on the farm field and thinking about the earth and sky. That’s what’s going on in my thoughts.