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With summer almost upon us, we note the arrival on these shores of Mary Heilmann: Good Vibrations, published last year by Walther König, Cologne, to accompany the artist’s reception of the prestigious Biennial Award for Contemporary Art (BACA) and its related exhibition. Initiated in 2000 by Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht, the award’s main criteria are “influence and personality in the field of art.” The exhibition, retrospective in scope but emphasizing work from the past decade, was at the Bonnefantenmuseum and is now at the Neues Museum, Nürnberg through June 23.
Highlighting Heilmann’s buoyant, light-filled paintings with their playful shifts from lively to languid and back again, the book promises to be the perfect antidote to the coming summer doldrums — and not just because of the title’s Beach Boys reference. Over 100 works are illustrated (of which about 40 are in the exhibition) and fully in evidence are Heilmann’s radiant palette; quirky, shaped formats; and idiosyncratic attempts to reconcile hard-edge geometry and loose, gestural touch. Maybe call it “fuzzy-edge” painting?
The volume features Amsterdam-based art critic and historian Dominic van den Boogerd’s suitably breezy take on Heilmann’s work, in which “geometric abstraction shows its fallible side.” I like the suggestion that it has taken someone with a keen sense of pictorial humor to recover Modernism’s original speculative spirit. Though his is a distinctly European view of American painting, beguiled by Hollywood, surf culture and the myth of the open road, van den Boogerd resists reducing Heilmann’s work to a semaphore of California hedonism and acknowledges the conceptual knottiness underlying the paintings’ deceptively simple pleasures. The link between minimalism and mass culture, for example — discernible in Ellsworth Kelly and Blinky Palermo as well as Heilmann — has vast implications for the problem of style as subject.
Those who like a glimpse behind the scenes will appreciate the inclusion of dozens of color photos of Heilmann’s New York City and Bridgehampton studios. Resembling spreads from a domestic design magazine, they seem gratuitous to me — the pages would have been put to better use with installation shots of the two exhibitions, and perhaps statements by the exhibition’s curators, Paula van den Bosch of the Bonnefantenmuseum and the Neues Museum’s Melitta Kliege. (But Heilmann’s club chairs do look pretty great at home, I must admit.)
The book will supplement, though not supplant, the superb Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone, published in conjunction with the artist’s 2007 retrospective exhibition. Out of print, that book features terrific essays, as well as plates a bit less dense, generally, than those in Good Vibrations. But the new book brings us up to date on Heilmann’s studio production and includes “The All Night Movie,” the previously published but until now hard-to-find autobiographical essay depicting the artist’s childhood on the West Coast, her schooling, the early phases of her professional career as a painter in New York, and her involvement in the 1980s with the white-hot Pat Hearn Gallery. First-time readers of this evocative, bittersweet reminiscence are in for a treat.