Forty years passed between my first hearing about Peter Heinemann’s self-portraits and my actually getting a chance to see them. A number are currently installed in a garret-like room at the National Academy Museum as one of several posthumous inclusions in the group exhibition See it Loud: Seven Post-War Painters. These modestly-sized studies of the artist’s poker face are just a sample of what is purported to be an extensive series kept hidden from all but a few close friends until his passing in 2010.
Heinemann not only avoided exhibiting his self-portraits but avoided showing any work at all for a good part of the time he lived in New York. When finally persuaded in the 1980s to exhibit sporadically, he remained, according to his dealer Stephen Schlesinger, difficult, secretive, and loathe to participating in any self-promotion. As one of my first instructors at the School of Visual Arts in the 1970s, Heinemann made an impression through his contradictory behavior, which seemed so odd at the time. While expounding a dogmatic stance in favor of figurative work — he could become unhinged by a student’s refusal to include figures in a landscape — he was rumored to have rebuffed opportunities to exhibit his own expressions of the same. Apparently his unease with exhibiting continued for the remaining decades he spent in New York, which means his work in See it Loud will be new to a great many visitors.
“Head 1979,” the earliest canvas in See it Loud, shows the Zen-like calm I remember him exuding from a chair in the middle of the studio while we labored away at our easels. But the remaining self-portraits proved impenetrable examples of what is usually considered a revealing, even confessional genre. As their dates move into the decades that follow this early piece, they become dark, distant, and densely textured by an unforgiving coarseness in his paint handling. Adding to the disaffection of both his distortions and his deadpan visage are elaborately painted framing elements surrounding each portrait, often filled with arbitrary geometric patterns that push the image back into the dark space of the reflection. It is as if Heinemann’s subject was not his own image so much as the act of looking into, or perhaps looking at a mirror.
Bruce Weber explains in the catalog essay that Heinemann would first use a mirror then switch to working directly on the canvas, often for months on end, obsessively repainting each panel. This is precisely what they look like. They strike me as pure manifestations of that virtue—if that’s the right word for it—we all know as painting for one’s self, a principle dating back to early Romanticism so ingrained in our cultural DNA that we seldom question its bearing on what we as painters expect viewers to grasp from what is presented to them for consideration. Heinemann’s self-portraits do not seem painted with any audience in mind at all. Their overworked and distorted surfaces, along with their distracting frame patterns seem indicative of a painter lost in a maze. Though there is no trace of insincerity, his clandestine method is so faithfully adhered to that its effect seems the opposite of that incautious honesty that gives so many self-portraits their memorable character.
The fact that Heinemann preferred the term “heads” to self-portraits implies that he was stuck somewhere between self-examination and a more objective formalism, which is a significant part of the exhibition’s overall theme of figurative work sustaining itself inside a popular wave of post-war abstraction. And as fascinating as the figurative/abstraction dichotomy may be in explaining how his work may be placed historically, I don’t see how his efforts to fuse feeing with design ever evolved into a compelling, shareable experience. Even in the late “Untitled, 2005,” with its brilliant color surrounding a more sensitively modeled — and by comparison with his earlier work, serenely balanced — head, his mask-like face remains as reticent and as inscrutable as the cat beside him.
They are not very good paintings, but they are significant to contemplate today, specifically for their inability to communicate much. They may serve as an object lesson for younger artists who seem so comfortable with personal mythologies and diarist talismans that express little more than evidence that there are feelings behind them.
See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters continues at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 26, 2014.