Mary Heilmann

by Ross Bleckner


Mary Heilmann. Images courtesy of Mary Heilmann and Pat Hearn Gallery.

Mary Heilmann’s paintings contain a joy so contagious one smiles upon seeing them. This is not innocent joy—which is why her viewer does not laugh out loud as at the antics of a child. There is something wry and sophisticated about these seemingly simple abstractions. Perhaps it’s their maker’s innate knowledge of the paradoxical nature of people and things. Heilmann has been painting for many decades, and her knowledge of art’s history and its lifestyle spans the coasts. Born in San Francisco in time to experience the Beat takeover; educated at Berkeley during the riotous ’60s; a denizen of New York since Max’s Kansas City was the stomping ground of intellectuals, rock stars and Warhol’s group, Heilmann has always been an urban bohemian.

Highly respected among her peers, she is a painter’s painter. You can see how her art and life entwine in her studio/loft: her space is raucous, bright and full—of living and painting. She’s just completed a book, begun as a catalog of her paintings; it’s become a diary of her loves: her friends, art, music, menus . . . Heilmann’s style defies the fashionable—her career has had its ups and downs—but in the end doesn’t seem to matter because having chosen her path, Mary Heilmann’s paintings sing with a life force hard to match.

Mary Heilmann . . . Daring.

Ross Bleckner What?

MH You are very daring.

RB (laughter) Well, you gotta get things done.

MH (sighs)

RB So what were we saying, Mary?

MH We were talking about still living in an unfinished loft in 1998—the way we all did in the ’70s—and about moving to the country. How I’ve just done this book, a summing up of the past years of my work life. And how this painting looks like a Calder . . .

RB When did you do that painting?

MH Yesterday.

RB Just yesterday?

MH Something like that. The day before yesterday. I channeled Calder when I painted it. I’ve been reading Richardson’s biography of Picasso and I was making this painting—it looked like that vintage. I thought it looked like Léger and then it turned out like Calder—who’s a mannerist of another kind. In some way Calder is a light artist and Picasso a heavy artist.

RB What do you consider yourself?

MH Sometimes I’m a light artist and sometimes I’m a heavy artist. Significantly, in the making of our work, we artists channel the artists that worked before us.

RB Naturally, but I think you’re a light artist. That’s what I’ve always liked about your work, the casual attitude. I’ve known you for a long time but I don’t know you that well. I think you’re very serious and something of a formalist. But it’s the character of your abstraction that’s always interested me. I can’t really say whether it’s backhanded—but it seems to be—which is now equated with ironic, but wasn’t back when I first saw your work. That’s what I mean by light. I don’t mean that as good or bad—I actually think it’s very interesting in your case. I remember seeing your paintings when I was a little pup.

MH When you first showed up here in New York, you mean?

RB Yeah. You were showing at Holly Solomon Gallery. And what was funny about your paintings is that they were simple—squares within squares, kind of quasi-minimalist, brightly colored—everything was slightly off register, even the shape of the canvas itself, right? The square would be lopsided.

MH I don’t think so, not on purpose anyway. The interior square—

RB Well maybe the interior square set up a perception that made me think of it as being slightly . . . goofy.

MH Yeah, it’s true. It had that.

RB You’ve managed to maintain that character for 30 or more years and it always seems very fresh to me. It’s actually what younger artists respond to in your work. What comes around goes around—that freshness, your approach to abstraction, seems very unencumbered. It gives the paintings a lightness. You could translate it emotionally or spiritually, but it’s like air. The paintings have a lot of air in them.

Anyway, take us back and give us an idea of the book you’ve been working on and what it means to you to go back over these 30 years—finding yourself with some new popularity.

MH The book goes back to when I was born; it’s the story of my whole life. It’s to show that the paintings reflect events and visual events that I experienced ever since I was a little child. I put this book together because it was an opportunity to make something about my work that wasn’t just another art catalog. I wanted to make my own biographical book. And in it I’ve told some stories from my life, some little anecdotes, and I’ve chosen things that the paintings recalled. The painting Rio Nido has little spots of light—in the ’40s we went to a summer vacation spot where it was common to put colored lights around the porches.

RB They’re very popular. Pool motif.

MH This was a working-class resort where teachers, nurses and policemen went. The memory of this place is just fantastic to me and that picture reminds me of it; that happens all along.

RB Is that how you enter into your pictures?

MH It’s not always the way I enter them. But sometimes I go there from a memory place . . .

RB Can you look at all the paintings in your studio and recall specific memories?

MH No, but sometimes I look at one and I can start mentally and verbally riffing on it, and come up with something. They often do clock a style from some period, like this mint green is very ’40s and it’s fashionable right now as well. People get that. You see chartreuse, you see an old and a current fashion.

RB So you’re trying through your use of colors to create a doubleness of meaning.

MH Yes, a nuance or an undertone of meaning. There’s a 40s-style drawing in this “Calder” painting and in Ice, this big curvilinear, open piece, a ’50s/’60s style, color field painting that was fashionable.

RB Is there something a little retro about these ideas?

MH Yes, a little sentimental and a little nostalgic, as well. When you speak of this work as being light—I’m walking on thin ice here—you could go towards corny, hackneyed and familiar. I like to tread on the edge of that. I’ve said this before, I like to get at deep sentiments through sentimentality.

RB What do you mean, through sentimentality?

MH Like notating abstract imagery from the past, that kind of nostalgia. Or you can have a sentimentality of scale where I have a small event in the painting, a lot of empty space, and another small event which might give you a feeling of angst or longing.

RB Do you think that anything has that capacity?

MH I look at paintings and try to sort them out—mine and other people’s—I get a feeling from a painting and then I try to figure out how it made me feel that way.

RB Do you always get feelings from paintings?

MH Well, if I’m passing one and I happen to get a rush from it, then I spend some time with it. I try to figure out how it works. It helps me with my work.

RB One of the things I like about your work is there’s an anonymity to the imagery. You take boxes or squares or balls or stripes—basically you keep the vocabulary pretty elementary.

MH (laughter)

RB There’s a brushiness and a layered transparency to the painting quality itself that gives it its free spiritedness. You’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. Do you ever get tired of that free spiritedness or that sentiment, those memories? I mean, personally I can’t bear memories. (laughter) To make memories into anecdotes sometimes gets a little tired.

MH I hope it isn’t tired. I can see how it could be.

RB But what I’m saying is that when I look at your paintings, they don’t look tired. If that method is tired, you manage to make it look fresh even if you’re doing the same old thing, again and again.

MH If you were to look at my work that you saw back in the ’70s and at what you saw in the ’80s and at what you see now, there has been quite a change. It seems the same but the brushy thing, that looseness and ease was not in the work way back when.

RB You know what? We’ll just have to put them together at some point in your future. My opinion is you’re one of the most underrated painters in New York.

MH Well, it will happen. There will be a big show of the works in Europe very soon.

RB That sparks interest and usually kicks things off somewhere else. You’ve had to come in around the back door.

MH I’m lucky that it didn’t happen for me earlier because the meaning of this work wasn’t clear until the whole nine yards of it came together.

RB But also, let’s face it, you aren’t exactly working in oblivion.

MH No, I do okay.


Mary Heilmann, Cirque Mix, 1995, oil on canvas, 54 x 72".

RB You’ve always been a painter’s painter. I’m very curious to hear your description of life in New York as a painter. Were you ever bitter? Did you think, I need more attention?

MH I was pretty crabby, especially when I first got here in 1968. I was certain that I was going to be taken right up with the other people who were happening at that time: Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra.

RB Why were you so certain?

MH Because I thought that my work was like what they were doing, was addressing the same issues.

RB But you were a painter. None of those artists were painters.

MH Oh no, I was a sculptor when I first started.

RB Oh, I don’t know that phase.

MH That’s why I came to New York. I thought, Oh good, this is what I’m doing and it’s what’s happening. I was very immature and very rough and who knows if that work was as good as the other work that was around. But when it wasn’t taken up—

RB Well, was it any good? Now that you have all this perspective, you could look back and see. Other than what you wanted from the work, did it warrant attention?

MH That’s too subjective, I was so emotional and immature. So starry-eyed and competitive—the work had an absolutely, completely different meaning when I made it than it has now when I look at it. Besides that, my style of behavior was very contentious and aggressive.

RB It was?

MH Yes, and protective. This very rough style. I identified with Dennis Hoppers’s character in Easy Rider, not with the hippie women or Peter Fonda. I was this tough talking—

RB Why do you use Easy Rider as a metaphor for you? I’m curious.

MH I don’t know. I just liked the angry Hopper character. I was kind of a hippie—

RB It doesn’t sound like you were a hippie—

MH I was not a flower child.

RB So skip forward—

MH On the one hand, I was contentious and antagonistic. At the same time, I could step back and see that the situation was pretty funny.

RB What was funny?

MH The high-minded pretensions of a lot of people, including myself…the sarcastic undercutting of that, and the gender thing, being a girl, wanting to hang out with the guys and be taken seriously: drinking in the bars, arguing about art . . .

RB That’s a bit romantic.

MH Left over from the abstract expressionists.

RB You argued in bars?

MH Yes we did.

RB I love it.

MH We argued in bars and we took ourselves very seriously. I mean, you hated the color field painters.

RB Little did you know.

MH That I would be one. (laughter) In graduate school at Berkeley we despised all painters.

RB And color field and drag, right?

MH Yeah.

RB It’s come around again 30 years later and it’s giving it a little twist.

MH It’s big now.

RB So wait. Who argued, and what bars?

MH I argued, in Max’s Kansas City, with Robert Smithson or Richard Serra or Brice Marden.

RB You were friends with Robert Smithson? Or you just argued with him?

MH I just argued with him. I can’t say I was really his friend. I knew him, I admired him tremendously but…

RB Was he well-known at that point?

MH Oh yes, he was very well-known and he was always there.

RB So how did you present yourself? Where did you come into the picture? Did you just happen to argue with him?

MH (laughter) Well you show up in New York and you go to Max’s and you meet everyone . . .

RB And you start arguing!

MH You start arguing. You have a few drinks and you pick a fight! I remember with Robert Smithson, I would say what I thought would make him mad—like asking him what he thought of David Hockney.

RB I understand that. So he would go into a bit of a tirade.

MH I was a fan of David Hockney’s and I knew that Hockney wasn’t in this loop.

RB Are you a fan of David Hockney’s still?

MH Yeah, I admire him. I like a lot of the paintings, especially the big Grand Canyon paintings.

RB Me too. I think his daschund paintings are the best he’s painted in a long, long time.

MH I like the dog paintings. I’m not so mad about the Cubist photo type of thing, but—

RB Oh, I hate them.

MH He’s a good man too, Hockney. He’s a good professional. He always does his work.

RB That’s a very interesting tangent.

MH You know he was my teacher at Berkeley. We were all sculptors and we all lied, said we were painters so we could be in his class.

RB So he had an effect on you . . .

MH Yes. He had a great personality. He was very outrageous and really smart, very ironic and funny, a very nice, good person, a kind person, really fabulous and glamorous.

RB Do you have any contact with him now?

MH No. We were pretty friendly at that time and we hung out.

RB Well, you defended him in those arguments.

MH He never knew that. I’ve seen him here and there through the years, but we haven’t really kept in touch. You know, Hockney is a great postmodernist out of Picasso, making a painting of a painting within the frame, and that flourish—to show that it was covered with glass.

RB Right, an acknowledgment of its thingness.

MH Yes, it’s a quote. I thought it was terribly original, but it turns out that in 1910 that’s what Picasso did, too.


Mary Heilmann, Ground Control II, 1999, oil on canvas, 50 x 40".

RB Let me ask you something. You mentioned that Hockney is a real professional, he continues to make his work. That gets to a relevant subject: your conception, your idea of what it means to be an artist.

MH In the beginning, I had this very romantic idea that it was a real agony and ecstasy type of thing. Coming to New York was like going to war, a religious vocation, as if you were fighting in the crusades. Now I find the image of a person who’s a worker, a professional business person—having a studio, making the work, being organized, having this contemplative solitary life but also working with other people—is a very important part of the work life.

RB Do you think this change occurs around a general shift in consciousness, a change in the artist type, or model?

MH Yes, being a young semi-hippie girl coming from California in 1968 to be an artist in New York was dangerous, and it was hard to get respect. My mother said, "You can’t be an artist, you’ll starve in a garret." Now a young woman goes to her mother to tell her she wants to be an artist, and her mother says, “Great. Maybe you’ll make a lot of money.”

RB I wonder if that’s really the case. I’m sure a lot of parents still think it’s a horrifying life.

MH It’s a lot different now, there are so many places in our culture for art.

RB Yeah, but there are also so many artists. Most of them don’t do well . . . What do you mean by a “professional?” When you started out you weren’t even supposed to say that being an artist was a career, it tainted it with a sense of corporate life. Nobody would say that they thought about their career, even people who were successful.

MH In the early ’60s you’d say “my art career” in jest, in an ironic way. People would say, “Oh, he’s a professional artist” with contempt.

RB We would put down people who took themselves too seriously.

MH But then there was the other type of person who we called Louie Leftbank, the “bohemian” guy.

RB That I never heard. I like Louie Leftbank. When you say we who’s we?

MH Me and my friends.

RB Oh wait, back at Max’s? Are we at Max’s?

MH Louie Leftbank was from Berkeley. You know that pejorative attitude toward the professional artists was from the hippies. I remember a friend of mine, Joe White, saying, "Oh you’re going to work on your art career . . ."

RB Snicker, snicker. Where’s Joe White now?

MH He’s in Washington. He’s still an artist.

RB That interests me very much. I think they should devote a special issue of an art magazine to where people are now.

MH I thought you hated the past.

RB I do. Well, I don’t hate it; I don’t like to go through it too much. It would be very interesting to know about the painters and the people who I knew and thought about or thought had to be thought about when I first came to New York . . .

MH ’75 . . .

RB Hundreds of them. Some of them can’t be artists still. But what always fascinates me is the life choices people make. Not just artists, but what people do with their lives. You have 60 years to basically have this adventure from the time you’re mature at 20—and that’s a very optimistic scenario.

MH I’m shooting for 80.

RB Well, exactly.

MH I know a lot of people like me who came to New York City and wanted this bohemian lifestyle. My models were the Beat poets. And then I kept with it, I kept going pretty much the same way. Some people decided to have a family and a home. They don’t have to worry about whether they’re going to sell any pictures or get a teaching job . . .

RB Who do you know now who decided to do that?

MH I know people who used to live in this neighborhood when it was all artists and industrial lofts.

RB So where are they now? Teaching, with homes, jobs?

MH Some of them became art technicians; they work in the arts, printmaking companies or art galleries.

RB So let me ask you something: when you think of these people—do you have a hierarchy in your mind?

MH No, no. I don’t.

RB Those people are the ones who faded out, who lost the war?

MH No. I know it’s not a war.

RB Well, it was a war when you came here. (laughter)

MH It was a war for me, and back in those days I would have thought they lost the war.

RB That’s interesting, you’re changing . . .

MH Nothing could have been worse in those days than to marry, have children and live in the suburbs with a husband who went to work every day. Nothing. If I was better adjusted that would have been just fine.

RB What do you mean? You never had any aspirations in that department?

MH Not really.

RB Have you ever been married?

MH No.

RB You’re not a lesbian?

MH No. (laughter) Well, let’s see . . . no. On one hand, I was neurotic and dysfunctional. On the other, I had this calling, this thing that I could do, that occupied me—

RB Wait, can I ask you why neurotic—I don’t understand dysfunctional—because you had a calling? I mean, I think it’s wonderful!

MH I was kind of a maladjusted person, socially . . .

RB Most artists are. Your story could be just another story of somebody who had feelings and aspirations of their own, who also felt a little socially inept and who came to New York to not only conquer that but to justify themselves by conquering the art world—and then disappeared from the New York art scene. What gives it a sense of circularity is that you have really managed to make a comeback—however anybody does it and obviously everyone’s trajectory is different. Renewed interest has been created for your work. That makes you a person with a lot to say about the earlier days in New York. Artists were these leftover bohemians when you came into the scene. That was the end of an era, really.

MH The French model and then the beatnik model.

RB It became a slicker model in the ’80s.

MH The Warhol thing . . . Oh, the ’80s. Well, you guys changed it all, you were the ones who saw art as a profession—you, Julian [Schnabel], David Salle, a lot of people, not just a few guys; women, too: Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holtzer. That really affected a person like me who was one generation ahead of you, this bohemian living a very simple lifestyle, paying $250 a month rent, one little teaching job to take care of that. All of a sudden you had to get your act together or you had to leave town. You had to buy a computer and get a secretary . . .

RB But wait a minute. You didn’t have to.

MH Well, you had to organize your life. You couldn’t just be a hippie looking out the window, which was the way it was before. I used to do one hard thing every two days. And most of the time was spent daydreaming . . .

RB One hard thing—meaning interaction with the world, or hard in your studio?

MH Interaction with the world. The valuable time would be this time of solitude and contemplation—I made some good work then, too.

RB Are you talking about the ’70s?

MH Yes. The big change happened at the end, in ’79, ’80.

RB I was going to ask you a question. I just lost it. I can’t remember that damn question. Wait, that’s it, time! I asked you before about your concept of being an artist. I like those pragmatic aspects of being an artist where you are just a person in a place making things. There’s something very unelevated to me about a guy who makes stuff. I go to my studio and do my little thing. There’s a time element in that. My concentration builds itself up and I work in my studio. What do you do, Mary? To me, it looks like your paintings could be done in five minutes. You could be hanging around, come into the studio, snap, have a painting.

MH And sometimes I do. Sometimes it’s really quick. But usually I have to—here’s what I do, I sit over there in that chair and I look at them and I think.

RB What are you looking at, a blank canvas?

MH No, I’m looking at all these paintings that I already did or that are partly done and I think.

RB There’s always a blank canvas mixed in with finished ones . . .

MH There are always painted canvases mixed in with the blank ones.

RB I see. So you have something to refer to.

MH For the last 35 years. Let’s think, when was there nothing? (laughter)

RB You would never get all this stuff out of your studio and say, I’m starting out fresh, fresh, fresh.

MH Not right now, but that could happen, couldn’t it?

RB But it hasn’t happened in 35 years.

MH That’s not what I want to do. I’m moving to a new studio in the country, and I’m already planning on what I’m going to take with me to get started. I’ll also be taking some paintings and some Photoshop stuff out of the computer to look at.

RB In other words, you need to have an essential reminder of where you’ve been so you can plan your next step.

MH Yes. The pieces are often made by recycling, combining previous paintings with new paintings, or two previous paintings superimposed, one on top of the other.


Mary Heilmann, Make Believe Ballroom, 1988, oil on canvas, 54 x 54".

RB Okay. Give me a typical Mary day.

MH Get up, sit in the chair, look, at the paintings.

RB What time?

MH Around seven o’clock.

RB And sit and look until?

MH About nine and work a little bit, and then go in there and start painting, mix up the paint.

RB Do you read the paper?

MH No, not at all. I just look. I start meditating.

RB You start out with a tabula rasa.

MH Yeah, I get a lot of my ideas when I’m asleep, and then I’m drinking coffee and I’m thinking, thinking about other stuff, too, like the meaning of life, who I hate, who I’m in love with, what I’m going to do in my new house or on my vacation. I just chill with all of that stuff. But it’s very important and very spiritual, I commune in that time.

RB Does the phone ring?

MH No, not really. In the country I plan to not have a phone in the studio.

RB No phone?

MH By about ten o’clock people come in and start working in the office or in the studio. Then the contemplation is basically over. I’m working with them, trying to explain stuff, the mechanics of the career, how to stretch the canvases and the technical things in making the work.

RB Do you still stretch canvases?

MH I don’t stretch them anymore, no. The kids do that. But that part of my work life, and working with Mark [Magill] on the book, has really been collaborative. That’s new, having my creative work be with other people.

RB Does it strike you as peculiar that you get up for 35 years, and all you think about is you, your work, the perpetuation of your work, its safe keeping, its dissemination into the world, its reception…

MH And who doesn’t like it. (laughter)

RB And who likes it. Does the self-centeredness of that sometimes bother you?

MH It never bothered me, that’s why I’ve been so happy to be on my own all this time; I didn’t want to move to the suburbs and have a family and take care of the children, the husband, and all that. I know that it was an extreme case of selfishness, and I don’t know where I ever got the idea that it was okay, but I never had any question about that. It probably comes from my Catholic upbringing. As a little kid I was extremely interested in the spiritual life and in the lives of the saints. I wanted to be a saint. There was nobody in their story except them and God and that was a model for me.

RB That’s a very good answer.

MH And it hasn’t changed much, you know.

RB Some things don’t, especially those early models. You were saying when the tape was off that you wished there was another way of describing that work process for artists, because although it is a self-absorption, it’s not for selfish reasons. In fact, you see it as essentially bringing joy to other people.

MH Right—Like the Bruce Nauman piece The Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. Oh, and the other very big part of my work life is teaching at SVA. I see that as helping young people.

RB Do you enjoy that?

MH Yes, I like them.

RB Who are the popular artists?

MH Among the kids? The artists they like?

RB Yeah.

MH (sighs) Well, the big influence is music and the movies.

RB (pause) Oh, what do they know? They just buzz about what they read about.

You mentioned taking Photoshop software out to the country . . .

MH You can draw on the computer using light. Look at this, the drawing is seen in animation, atmospheric images that come out of the air like bubbles and green air. That’s why this color field thing is happening. It’s edgeless, abstract—look at the Camel ads—that fabulous, really beautiful, electronic acid color that’s only in light, but now it’s being seen on paper.

RB Let me ask you something: what are your aspirations now, Mary, as an artist? Do you feel like an artist who, at this point in her life, has to finish the work that she set out, finish the path that they’ve been on? Make new, fabulous work? Blow people’s minds? What?

MH I’m very interested in this narrative idea, I might want to make some more books. This book I’m making now, called The All Night Movie is the story of my life told in words, painted images and photographs—most of which are taken by me. The pages are designed like paintings or to have a similar effect as paintings, where you put forms and colors together to get a certain emotional hit. It quotes the music heard at each phase in my life, from the ’40s to the ’90s. I’d like to make either a film or a sound and light piece evolving from the book. It’s coming out in March at the same time as a big show at Hauser Wirth in Zurich.

RB You would like to make a movie out of this book?

MH My plan is to get out to Bridgehampton, the suburbs (laughter), sit down with a computer, a couple of monitors, project computer images or painting images on the wall, play some music—CDs, music taped off the radio— and sit there and cut and mix—so instead of just listening to the radio or going online—do all those things and maybe make some paintings and make all that into a work of art which might be an abstract movie, but with a little feeling of narrative to it. It might have a narrative voice-over, actors portraying the people having these arguments at Max’s Kansas City in 1969. Maybe those scenes could be set up. That would be the movie.

RB That is like a movie for sure.

MH And a person could do that at home on their computer, really.

RB Are you friendly with a lot of artists now?

MH Yes.

RB You keep in contact with a lot of people?

MH I’ve made a lot of friends in my travels, I do these gigs all over…in Los Angeles, Kansas, Chicago and Vienna, I meet people and then we stay in touch. I like my students; I like their work and they like my work and we talk.

RB Are there any example of students you’ve had who you’re particularly proud of? Or fond of?

MH Alexis Rockman is one. And Monique Prieto, too, who’s showing at Pat Hearn Gallery.

RB Did you introduce Pat to her work?

MH Yes.

RB You must be very happy about that. She’s doing quite well.

MH Monique is another amazing, blessed person. It seems to be easy for her. Laura Owens was in school with Monique at Cal Arts when I went out there; I was really taken with both of them. Very energizing to meet those girls.

RB That’s great that you maintain these contacts. Like I said before about your work having a resurgence of interest, because what comes around goes around.

Tags:
Abstraction
Color
Autobiography
Brushwork
Art history
Geometry
Painting
BOMB 67
Spring 1999
The cover of BOMB 67
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