Mary Heilmann, The First Small Red, Yellow, Blue, 1976, acrylic on canvas.
When Heilmann began painting in 1970 she devised a marking method—scraping away one layer of paint from another—that has served her until very recently. Using her fingers or some other blunt edge (a squeegee, for instance), she created a repertoire of mostly geometric forms, more often than not parallelograms—eccentric squares and rectangles. She typically juxtaposes two brilliant colors in each painting, for a few years confining herself to a finely tuned primary medley. With some notable exceptions (which, in their highly physical translucency underscore the opacity of their contexts), Heilmann builds color to an opaque surface. The color is as blunt as the marking, and equally as revelatory since working into the entire surface wet at once, over the dry layer means she gives herself one chance to get the image she’s after. It is a kind of calligraphy on an architectural scale. As Heilmann puts it, “I wasn’t really thinking about painting, I was thinking about structures.”
Ellen Phelan, Where, 1982, oil on linen.
The paintings, which in slides and in memory appear quite large, are, in fact, sizes that a woman of Heilmann’s arm span can do, three to six feet for the most part. They are sometimes reminiscent of the more spare of Held’s work of the early ’60s, the period Irving SandIer calls “concrete expressionism.” Heilmann, with her more process-oriented compositional method, is more deliberately tolerant of the vagaries of line than Held with his tautly brushed forms could he, but it seems to me she has tapped into some as yet un-depleted para-architectural space that spawned hard-edge abstraction, and has since lain fallow.
Ellen Phelan, gouache, 1981., gouache, 1981.
The engaging tension Heilmann manages to set up between how and what she is painting with the surface and configuration of the stretched canvas on which she paints is her work’s most rudimentary subject matter. In addressing her painting to something other than illustrations of her interpretative powers of ambient imagery, she makes her work intensely personal-in a way swinging a bat or walking into a room often reveals more about a person than hours of biographical anecdotes. Her overriding concern has been imparting reality to ideated form, and it is both bold and starkly legible in its successes and its misses.
Ellen Phelan, Appearance, 1982, oil on linen.
As Heilmann internalizes physical relationships so that her images work in contrast to the geometry of their support, Ellen Phelan’s paintings externalize those relationships. Beginning with a series of 6’ high wooden sentinels in which horizontal zoneal planes functioned as locations of paint incidents Phelan has concerned herself with engendering “more real consciousness about the support and less pictorialism.” The aluminum panel paintings which followed, most of them composed of four 2 × 2′ L-shaped components, forced disparate colors and brush techniques together, often to spectacular effect. The subsequent paintings on canvas give fuller exposition to the handlings evident in the earlier work, just as the interior notches of the stretched canvases make more pronounced the negative spaces of the more open of the aluminum panel configurations. These openings to the wall emphasize the crucial importance of the emanating light Phelan creates in her work, since, as she says, “they are about modelling with color instead of black and white.” Large, sometimes panoramic (6′ × 12′ is not uncommon), Phelan’s last paintings nearly always refer to characteristics of landscape, particularly to light’s role as it defines mass and color.
Ellen Phelan, Calypso, 1981, oil on aluminum, 48 x 96 inches.
In their overall scale, and in the way paint is applied, re-applied, and thinned, Phelan’s paintings make manifest her body’s movements. This kinaesthetic correlation to the limits of self has a psychological counterpart in Phelan’s unusual color. Lush, frequently jarring both their internal tonal fusions and in their physical juxtapositions, Phelan’s paintings range across spectra insisting that illusion must simultaneously involve spatial, as well as emotional, considerations.
Phelan’s paintings derive some of their authority from the plein air gouache drawings she has made the last few years at sites from the Adirondacks to the western coast of Ireland. Immediate, and wholly dependent on tonal relationships, these drawings root the paintings in a specific experience of light.
Ellen Phelan, The Islands, 1980-81, oil on aluminum, 48 x 96 inches.
Heilmann, likewise, has lately taken up again her early interest in ceramics to fashion a few dozen cups, plates, and bowls. Delicately crafted to evoke an independently sculptural presence, she tints these pieces with the bravura that makes the paintings so singular.
Mary Heilmann, 9 x 9, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 22 inches.
The abstract art-as-anomaly argument is, I think, self-serving and fallacious. Moreover, whatever vitality representational painting has is in large part attributable to abstraction’s fundamental revision of the nature of painting itself. Their intrinsic worth aside, Heilmann and Phelan are but two of a larger number of younger abstract painters whose work is critical to the larger practice of contemporary painting.
Mary Heilmann, Untitled Ceramic, 1982, 34 x 16 inches.
Mary Heilmann, The Pink Sliding Square, 1982, 8 inches.
Mary Heilmann, Ceramic cup, 1982, 8 inches.