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The Composer: Mary Heilmann’s Rhythmic Abstractions Find Their Place in the Sun

Mary Heilmann photographed in New York City on November 22, 2015. RYAN MCGINLEY

Mary Heilmann photographed in New York City on November 22, 2015.

RYAN MCGINLEY

Some little girls want to be movie stars, some long to be prima ballerinas. Not Mary Heilmann. As a child, she prayed for sainthood. “I used to dream that I was thrown to lions in the Coliseum,” said the artist. “Then I’d get to fly up to heaven to hang out with God, while all these people were cheering.”

Over the last five decades, Heilmann has been thrown to art-world lions—and rattled their cages as well—without having to suffer the depredations of a martyr. If canonization still eludes Heilmann, who is now 76, she is nonetheless a hero to younger artists, like Laura Owens, Jessica Stockholder, and even Martin Creed, for whom she embodies the rewards of going your own way, whatever the odds. And she can feel cheered by the major career survey opening June 8 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

During a recent visit to her loft in lower Manhattan, she scoffed at her current status as a “big-deal artist,” while acknowledging the positive effects of growing up Irish Catholic and believing she could never be good enough to escape damnation. “It was very masochistic,” she said. “Punishment. Suffering. It worked for me.”

So it did. Here is an artist who has evolved from a self-sabotaging, socially awkward poetry student and teacher to a risk-taker who picked up throwing pots and then taught herself to paint at a time when painting—especially abstract painting—was completely out of favor.

Mary Heilmann, Sunset, 2015, on view at the Whitney Museum. MARCO ANELLI/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, HAUSER & WIRTH, AND THE WHITNEY MUSEUM

Mary Heilmann, Sunset, 2015, on view at the Whitney Museum.

MARCO ANELLI/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, HAUSER & WIRTH, AND THE WHITNEY MUSEUM

I’ve been looking at Heilmann’s art for years—her early sculpture, her ceramics, and her loosey-goosey abstractions—but until she mentioned it, I never registered the religious iconography hiding there in plain sight.

Sculpture of Night, an impudent work from 1968, is a flocked black shelf atop a tall bamboo pole propped against a wall. I always thought of the piece as a witty takedown of Post-Minimalist sculpture by artists who were playing the wall against the floor. Now I see a crucifix. And when I look at Rosebud, which Heilmann made in 1983, at a painful time in her life, the dripping red spots bleeding through the white surface now strike me as stigmata, and not just a slap at formalist painting. “It was inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” Heilmann told me. “Isn’t it cool how Catholic culture is so psychological?”

We were seated at a white, hexagonal table that Heilmann designed for the defiantly funky loft in Tribeca that she’s inhabited since April Fools’ Day 1977. No fool for real estate, she now owns the loft, as well as a four-bedroom house on a leafy half-acre in Bridgehampton, Long Island. After buying the house in 1995 for the bargain price of $300,000, she built a barn where her painting and ceramics studios are now, and then acquired an adjacent meadow for the view—and for use as an agripreserve.

The 3,000-square-foot loft has a small bedroom at the back, a kitchen and dining area in the front, and an office large enough to accommodate worktables for three assistants. It leads into an open space at the center, formerly Heilmann’s studio. Now it’s a living room furnished with the painted-plywood chairs and tables that feature in her exhibitions of paintings. (She wants people to take time with her work, so she gives them a place to sit and enjoy it.)

Last spring, when the Whitney Museum opened its Renzo Piano–designed building in New York’s Meatpacking District, the installation of a group of chairs it commissioned from Heilmann for an expansive outdoor gallery was an enormous hit with visitors, who lounged in the seats throughout the run of the inaugural exhibition. For a wall above the terrace, Heilmann enlarged to billboard size a hot-pink detail from one of her paintings. “We wanted a dramatic formal presence that would also work as social space,” said Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s chief curator. “That’s a conflict for some artists, but not for Mary. For us, it was the perfect, celebratory opening salvo. The artists who follow have a lot to live up to.”

In Heilmann’s loft, the chairs’ tropical colors echo the glazes of ceramic cups and saucers set out on low, painted-wood tables in a very considered way. For her, they’re not sculpture but, like the fabrics she produces from paintings of serape-like patterns, her entry into the “home arts.” She exhibits these domestic objects with her paintings in what she calls “arrangements” that she designs for the architecture of a specific gallery.

Mary Heilmann, Sculpture of Night, 1968. ©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

Mary Heilmann, Sculpture of Night, 1968.

©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

Heilmann has wanted to be “someone” for as long as she can remember. (“Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone” was the title of her first retrospective, at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2007, and at the New Museum the following year.) Her father, a civil engineer who moved the family from San Francisco to the Los Angeles of architects Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner, and Richard Neutra when Heilmann was seven, frequently drove her around town just to look at houses. After hearing her express a desire to study architecture, he said, “Girls can’t be architects. They’ll just make you sit in a big room, drawing plans.” That was Heilmann’s first brush with the sexism that would dog her education and the early years of her art career.

To prove herself, she started competing as a high diver. “That’s a great way for a girl to get attention,” she said. The diving ended after her father’s death, when she was 13 and her mother took her and her younger brother back to San Francisco. There, the teenage Mary quickly adopted the look and lingo of Beat poets and musicians. For a while, she dated Latino boys who wore pink-and-gray suits and lived outside her usual circle. That made her feel cool. Inspired by the Beats, she decided to study writing, but the grades she earned at her Catholic girls’ high school weren’t good enough for Stanford University, her first choice for college. Consequently, she spent two years at a junior college before enrolling as an English major at the University of California in Santa Barbara, a school popular with surfers, also attended by a “kind of a boyfriend” from her high-school years, Richard Serra.

Heilmann didn’t surf. Going to the beach to watch boys do it became her main social activity, besides drinking. She got pregnant and drove with a friend to Tijuana for an illegal abortion—in a dentist’s office. “That was frightening,” she said, but if it caused any problems, they were all emotional. After graduation, she earned a teaching license from San Francisco State University on the advice of her mother, who thought it was the best way for Heilmann to make a living, and it served her well. Teaching has always sustained her financially, no matter what was going on with her art.

Her career began in the ceramics department at San Francisco State, where Heilmann amused herself by learning to make pottery. She was good at it. Pretty soon she was at Berkeley, studying with Peter Voulkos and earning a master’s degree in ceramics and sculpture as one of very few women in the department. Its program was fairly conventional, even if Heilmann wasn’t. She sought out Bruce Nauman, who had a studio nearby. In visits that would continue in New York a few years later, his far more conceptual approach to sculpture and experimentation with unconventional materials, including his own body, deeply influenced her thinking about art.

While at Berkeley, Heilmann was also substitute teaching in a black neighborhood of East Oakland. It was 1963, when the Black Panther Party took hold in the Bay Area. Heilmann was only vaguely aware of the Free Speech Movement generated by white students at Berkeley, with demonstrations that prefigured the radical student politics of the Vietnam War era. She dealt with her continuing sense of disconnection by forming her own exclusive club and dating only black men she met in Oakland. One was Bill Grier, coauthor of Black Rage, which detailed the psychic consequences of racism. “I’ve had some pretty good boyfriends,” she said, smiling at the thought.

Mary Heilmann, Tehachapi #2, 1979. GENEVIEVE HANSON/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

Mary Heilmann, Tehachapi #2, 1979.

GENEVIEVE HANSON/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

Another boyfriend was Gordon Matta-Clark, whom Heilmann met after moving to New York in 1968, with Serra’s encouragement. She rented a loft in Tribeca, then joined three other artists in Chinatown, where they rented an entire building for $500 a month. (Her big red, Albers-like diptych, Chinatown, 1976, pays homage to that communal experience).

In 1977, Heilmann returned to living in Tribeca, a wasteland once the city had cleared several blocks to make room for the construction of the World Trade Center. Just about the only people living in the neighborhood then were artists, who only left it at night to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, where Heilmann had an uneasy camaraderie with rising stars like Carl Andre, Keith Sonnier, and Robert Smithson. She believed that her process-oriented work measured up to theirs. She was also hyperaware that few people were taking female artists, especially sculptors, seriously. (Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, and Jackie Winsor were enviable exceptions.)

In 1969, when nothing of Heilmann’s made the cut for the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials”—a show that included many of her male friends from Max’s—she took a radical step. “We all hated painting,” she said. “Even me. So I started making paintings that sort of dissed painting.”

Working freehand, she would start with a grid and then mess it up, separating squares from their edges, leaving in errant drips, and blurring lines. Her canvases were so woozy that they appeared improvised, rather than carefully plotted after long hours spent deep in thought.

Conceptualism was in high gear. So was hard-edge abstraction. Other Post-Minimalists used industrial materials, and all abhorred any suggestion of the human hand. Heilmann’s canvases were maps of star constellations that, she said, had a strong physical presence. She showed them at a small gallery in SoHo.

In 1978, the higher octane Holly Solomon added Heilmann to her gallery’s roster. For a show there that year, Heilmann made a series of bubblegum-pink, black, and silver geometric paintings that she conceived partly as a homage to her old pachuco boyfriends, though she titled the works after rock music that she’d been playing in the studio and, in two cases, after a California women’s prison. Despite the works’ parallels with the punk style and attitude of the moment, critics ignored the show; artists didn’t respond well, either. The pink was too girly and the silver too decorative for purists. The show’s failure caused friction with Solomon, who couldn’t sell the work. (Recently, the Museum of Modern Art acquired Tehachapi #1 and Tehachapi #2, both 1979, the two paintings from that now highly regarded series named for a prison.)

Mary Heilmann, Rosebud, 1983. PAT HEARN GALLERY/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

Mary Heilmann, Rosebud, 1983.

PAT HEARN GALLERY/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

‘In the ’70s,” said Rothkopf, “Mary was a real bridge forward from a place in painting that had become ossified. She was more engaged in process, more feminist in her palette, and she brought to abstraction a looser, handmade sensibility that opposed the harder geometries of, say, a Frank Stella.”

While making the pink-and-black paintings, Heilmann fell for a young writer and art-school grad named Mark Magill, whose breakup with her inspired Rosebud. (He left her to date the writer Kathy Acker. “She actually called me to ask if he was good in bed—and I took the call!” Heilmann said, laughing.) Magill, today a very close friend, remembered the facetious edge that Heilmann acquired when her work didn’t get the attention it deserved, especially when she was drinking. “She even called the group we hung with the Manson family,” he said. “But I never saw her question herself or be jealous of anyone else. It’s just that she couldn’t expose herself emotionally until after she met Pat.”

He means Pat Hearn, whose gallery Heilmann joined after an enthusiastic recommendation from artist Ross Bleckner. (The painting that excited Bleckner was Rosebud.) From her first show with Hearn, in 1986, until the dealer’s death, from cancer, in 2000, Heilmann’s career flourished and her support from other artists increased. Julian Schnabel bought Ming (1986), a blue-on-blue abstraction. (Later, Heilmann bought it back.) The Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth came calling to buy a painting for the collection of his mother-in-law, Ursula Hauser, and ended up inviting the artist to join his gallery. Heilmann still shows with Hauser & Wirth, now an international behemoth, as well as with 303 Gallery in New York.

What made the difference, Heilmann said, wasn’t just her friendship with the supportive Hearn, but sobering up in 1983. Gradually, her inner demons left her, and a more affectionate and playful Heilmann emerged. (That Heilmann is quite visible in her 1999 memoirs, The All Night Movie, which Magill designed and Hauser & Wirth published.)

Her palette became more gemstone-like, her surfaces more luminous, her subject matter more clearly tied to actual people and places, and her formal vocabulary more fun.

Her spidery lines, window-like squares, floating dots, and deliberately uneven, horizontal bands of ascending color now traveled across two or three shaped canvases cut out and fit together like, well, sculpture. Magill compared them to Chinese puzzles.

With its curving, amorphous patches of color, Black Dahlia II (2001) actually is a puzzle. The tall club sandwich of bright colored bands in the cartoonish Surfing on Acid (2005) looks as if the artist squeezed paint out of tubes and then squished it. The crooked red square painted on a black-and-white checkerboard in Gordy’s Cut (2003) simultaneously refers both to Matta-Clark’s cuts into buildings and Malevich’s Suprematist crosses and squares. And Maricopa Highway (2014) is at once a two-lane blacktop and a dark, Rothko-like abstraction.

Mary Heilmann photographed in her studio in 1979. MARK MAGILL/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

Mary Heilmann photographed in her studio in 1979.

MARK MAGILL/©MARY HEILMANN/COURTESY THE ARTIST, 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND HAUSER & WIRTH

“There’s a break in Mary’s work between the ’70s and early ’80s,” said Lydia Yee, curator of Heilmann’s upcoming retrospective in London. “Early on, she had quite a dialogue with abstract painting, and went against the grain of her peers in the Post-Minimalist generation. Later on, the autobiography seeps in. The formal motifs remain, but they’re morphed and tweaked.”

One section of Yee’s exhibition will be devoted to a slide presentation that Heilmann has been taking on the road for years, for talks at museums, universities, and galleries in America and Europe. Set to a soundtrack of songs by Brian Eno, or from a DJ friend’s radio program, these popular presentations have had much to do with increasing the size of Heilmann’s audience. “Some kids become museum directors or curators,” she said. “So that’s part of the success. They’ve been a big part of my work life.” Yet, she’s now thinking of retiring from the art world to write another book.

After all that has happened? I was astonished. Could she really walk away?

“Making art is a lot of trouble,” she said. “Writing is easier.”

Linda Yablonsky is a New York–based writer.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 72 under the title “The Composer.”

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