Abstract Critical

Mary Heilmann at Hauser & Wirth

Written by Written by Dan Coombs

Over two galleries at Hauser & Wirth, Mary Heilmann has installed her paintings, her wall-based ceramics and her furniture. The effect is as bright and sugary as tea-time in a sweet shop. As always with Heilmann, though, the appearance of innocent jouissance is a disarming ruse to lure us into the depths of her art. Winter Surf, San Francisco (2006), the earliest painting in the show, is a case in point.

Exquisitely modulated bands of green and blue, reveal themselves, on closer inspection, to each be unique in their facture - one drips, one gloops, one spreads out, one dissipates. What should be impersonal and bland – all of Heilmann’s paintings flirt unnervingly with blandness – is revealed to be multifarious and full of character. Dots, lines, stripes, squares; Heilmann’s vocabulary is as familiar and empty as Ludo, and a joke at the expense of the history of abstraction. In Heilmann’s art, the utopia of abstract form becomes a paradise of the ordinary and the everyday.

Whilst the Abstract Expressionists aimed for pathos, Mary Heilmann has found a unique voice for herself  in American abstract painting by aiming for bathos. From the exalted to the common-place, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Heilmann keeps these poles in play throughout all her work.  The ludicrousness of these paintings and the disarming shock of their aesthetic comes in part from the refusal to reach for perfection. Their ludicrous quality comes from the one hit gestures and wonky supports and the child’s play geometry of the stretchers, such as the paintings on irregular polygons derived from abutting and overlapping squares. Though we are used to simple and repetitive geometries from minimalists such as Sol Lewitt or Ellsworth Kelly, and  child-like primitivism has a long tradition in modernism, these paintings seem to push the envelope further on what is acceptably naive execution. They don’t try to hide their decorative qualities, and they don’t adjust or erase or alter the composition in the search for the motif. They appear to arrive on the canvas fully formed, like the art of children.

Although we may be aware of the artist’s sophisticated grounding in the history of abstraction and its devices,  the unadulterated directness of these modest paintings seem to mock any attempt one might make to take them seriously. What seems unusual is the unequivocal directness of the artist’s desire to paint from the centre of her emotional world. In some ways what distinguishes this work are not formal issues, but the artist’s emotional candour. She’s unafraid of being embarrassed by her own simplicity, or sloppiness or imperfection. The paintings provide clear paths to the artist’s pleasures. The pleasures are simple and abrupt, not unusual,  nor esoteric. Their range is small and fleeting.

Images of waves, of landscape, of simple geometry, of the lines on the freeway are images from the Midwestern or West Coast roadtrip, those trips in pursuit of the pleasure and beauty and the freedom of the sea. Heilmann is an unlikely zoned out surfer dude in search of the essence of her art. The essence turns out to be a  conversion of wisdom into naivety, of a maturity that folds back into the childhood self. The strange chairs she has made to accompany her paintings, odd geometric boxy play room furniture, backed with plastic strips woven into formalist weaves, and painted in different formations of colours, seem to evoke the childhood selves that are now, for the artist in maturity, permanently absent. The chairs seem to hanker after the thing that the paintings capture.

Like David Shrigley, whose bathos laden retrospective is concurrently running at The Hayward, Heilmann disarms and  jokes through the presentation of the glaringly obvious. Shrigley creates a line of diminishing ceramic eggs, each labelled, in text of diminishing size, “EGG”. Heilmann makes an abstract painting by putting two squares and two rectangles in each corner, painting each of them red, blue yellow and green – with a pink centre (La Cienega, 2010). Then she repeats the idea with a yellow centre (Taste of Honey, 2011). Or she places the squares and rectangles round the outside of a rectangle in a shaped canvas (Malevich Spin, 2011). These are the sorts of ideas that perhaps animate the imagination of the under-fives, and Heilmann knows how to exploit the full power of their innocence. Unlike Martin Creed’s abstract paintings, shown in this same gallery last year, Heilmann does not return us to a dumb logic but to the predictability of certain choices.  The comforting pleasure in adulthood that comes from the absolutely familiar, is the humble emotion that is here surprisingly  monumentalised.

Heilmann’s nonchalant abstraction places her as the wayward granddaughter of the  cackhanded master of the American abstract sublime, Barnett Newman (1905-1970). Like Newman, she avoids illusion, and stays firmly within the real, and the literal surface of the canvas. Newman’s vast scale, which evokes the openness of the American frontier landscape, its light and sky, is here converted into a different kind of landscape; the artificial, suburban landscape of Wal-mart, of Dunkin’ Donuts and Toys ‘R’ Us,  the synthetic pleasures of  America’s ‘terrain vague’ Heilmann’s art evokes this simulacrum, neither quite nature nor culture, within which human beings forage for little pleasures. The work  revels in imperfection, unpretentiously. Expressing a liking for the aesthetic of “The Simpsons”, Heilmann, in interviews, resembles that series’ most sympathetic character, Marge. A robust pragmatism and an undimmed human warmth, establish her as a liberated presence in an art culture that is all coldness, rationality and politics.

The depth of Heilmann’s paintings is one that gives way to a kind of Zen emptiness. Her arching waves, which are both animated and frozen by the carefully modulated shaped canvases that contain them, are motifs used to convey nothing more than a state of being. I for one would be interested to see Heilmann tackle painting on a grand scale. Whilst there would be the danger of losing what is a carefully negotiated tension between modesty of size and largeness of scale, taking on the Abstract Expressionists on their own terms might create an extra absurdity which would further animate this art, an art created not from convention, but from personality.


  1. jenny meehan said…

    “What seems unusual is the unequivocal directness of the artist’s desire to paint from the centre of her emotional world.”

    Is this unusual?

    I love the way you have written about this exhibition, and I am impressed by your words. I will go along and view the work before I make my own judgements. It looks fun, there’s nothing wrong with that, good for her! Your writing has made me take a look, so it’s achieved its purpose!

    Looking at the examples not “in the flesh” it doesn’t inspire, but I’ll wait and see!

  2. Katrina said…

    What a wonderful description and summing up of the show which I’ve just been to see! Maybe I was too impatient to give it time. After having seen one or two Heilmans around and particularly the beautiful pink and black one in Warwick in Dan Sturgis’ Indiscipline of Painting I was, however, disappointed in the general installation (which was like a primary school art room or department store) as well as some individual works, which seemed throwaway – others not so of course. There is a debate going on elsewhere on this site about the value or point of having just one work from an artist in a large group show – or indeed whether a single work can really offer enough clues or understanding. In Heilman’s case I have been satisfied with one but almost horrified by so much. It felt a little insecure and although we are told all her work is autobiographical there were no helpful Eminesque captions embedded and had to leave quickly.

  3. laurence Noga said…

    Heilmann has a fearless grip on colour choice, she is a big wave celebrity. The acid waves of colour that she cleverly orchestrates uses the unexpected, like a surfboard that almost knocks you out ,but you duck just in time underneath the wave, you come up looking for bigger waves of colour that move and roll you.

  4. John Holland said…

    That’s nice.
    A painter unafraid to make bland, inept, glib pictures that don’t demand anything of the viewer.
    Which begs the question, why does anyone pay big money for such twee underachievement when they could buy a lovely matching Cath Kidston bag and brolly for a few quid instead?