The painter’s painter theory of solid space

Paul Laster

Artist Mary Heilmann welcomed us at her Tribeca studio to discuss the ideas behind her painting generated by sculpture, ceramics and modern masters.

Celebrated for her colorful abstract paintings, Mary Heilmann studied art and crafts in California before moving in 1968 to New York, where she quickly became a fixture on the downtown art scene. Creating abstract canvases that are as sculptural as they are painterly, the 77-year-old artist has established an international reputation for her lively art, which also includes home furnishings and ceramics. With two shows taking place this summer — “Painting Pictures” at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton and “Red, Yellow, Blue Paintings from the 1970s” at Craig F. Starr Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side — Heilmann sat down with Conceptual Fine Arts in her Tribeca studio to discuss the ideas behind her dynamic, color-saturated work.

You’ve been called a painter’s painter. What does that mean to you?

A lot of the things that I do are thinking about the craft of painting or the theories of painting—how to do it, what it means. I guess that’s significant because I come to it from sculpture and ceramics, not really from the art historical culture of painting.

You started out in the 1960s as a sculptor and ceramicist, so what led you to painting, even though I’ve read that you despised it at the time?

That was the natural cultural thing for ornery beatnik hippies. I was doing sculpture at Berkeley, which was quite a conservative sculpture department, and I found out about what was going on with anti-form and primary structures. I started doing radical sculpture inspired by Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and a few others. I loved the Jewish Museum show where Carl Andre put the lever of bricks on the floor in Kynaston’s McShine’s exhibition, which I think was actually called “Primary Structures.” And I had also seen Donald Judd’s work in Pasadena when I was in school. I felt that I was really thinking in the same kind of way, even when I made paintings.

When I moved to New York in 1968 I couldn’t get into any interesting, friendly conversations at Max’s Kansas City—our main hangout—as a sculptor, so I thought that I would call my practice painting, even though it was still sculpture and was related to what was going on all over the place. When I told artists like Robert Smithson that I was a painter we would get into kind of a fight, as he had a kind of an attitude toward it. That was the style for conversation with artists then—arguing!

Do you consider yourself to be self-taught as a painter?

Let me think about that… Pretty much, I guess. I had to take undergraduate painting class when I first started graduate school at Berkeley because I wasn’t an art major. I had been a literature major as an undergrad. I took a painting class from Frank Lobdell and when I mixed the paint it came out gray, to which he said “then make some gray paintings.” That was cool!

At Berkeley, Joseph Albers came and gave a beautiful talk on a big stage in a big auditorium with slide projections. It was a wonderful talk about color—not color being mixed, so much, but about colors being next to one another. So I did learn about how to mix paint, but back then they really taught painting in a conservative way, which they don’t do so much anymore.

Yet you had studied with David Hockney in 1965. What was the takeaway there?

Yeah, that was cool. That was at Berkeley. We were all sculptors and we lied and said that we were painters so we could get into his class. He was so theoretical. He was an early postmodernist. He brought all kinds of culture into the context of his work—including super-gay culture, in a friendly, smiley, but very aggressive way, and we’ve learned a lot from him through that and through the subjects of his work.

Did he have any influence on your later choice of colors?

I think so, using my culturally normal radical color, yeah. Los Angeles lifestyle was a big influence on me, too—the same as on him. He didn’t look like a British painter, or a British person for that matter, in the way that he dressed.

Are you inspired by popular culture?

Yeah, totally, in the beginning, as a kid in high school, I was totally into fashion, in fact I wanted to go into the fashion business. So making fashion choices was significant for my way of thinking when I was growing up. Music and magazine advertisements were also influences when I was getting started, but music has been an influence the whole time. Movies have had an impact, too. I actually once said that you can look at a painting and tell how it’s made—what came first and what came second—and this act of looking at it for a long time was like watching a movie.

Why abstraction? What’s your fascination with it?

I just naturally really loved geometry as a kid. While growing up, my father was an engineer and was constantly doing geometry and drawing. We would drive around and he would talk about the geology of what we passed and he would tell me about how they think to build bridges and dams and roads. Architecture interested me when I was growing up. Picture making was not my first thing—I wasn’t really very good at drawing realistically.

Are you a believer in wabi-sabi aesthetics?

Yes, that was a function of the way that Peter Voulkos taught ceramics. He was inspired from going to Japan when he was young. A huge influence, so we got that from him. I found out that term way, way later. I went to Japan myself and went to a place where they were throwing pots in the Japanese way.

What are some of your formal concerns?

I play with composition being in balance and out of balance. I do have images in the work, even though sometimes you can’t tell it’s an image right away. Formally, there’s a kind of storytelling to what I’m doing. For example the road paintings might look abstract and people might not think it’s a road until they read the title, “No Passing,” and understand it.

I’ve read that early in your career you taught art classes for children. What did you learn from them?

Tons. One thing that was huge was the kind of emotional rush that they would get when they did something—positively and negatively. I guess I did, too, as a kid, because I wasn’t very good at it, in the regular way. When I colored I wouldn’t stay inside the lines and would be in trouble for that. I learned a lot about child psychology because I was studying how to be a teacher.

Is the 1972 painting “The First Vent,” which is being shown at DIA, come out of this way of thinking?

That’s right. It comes out of a few of the things that we’ve just been talking about. It’s a combination of being a sculpture and a painting. It is a finger painting. The paint is squeegeed and also finger-painted. It was just natural to do something with your hands.

It also makes me think of Ellsworth Kelly’s form of abstraction, which has roots in real life things. Does your work come from a similar vein?

I would say yes, and that’s actually inspired by seeing all of the air conditioners when I first moved to New York. It’s about the scale of an air conditioner, the kind that’s in a window. There’s an air conditioner in the gallery at the Dan Flavin Art Institute and that’s what motivated me to install it on the wall opposite a heater there.

In a 1999 Bomb Magazine interview with Ross Bleckner you stated, “…in the making of our work, we artists channel the artists that worked before us.” Who are some of the artists that you have channeled?

Donald Judd. I remember seeing a Judd show with a tall, shelf-like piece that cantilevered out. It related to the architecture, which had always interested me, and made a big impact.

Were you thinking about Mondrian when you made the RYB paintings that are being shown at Craig Starr?

Yes, in fact I even made a painting titled “Little Mondrian,” but it’s not in the show. I found out about him when reading art books as a kid, with the family. I was interested in both his use of color and geometry—the grid.

What’s happening inside the frame with these red, yellow, blue paintings?

They are often geometric structures that are layered. It’s the kind of thing that you could look at and see how it is made—what came first and what came second—and that’s a big part of the content of that work.

Are they more about process?

They are about process. Some of them are made with masking tape and layers, while other are made by scraping—taking top layers away.

Some of them are diptychs, which is common to your practice. What’s your fascination with pairing and joining up canvases?

I guess opening up and including the architecture of the room as part of the content of the piece.

And shaped canvases, what’s the intrigue there?

Again, that would be making the image be a concrete sculptural idea. Some of the double square pieces often have a kind of three-dimensionality to them, or a perspective to them, which is implied. Some of them have a kind of Japanese space, an Asian space—flat and deep at the same time.

How important is change to your practice?

As I carry on I evolve and often go off and do new things, but I also always go back and do something that I’ve done before to mix it up. The time isn’t really linear. The time is more like a solid thing all happening at once.

What’s the edge you tread when making art?

Sometimes something is kind of distressing or off-putting and disturbing and at other times it’s seductive and beautiful and full of love. I like to play those two against each other–even when dealing with flat space and deep space, which is part of that thing.

You often revisit past works with what you call “remixes,” which is understandable from music culture, but what’s this process for you?

It’s loving an idea and wanting to do it over and over again, which is an idea that has been really criticized in the history of art. Calling it a remix is a way of seeing it as a good thing, which it is. In the current art market, when everybody likes something, you’re pretty tempted to do a whole bunch of them. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to do—even though it’s totally considered a bad thing to do now.

But your remixes sometimes combine two things from the past in a new way. What’s the thought there?

That just sort of comes to me, almost like a dream. Not actually a dream, although it could be when I’m just waking up I envision two things together in my head. It’s like a conversation, in a way.

Do you use computers for art making?

I play around with Photoshop, in a simple way, and use Google to get information and find images.

Do you make preliminary sketches before starting a piece?

I might make a doodle or two to remember something, but I don’t make serious studies.

Your work looks simple, but it wouldn’t be easy for anyone else to make. What’s your process for ruminating, thinking and making?

I do spend a lot of time sitting and looking at the work in the studio and thinking, even if I’m not in my main studio.

The DIA show includes the 1987 painting “Rio Nido” that you painted in the Hamptons. Why did you decide to exhibit this canvas, which seems like a seminal work in that it incorporates both geometry and roughly rendered dots?

I made a series of fan paintings, but this is the only one that’s going to be in the show. One of the reasons that I wanted to show it is that it was made about two blocks away from where the Flavin Institute is. The dots are made by the fact that the under-painting is acrylic, water-based paint and the black fan is oil. I rubbed the oil away with turpentine and it made the runny dots. There are some new paintings in the show that are inspired by Flavin’s icons and they have a big area of positive and negative space that’s a little bit like the fan paintings.

You’re also showing some of your cups and saucers at DIA, which brings to mind your table, chairs and other utilitarian objects. How did you start making these things and for what purpose?

I call them the ‘Home Arts.’ A few years back I showed some cups on a shelf that I titled the ‘Cup Shelf, Remembering Judd.’ When I went to Marfa a long time ago I was really inspired by how domestic the whole enterprise felt to me, even though it was on this grand, massive, slightly intimidating scale. He made furniture, which helped inspire my chairs. I didn’t really know it at the time but the first chairs were made out of plywood—just like Judd’s chairs. Growing up, there was always a lot of conversation about the dinnerware, the tables—all of this home-stuff. My mom was constantly re-arranging the furniture and art on the walls, which was a big influence. And when studying Japanese art and ceramics I learned that things can be as high as art sometimes.

Considering that you are showing at DIA’s Dan Flavin Art Institute, do you feel any affinity to Flavin’s work?

I always loved his work. I think I saw the first fluorescent pieces when I came to New York. I had known about them from books when I was still in California. I do have an affinity for his work. I never knew him but I went around town in the Hamptons trying to find out gossip about him, in order to feel like I knew him. It turns out that he was Catholic, like me. He was in the seminary in high school. The pieces of his that inspire the new pieces that I’m showing are called ‘Icons.’ They are the light-bulb pieces. The culture of Catholic iconography has been a big influence on my work, as well as super-radical minimalism.

What about the light and color quality of his fluorescent light pieces?

I love the installation of his works upstairs at the Flavin Institute. That kind of color made with light is very inspiring to me. It’s unbelievably serious and complicated, and brilliant.

Are the Hamptons a source of inspiration for you?

I went out there a long time ago when I was kind of sad and nothing was going on for me in the art world. I wanted to go out and sit in a rocking chair like De Kooning and just do my work and be in the country. I was kind of a loner then, and there weren’t that many people out there. The history of the art scene is rich, and the light is beautiful, which is amazing.

Finally, your titles are both poetic and curious. What role do they play in the work and what are some of the sources for them?

The titles are often a poetic part of the piece, like “Rio Nido,” which was a vacation place near San Francisco that my family visited. It was a simple, working-class style vacation place. The houses had colored lights on the porch. With a highway piece like “No Passing,” you get a little bit of visual information and then fill in the rest with your own driving trip I the desert. I big part of my growing up was spent driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in the “Inland Empire,” as it’s called. David Lynch even made a film about it. I also titled a piece for another one of his films, “Lost Highway.” A title can lend a little narrative to work that might otherwise be considered abstract.

Note: “RYB: Mary Heilmann Paintings, 1975-78” is on view at Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York through 28 October 2017 and “Mary Heilmann: Painting Pictures” at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, New York runs through 27 May 2018.

July 24, 2017