‘Each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker, a cue, by which I evoke a moment from my past, or my projected future, each a charm to conjure a mental reality and to give it physical form.’—Mary Heilmann
‘Past Present Future’ is an exhibition of paintings, furniture, and ceramics, by preeminent American artist Mary Heilmann. Along with earlier work dating back to the 1970’s, the exhibition features a new body of paintings made during the global pandemic at her Long Island studio in Bridgehampton, New York. Heilmann’s career has been spent melding abstraction with elements from popular culture and craft traditions. Her works often draw from her own personal experiences, and subtly reference Heilmann’s favorite landscapes, songs and movies, resulting in a wholly original and pioneering oeuvre.
Grounded in the soul of California, Mary Heilmann’s practice draws from her memories of the distinctive colors and lines of the West Coast’s landscape and surf culture. Under these influences and through the deceptively simple means of painting —color, surface, and form— Heilmann physically manifests nostalgic impulses, memories, and cultural references from the viewer’s collective memory, allowing the work to remain accessible on both personal and universal levels.
Heilmann’s painting ‘Driving at Night’ (2016), is evocative of night driving along scenic highways and evokes the very familiar narrative of road trips, road movies and video games. Heilmann also likes to make paintings in which a personal narrative is alluded to via the title, for example ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ (1989) is the title of a book by author Jean Genet whom the artist admires. In this way, it transcends the seemingly opaque structures of geometrical abstraction by infusing it with the content of daily life.
The paradigmatic shift in Heilmann’s career to painting occurred after her relocation to New York City in 1968, having previously been focused on sculpture and ceramics in California. While the medium of painting was proclaimed ‘dead’ by contemporary artists and critics, Heilmann undertook a conscious effort to ambush expectations, contradict art historical traditions, and provoke conversation by prioritizing a loose handling of paint and evidence of her hand and process within each work. These goals ultimately served not only to advocate for painting as a medium, but also to disrupt prevailing theories of the hard—edge and color field movements of the 1960s and 70s.
During the months of the pandemic, the artist has remained at her studio in the oceanside hamlet of Bridgehampton, immersing herself in the mutable conditions of light, air, and colors specific to the oceanfront environment, channelling her observations into new paintings that expand upon her ongoing fascination with waves and water. Drawing from a life lived on two coasts, the new works on view in this exhibition, such as ‘Geometric Break’ (2020) and ‘Montauk’ (2020), synthesize her memories of coastal vistas of her youth with the ever changing, elusive geometries of Atlantic Ocean waves.
The emphasis on interaction in her work, whether personal, art historical, or aesthetic, also takes on phenomenological form by way of Heilmann’s furniture works. Over the years, the artist has used abstracted chair motifs in her paintings and in 2002 Heilmann began designing and making real chairs. Performing a function within the gallery space, each piece of furniture is a three-dimensional painting that weaves the artist’s ideology into the everyday. Sharing the bright chromatics of her paintings and chairs, a selection of Heilmann’s ceramic cup and saucer sets are also on display, revealing truly sculptural qualities in and amongst the paintings and chairs.
All images: Courtesy of Mary Heilmann
Influenced by 1960s counterculture, the free speech movement, and the surf ethos of her native California, Mary Heilmann ranks amongst the most influential abstract painters of her generation. Considered one of the preeminent contemporary Abstract painters, Heilmann’s practice overlays the analytical geometries of Minimalism with the spontaneous ethos of the Beat Generation, and are always distinguishable by their often unorthodox—always joyful—approach to color and form.
Mary HeilmannPast Present Future
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