Exploring the Archive: Two Works by Mary Heilmann
‘It’s funny that you can get such a lot of powerful juice out of such an old, used form, but it is amazing that you can.’ Mary Heilmann is speaking here about painting, but the sentiment applies just as well to the form of Konrad Bitterli’s monographic essay that quotes her. Excerpted below, ‘Painting—Deconstructed Reconstructed: Two Works by Mary Heilmann,’ presents a concise and conceptually rigorous take on Heilmann’s painting, charting the artist’s navigation of pictorial space from two moments in her career: ‘Little 9 x 9’ from 1973 and ‘Blue Room’ from 1997.
The names of those works serve as the title of the now out-of-print book in which Bitterli’s essay is the centerpiece: ‘Little 9 x 9 (1973) / Blue Room (1997)’ was published by Oktagon Verlag in 2000 on the occasion of simultaneous exhibitions at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen and Sammlung Hauser & Wirth—the former, a show with Heilmann’s friend Jessica Stockholder; the latter, a presentation of Heilmann’s paintings in Hauser & Wirth’s collection. The publication opens with a preface co-authored by book editors Eva Meyer-Hermann, the founding director of Sammlung Hauser & Wirth, and Roland Wäspe of the Kunstverein St. Gallen Kunstmuseum. German and English versions of Bitterli’s text then bookend full-page reproductions of each of the paintings being discussed.
Installation view, ‘Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, United Kingdom, 2016
‘Little 9 x 9 (1973) / Blue Room (1997)’, Oktagon Verlag, 2000
Painting—Deconstructed Reconstructed Two Works by Mary Heilmann
‘In the rank vegetation of contemporary painting, few buds bloom. The little-known turn up only rarely. Mary Heilmann’s pictures strike us like an off-the-track, colorful biotope, like a flowering garden with self-willed plants and hybrids.’ Mary Heilmann’s ‘flowering garden’ could be found these past years in many important exhibitions on contemporary painting as well as many solo exhibitions. The first-rate group of works form the Sammlung Hauser & Wirth being presented at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen offers a welcome occasion to take a closer look into Mary Heilmann’s oeuvre: ‘Little 9 x 9’ from 1973 and ‘Blue Room’ from 1997 are the objects of the following monographic reflection on her work. These two works represent exemplarily her early work as well as her current phase of production that together form the wondrous biotope of color, as carefully nurtured as it untamed.
‘Little 9 x 9,’ the title of an early work from 1973, can certainly serve as a first description of the way the artist sets up her picture. ‘Little 9 x 9’ (acrylic on canvas) alludes in a self-referential sense, on the one hand, to its modest, 21 7/8 inch square size and, on the other, to the painting’s simple structure of nine vertical and nine horizontal lines. The appearance is, however, immediately relativized: the potential clarity of the picture’s setup is deliberately broken up by formal deviations and its seeming self-referentiality augmented by various non-pictorial references.
‘Well, I didn’t know how to make a composition, so I chose the grid. Most of them are cool, hardedged, austere. I wanted to do something else with a grid, not be so rigid about it.’—Mary Heilmann
Although ‘Little 9 x9’ is based on a classical grid pattern of upright and prone, it is fundamentally different from the strict arrangement of constructive concepts. Mary Heilmann has neither made the grid into an orderly structure nor place a linear composition on a flat picture plane and related it locally to the square of the frame. Nor does her latticed net result from an additive process of applying and balancing single picture parts. On the contrary, it results from the reductive technique of handling the pain in a kind of finger painting freestyle. First the artist took an unmounted canvas and applied two coats of acrylic paint to it. Onto an undercoat of black with green flints she added an opaque bright-red layer. Before this upper layer was dry, she used her fingers to draw into the paint’s still wet skin an irregular lattice pattern whose horizontals and perpendiculars appear as gently curving lines. The line-for-line exposure of the color below has left behind fine red traces in the black lines and warps of paint to both sides. The paint material that has been ‘plowed’ to the side in a sloping wall stands out against the red field and accentuates the black lines. It does so by surrounding them with a bright-red glow that stems from refractive light.
Beginning in the lower left and continuing towards the right and the upper edge, Mary Heilmann has drawn alternate vertical and horizontal lines. Seen frontally, an irregular grid of nine horizontals and nine verticals are the result. If we add the four lines visible on its raised sides, the painting is comprised of eleven lines along both its axes, whereby it did not receive this final form until the picture filed was cut out and the canvas stretched around the chassis: not till this concluding act of mounting did it become ‘Little 9 x 9.’
Like ‘The First Vent’ (1972) or ‘Red Yellow and Blue Knot’ (1979), ‘Little 9 x 9’ is exemplary for the early work, which is characterized by a radical restriction of the palette to the primary colors of red, yellow and/or blue, as well as the consistent use of regulated picture constructs–grids, divisions, symmetries. Number games and brain teasers serve Mary Heilmann as recurring pictorial concepts. Although its composition reflects persuasive clarity and stupendous simplicity, ‘Little 9 x 9’ surprises us by its visual richness, which the eye first grasps at closer observation. Above all the irregular lattice proves to be a literally multi-layered, pictorial element. Thus, Mary Heilmann’s ‘web structure’ contradicts the two-dimensional compositions and arrangements of constructivist art. The sequential procedure determines the crossing and overlaying of the single lines. In short, they are woven in a complex configuration that can be seen in all its spatial exhalation. The web begins to disband visually, whereby–if you follow the lines–it breaks up into staccato0like rhythms made up of segments of short black bars.
The optical to-and-fro between flat picture plane and picture depth is enhanced further by the compression and expansion of the irregular segments. But not only the linear structure–oscillating between plane and volume–proves unstable, but the different luminosity of the colors also subverts the pictorial structure. Thus the black lines, seemingly drawn on the surface, actually belong to the undercoat and contend with the brightness of the upper layer of red. Between the surface luminosity and the undercoat an irritating game of subtle shifts in color and spatiality ensues.
Mary Heilmann does not let it rest at the ambivalent rivalry between two and three-dimensionality. She broadens painting to include, so to speak, the surrounding space. The canvas is pulled over the chassis so that, of the eleven horizontals and eleven verticals, one is visible at each of the four picture sides. In this way the linear structure extends beyond the picture’s surface and closes off the painting at its edges. The two-dimensional latticework reaches into space; the picture itself turns into an object on the wall. The work, along with the usual front, correspondingly centered, perspective, thus implies an additional viewpoint that can be experience from an oblique angle, a perspective that sharply foreshortens the grid pattern. The focus of the picture structure disintegrates, the perpendicular stands out from the horizontal and, along our viewing axis, condenses to a dynamic rhythm in depth. Seen in its various spatial extensions, the grid structure is hardly recognizable as a pictorial order; in Mary Heilmann’s ‘Little 9 x 9’ it has thoroughly lost its universal significance.
Traditions and Breaks
‘Well, I didn’t know how to make a composition, so I chose the grid. Most of them are cool, hardedged, austere. I wanted to do something else with a grid, not be so rigid about it.’ Two aspects seem notable in this context: 1. The grid, its tradition and Mary Heilmann’s interpretation of it and 2. The ontological status of her work between painting and object. Ever since Piet Mondrian at the beginning of the Twenties found his way to a classical vocabulary of forms–reduction of the pictorial elements to the horizontal and the vertical and the radical restriction of the palette to the primary colors of red, yellow and/or blue plus the non-colors gray, black and/or white–the has become, so to speak, an archetype of Modernism. It served to object the pictorial means and to efface and non-pictorial references. For decades the grid structure was universally binding as an indisputable formal, as well as a telling, maxim. But the search for the absolute, the promise of a universal entity of meaning that underlies Modernism like a spiritual foundation could, by the end of the Sixties, no longer be redeemed. Mary Heilmann’s approach to the pictorial archetype, her literal ‘clearing the way’ for spatiality within the grid, marks a consistent break with the ideas of a picture’s autonomy and art’s self-referentiality. Thus Jutta Koether could characterize ‘Little 9 x 9’ as an ‘opening of the mythological ‘grid’ that has now become an informal grid,’ while Georg Imdahl noted that the artist professed her affinity ‘to European Constructivism and American color field painting. Heilmann faces up to, but is not intimated, by this past. […] She stands up to it respectful but with a cheerful, self-ironic lightness that hopes to be taken seriously.’ There is still a sense of order at the basis of the ‘informal grid’ but it is transformed into a pictorial structure in which the process of working the material is itself the subject. The autonomy of the purified form ends in the visible traces this process has left behind; the universal claim to meaningfulness shatters on the temporality of the individual artistic gesture.
‘When I got to New York, it looked like all the slots for sculpture were taken. And so it was at that time that I switched over to being a painter. And that switch was a very aggressive and antagonistic move.’—Mary Heilmann
The work process remains visible in ‘Little 9 x 9’ and can be mentally recapitulated. Painting becomes, as it were, the ‘documentation’ of an act: the picture as spoor contrasts with traditional ideas of painting as the result of a creative act or as the mystery of an intuitive struggle with the picture. In addition, Mary Heilmann’s approach to the picture is tied in with her earlier sculptures from 1967/68. With works like ‘Orange and Green’ (1967, acrylic on Masonite) she entered the sphere of so-called New Sculpture, as the process-oriented sculptures of her generational colleagues Richard Serra (b. 1939) and Keith Sonnier (b. 1941) were called. ‘Orange and Green’ already sports very bright colors, perhaps influenced by her long and intense work with ceramics. The relationship to contemporary sculpture becomes obvious in ‘Little 9 x 9,’ since what is special to the picture are its essentially sculptural features like its painted sides and a disposition consistent with an object on a wall. In this way the artist probed the limits of this genre. But Mary Heilmann’s radical questioning of the medium did not lead to a final abandonment of painting, as is the case with Donald Judd (1928–1994). ‘When I got to New York, it looked like all the slots for sculpture were taken. And so it was at that time that I switched over to being a painter. And that switch was a very aggressive and antagonistic move.’ Precisely against this background of a widespread problematic questioning of the easel painting tradition, Mary Heilmann’s deconstruction of abstract pictorial forms and her undaunted approach towards a reconstruction of the medium of painting signifies the actual re-definition of what the perspectives for painting are: ‘Little 9 x 9’ marks the beginning of this courageous reversion to the picture.
‘Blue Room’, finished in 1997, is in its right half, like ‘Little 9 x 9,’ based on a grid. Their structural kinship makes a comparison obvious, since the essential shift that occurred in Mary Heilmann’s work can thus be precisely determined. In ‘Blue Room’ (oil on wood and canvas) the concept of a strict linear grid is disrupted in favor of overlapping color movements. The painting is no longer the result of a reductive process. The artist has masterfully set different blue and violet tones next to each other on the canvas. The six to five irregular picture fields follow the preliminary lines drawn in crayon and just visible under the paint, without strictly adhering to them. In general, the oil paint, applied in differing consistency alla prima, seems to have whipped up the picture plane to a state of great excitement. The hectic movement on the surface contrasts with a subtle oscillation between picture surface and picture depth. The varied brightness of the different blue and violet tones break up the closed surface into serially-set floating levels.
To this part of the painting the artist has attached a wooden panel, a kind of shaped canvas that is set flush with the other. This second panel, kept to a transparent light blue—only the wood tone shines through the coat of paint—is very different from its counterpart. Two tilted rhombic forms, attached to each other by diagonal lines, open up a geometrically constructed picture field that seems to float in blue, the effect of which is to relegate the right half of the painting back to the flat plane. The spatial layout of the composition, in turn, contrasts with the two vertical grooves in the wooden panel and colored blue that, as actual depressions, only underline the fictionality of the constructed space. In ‘Blue Room’ the artist explores with dizzying virtuosity a variety of possibilities for depicting and interlocking pictorial space and combines them to an irritating configuration: from the distinctly space and combines them to an irritating configuration: from the distinctly distancing effect of individual colors by way of the superimposed coats of color and a geometrically constructed space to the very real depth achieved by the relief-like treatment of the picture plane, ‘Blue Room’ opens up a fascinating spectrum of three-dimensional depth and surface tension, which coincide in one picture. ‘I am obsessed with the space in Asian painting…how there can be several kinds of space at once. I play with this idea as I look, my eye and my flicking back and forth from one sense of space to another. […] This way of looking makes a still moment move in time.’ It seems that a feeling for different spatialities had already been established in her childhood, as evidenced by Mary Heilmann’s description in her autobiography of the dizziness high diving caused her: ‘The descent was at once soaring flight and plummeting weight.’ In the work ‘Blue Room,’ the artist also notes possible art-historical sources in the way space is handled in Japanese folding screens or in portrayals of suites of rooms in the bourgeois Dutch interiors of the 17th century.
The interlocked spatial planes and the two picture parts are visually linked by the overall tone of blue, reminiscent of a soft musical chord. Blue is not used–as in the trinity of the primary colors–as a pure value-free substance. Rather the artist is subtly playing with its different evocative qualities, with its atmospheric and emotional potential. A kind of melancholic mood settles in: ‘At some point, thinking about different colors in paintings, I became interested in discovering the emotional states called forth by blue. I mean blue has so many different associations; it’s the sky, it’s holy, a color associated with Mary, it’s a kind of mournful music, which evokes sadness and loss, romance and longing.’
Mary Heilmann, ca. 1999 – 2001. Photo: Tom Warren
Mary Heilmann, Blue Room, 1997 © Mary Heilmann
Sadness, loss, romance and longing as content: it is exactly this multiplicity of emotions, which Mary Heilmann’s work records and radiates, that comprises unexpected new qualities, characterizing it as exemplary in the context of contemporary art. It is an oeuvre whose impulses are fed from the most varied of sources: everyday events, past and future, pop and sophisticated culture, music, literature, film, in short, from the cornucopia of our unruly lifestyle between high and low. ‘Her painting is characters just as much by life experience as it is by a carefreeness, a visual lust that proceeds from the trivial and is then interspersed and heightened with intellect and refinement.’ Thus the most varied emotions–from erotic tenderness to uncontrolled aggression–are given access to her work and hardened into abstract figurations. The artist transforms this fund of willful images again and again, lending the ensuing variations surprising thematic shifts. The variation in the pictorial concept is also clear to see in Blue Room. Thus the mood found in Blue Room has a formal correspondence to ‘Woody’s Truck Stop’ (1992–97) and its small-scale pendant ‘Woody Junior’ (1997). ‘Woody’s Truck Stop’: ‘The painting’s title evokes a diner or ‘greasy spoon’ one finds along the American highway, a place where both truck drivers and motorists stop to eat or rest before continuing their long distance journey. Together, the gridded panel and the notched square bring to mind the homey, decorative touches one finds in such places.’ While ‘Woody’s Truck Stop’ calls up a typical diner somewhere in the Arizona desert, ‘Blue Room’ is associated more with a cool piano bar in a posh hotel, as Mary Heilmann herself added.
It is just such conspicuous outside references that make up the body of the artist’s work since the beginning of the Eighties. And these are what open up the most varied layers of meaning—which go far beyond the self-referential form of earlier works like ‘Little 9 x 9’—by being couched in an abstract vocabulary that recalls what has been lived through, remembered or dreamed: non-figurative painting of ‘compositions and color fields, phenomena, painting and symbols for painting, mementos themselves and tributes that trigger these memories (individual as well as general) of conditions, people, segments of art history, of pop music, of feelings.’
The constantly cited claim that painting has come to an end has for decades become a part of the standard repertoire of latter-day art history. Since the beginning of the Seventies Mary Heilmann has confronted such an ‘opt-out of the picture’ with her individualist oeuvre that has for a long time shunned the authoritarian demands of Modernism, demands that had frowned on experience and ideas outside of the material presence of the work or its author. And this is just where her own opus begins. From deconstruction to reconstruction: beginning with works like ‘Little 9 x 9’, which does have a self-referential character, her current work–taking ‘Blue Room’ as an example–allows us entry into a broad network of self and outside referentiality. ‘Instead of working out of the dogma of modernist nonimage formalism, I began to see that the choices in the work, depended more on content for their meaning. It was the end of modernism.’
What Hans-Michael Herzog in the catalog ‘nuevas abstracciones’ denoted as a characteristic of contemporary painting is especially true for Mary Heilmann’s production: ‘Painting like this does not make any claim to being absolute and correspondingly rebuffs any kind of one-on-one congruence. […] From the banal to the sublime, anything can serve as the basis for painting.’ The ‘open reference system,’ as Hans-Michael Herzog calls it, is the crucial quality that Mary Heilmann’s work adds to the vocabulary of abstract painting. Embedded in its traditions, her work creates other multiple fields of reference that make the most varied of thematic allusions possible without ever being reducible to one-dimensional anecdotes. Self-referential connotations pervade quotations form individual experience and the reality around us: abstraction reconciled with emotion.
The artist has drawn her consequences from the radical, pictorial skepticism of the Seventies by creating a new form of picture and thus expanding contemporary painting by a key perspective. At the end of Modernism something is suddenly possible again, which we could call a ‘visual metaphor’. And this is what comprises her trailblazing contribution to the art of today: ‘It’s funny that you can get such a lot of powerful juice out of such an old, used form, but it is amazing that you can.’
Since its founding in 1992, Hauser & Wirth Publishers has been devoted to the presentation of unique, object-like books and a rich exchange of ideas between artists and scholars. Exploring the Archive continues this commitment through the digitization of excerpts from seminal, rare, or out-of-print titles from the Hauser & Wirth Publishers archive, which comprises monographs, artists’ books, exhibition catalog, and collections of artists’ writings.
Mary Heilmann (b. 1940, San Francisco, California) is an American abstract painter whose unorthodox engagement with form and representation produces works at once elementarily geometric and human.
Konrad Bitterli (b. 1960) is the director of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur and was previously curator at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen.