Field Trips: Anne M. Wagner on the Art of Mary Heilmann

By Wagner, Anne M. | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Field Trips: Anne M. Wagner on the Art of Mary Heilmann


Wagner, Anne M., Artforum International


IF MARY HEILMANN is now mostly known as a painter's painter, her current retrospective, which inaugurated its four-city tour last spring at the Orange County Museum of Art, makes it clear that this ought to change. She is the author of too many smart and gorgeous images to let the artists keep her to themselves. But this isn't all that needs fixing. As the retrospective emphatically demonstrates, a new chapter urgently needs writing in the still-inconclusive history of postwar abstraction--its highs and its lows.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

And I do mean lows: By 1969, when Heilmann, who had arrived in New York after receiving her MFA at the University of California, Berkeley, turned from object making to painting, New York-based abstraction was slowly sinking into a worn-out slump. Clement Greenberg's hegemony was beginning to unravel, and the artists he patronized would soon feel the pinch. Frank Stella's salad days were behind him. Agnes Martin had left the city. Mark Rothko's suicide was imminent. Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly were both working steadily, granted, but so distinctively as to be inimitable by younger artists--not that Heilmann seems to have ever resorted to simple mimicry, despite the frequency with which other artists of her generation have used it as a tool. Instead she relied on coming to terms, as all serious abstractionists must, with the most basic issues art presents. What world can a painting summon? What does it offer to the mind and senses? Should it aim to disclose the contingencies of its making, or strive for an effect of presence so complete, so vivid, as to seem foreordained? Or is the point to erode the inevitable barrier between the viewer's present and the painter's past, between the now of looking and the then of making? The great benefit of operating within abstraction, of course, is that its self-imposed limits thrust such questions to the fore. Color and surface and pattern, mark and system and grid: Like all the successful abstract painters before and (hopefully) after her, these are constants Heilmann varies, and thereby reinvents.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sometimes a little urban isolation can be beneficial if reinvention is the goal. There's no one around to mention that being a painter in the age of information is not exactly going with the flow. Or if anyone told Heilmann, it was advice she chose to ignore. Instead, from 1970 onward, she focused on devising the means for her own post-Minimalism, absorbing and loosening the ancestral geometries, untucking their shirttails, rolling up their sleeves. Consider her way with the grid. Little 9 x 9, 1973, is a perfect case in point. This small square acrylic takes its title from the eighteen thickish lines that plow through it, nine to a side. I say plow because the red paint has been laid on generously, then scraped away to show a substrate of black. But if Kazimir Malevich would have approved of this color scheme--and likewise of the equilateral format--he would have had no time at all for these offhand marks and halfhearted grid. There are no right angles in this antisystem and no team players either. All Heilmann's lines seem to do in concert is take a jab at geometry, with a follow-up swipe at the square.

What is striking about Little 9 x 9, however, is that none of this (the unsteady intersections, the wonky waverings) is casual in the least. Heilmann's apparently improvised grid is actually exactingly constructed to make a weave or web. Its lines go over and under one another, starting and stopping with a deftness that speaks of intention and perfect (yes, the word is justified) control. How can you tell? Because the artist worked with the thick red layer when it was still wet, which means that the lines she scraped into it have raised edges: Think again of the passage of a plow. And each line starts or stops on a dime, either overriding or conceding the next. The result means everything for how the painting looks and feels. …

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