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Stories in abstraction: an interview with Mary Heilmann

9 July 2016

When Mary Heilmann moved from California to New York in 1968 she promptly took up painting. The decision was an unusual one: not only had Heilmann trained in sculpture and ceramics, she was also entering the New York art scene at a time when painting itself was being challenged by minimalism. ‘Everybody hated painting,’ Heilmann claims in the exhibition catalogue for her current retrospective ‘Looking at Pictures’ at the Whitechapel Gallery (her first major UK survey), ‘especially me’.

Yet it is painting that dominates Heilmann’s exhibition, and in her abstract, minimalist works the artist appears to meet the challenge to painting head-on. As we talk in the Whitechapel gallery ahead of the show’s opening, Heilmann tells me that ‘Agnes Martin was a huge hero for me’, and this is made clear by the first two canvases on display – The First Vent (1972) and Little 9×9 (1973), which both depict grids. Most striking is that Heilmann’s grids are not perfectly straight; the gridlines waver, giving her canvases a loose, playful quality. Heilmann painted them with her fingers, like children do in finger-painting and, as with Martin’s canvases, Heilmann’s retain the flaws left by the artist’s hand.

The First Vent

The First Vent (1972), Mary Heilmann. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Mary Heilmann/Hauser & Wirth

In beginning the show with these references to the grid, it’s impossible not to think of Mondrian (in fact, one of the works on show is called Little Mondrian). Heilmann’s grids are not, however, pure homage to the pioneering abstract artist; instead, her imprecision and splashes of paint seem deliberately to go against the rules of abstraction. And, as the title of The First Vent indicates, this work does not just depict an abstract grid but a physical object – an air vent. Instead of producing non-representational geometric shapes like Mondrian, Heilmann’s grids are full of personality. The titles of other works – such as 311 Castro Street (2001), which takes its title from her grandmother’s home address – also seem to tell a story; it’s no surprise that the artist once studied poetry.

Little 9x9

Little 9×9 (1973), Mary Heilmann. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Aside from Agnes Martin, Heilmann cites Ellsworth Kelly as ‘a big hero’. Heilmann would have been familiar with his work from exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s, and there are noticeable parallels between them – particularly in their use of an abstraction that is not isolated from real life. Kelly’s Train Landscape (1953), for example, is a square canvas with three painted horizontal colours: two shades of green and one yellow. These blocks of colour are not purely abstract: the title reveals how the work depicts the colours of the fields that Kelly saw from his train window in France. ‘It was interesting, that sort of by accident a lot of our ideas were parallels,’ she says. ‘I did come up with some of the same ideas without really seeing his work.’ So are the similarities only incidental? ‘I think it happens unconsciously, subconsciously.’ Kelly passed away last December, but Heilmann is glad that his legacy continues: ‘One great thing about artists and art is that when you’re not here anymore you’re still here. You look at a Kelly work – he’s there!’

Hockney is also present in Heilmann’s colours, in her Californian cool. The dynamic blues and greens in her recent wave paintings, such as Crashing Wave (2011), have a cheerful but chilled brightness to them, not dissimilar from Hockney’s own fascination with the water of Los Angeles swimming pools. The current exhibition of Hockney’s portraits at the Royal Academy is an exciting prospect for Heilmann, who attended the artist’s lectures back when she was a student at Berkeley around the time Hockney was working on A Bigger Splash (1967): ‘He had a studio there on campus, in the art building. I visited him and he showed me how he blew the paint, I think, through a straw.’

Crashing Wave

Crashing Wave (2011), Mary Heilmann. © Mary Heilmann. Photo: Thomas Müller

This exhibition also reveals just how much Heilmann’s art is influenced by various forms of popular culture. She tells me how ‘the art comes out of all kinds of culture. I get a lot of inspiration from billboards and signs and graphics in newspapers.’ Fashion is a key reference point, and Heilmann attributes the bright colours and patterns in her work to her interest in it. She explains that when she was at high school she ‘was famous for being a really good dresser’, but that ‘right now, I’m not so interested in fashion, because I’m preoccupied with this, with the art’, she says, gesturing to the artwork around her. ‘I’m not so interested in being a fashion icon anymore. In fact, no, I don’t really want to stand out in the crowd’. Does she leave that to her art, I ask. ‘Yes, my art does that for me.’

The artist also borrows heavily from music: Bush of Ghosts (1980) takes its title from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while the Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012) refers to the Beach Boys’ 1960s hit. But Heilmann hopes to take the influence of music – or more broadly, sound – further. At her two-person exhibition with David Reed, ‘Two by Two’, at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin last year, Reed used a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in one of his works, so you could hear the music while looking at Heilmann’s work. Heilmann found the mixture of art and sound interesting. She agrees that it may be something she will explore in the future, except that ‘it might not actually be music, it might be other kinds of ambient sounds: cars, exhausts, diesel engines, motorcycles, whatever.’

Installation view with Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012) on right.

Installation view with Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012) on right. Photo: Matt Crossick. Courtesy the artist

The Whitechapel show includes the work Her Life (2006) – a slideshow of Heilmann’s work and personal photographs set against a soundtrack of hand-picked songs. Like much of Heilmann’s work, it’s deeply autobiographical and makes clear the connections between the artist’s work and her own life – something that seems at the heart of Heilmann’s pictures.

‘Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until 21 August.