Mary Heilmann

1940 | San Francisco, United-States
Mary Heilmann — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Mary Heilmann, 2020, © photo: Brigitte Lacombe

American painter.

Mary Heilmann grew up surrounded by the Californian counter culture and surfing lifestyle. In 1968, she graduated with a master’s degree in ceramics and sculpture from the University of California at Berkeley, where the eminent ceramicist Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) and celebrated painter David Hockney (1937-2015) were teachers. She then moved to New York, where she found herself doubly isolated: as a woman in the very male world of minimalist sculpture, and as a Californian in a city that considered the West Coast horribly provincial. At the end of the decade, she gravitated towards painting, at the time a marginalized medium among her generation of artists.

It took her only a few years to define the central theme of her work. Her painting was a critique of painting, but at the same time completely pictorial. So, right from the start, it was meta-painting. And it was in the combination of the two main styles of pictorial abstraction – Abstract Expressionism and geometrical abstraction – that M. Heilmann’s postmodernism would find its most convincing expression: on the one hand, stains, drips, and impasto as stylistic signs and not as a reflection of the psyche; on the other hand, quadrangles, lines, and grids that also have to be seen as tropes and not as a modernist statement of belief. And grids are used in many different ways in M. Heilmann’s work. They change shape and abandon any claim to serve as a paradigm for the anti-natural, the anti-mimetic, and the anti-narrative.

The diptych Chinatown (1976) dates from the period when M. Heilmann achieved her first major works. The borders and edge on the left-hand canvas were painted yellow; those on the right-hand canvas were blue. The front surface of the canvases was then painted over in red, leaving the yellow and blue stripes as ghostly traces. The diptych might have been in the style of Josef Albers (1888-1976) ; it ultimately looks like a nod towards Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The title has many connotations, mainly biographical (at the time M. Heilmann was living in Chinatown). It tells us that, far from being merely self-referential, the abstraction is full of references, especially to popular culture. In 2017, M. Heilmann commented: “Sometimes it seems a little trite or clichéd to have big shows of all women, but I go along with it anyway because I understand that it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for people to see that happening.”

Michel Gauthier

Translated from French by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

As published in Women in Abstraction © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

Linked articles
Linked themes
Discover other artists
Biographies published in the framework of the program
Artistes Abstraites du partenariat avec le Centre Pompidou

of Women Artists
& Exhibitions

Facebook - AWARE Twitter - AWARE Instagram - AWARE
Villa Vassilieff - 21, avenue du Maine 75015 Paris (France) — info[at]aware-art[.]org — +33 (0)1 55 26 90 29