On ViewCraig F. Starr Gallery
July 10 – October 28, 2017
Before becoming one of the most eminent abstract painters of her generation, Mary Heilmann arrived in New York as a sculptor in 1968. Exploring Pearl Paint, a short distance from her Chinatown loft, (Barnett Newman among many others had bought supplies at the famed, now-shuttered retailer), Heilmann initially decided against using the wide range of pigments on offer, avoiding what she referred to as “pretty” color and working in a restricted palette of earth tones and white. In 1974, however, her art underwent a substantial shift. By the next year, Heilmann was working exclusively with red, yellow, and blue—the paintings that are the subject of this exhibition. To restrict Heilmann’s considerable oeuvre to this tight body of work (apart from three ceramic bowls from 2017—painted red, blue, and yellow, respectively—all works in the show were made between 1975 and 1978) is to expand our understanding of just how sharp and inventive an artist Heilmann has always been.
Her switch to painting into the early 1970s is a significant one, both for the artist and as an indicator of critical attitudes towards painting and sculpture generally (for her part, Heilmann was a habitué of Max’s Kansas City, an artists’ bar on Park Avenue South frequented by leading sculptors of the day). Sculpture enjoyed much higher regard at this juncture in the New York art scene, and experimentation with moving painting into three dimensions—emphasizing its object quality—was widespread (Lynda Benglis, Blinky Palermo, and Jack Whitten were only a few of the artists exploring this direction). Heilmann, who had studied with the ceramicist Peter Voulkos in San Francisco, made her transition to this mode of object-like painting with apparent ease. She rejected the metaphysics and scale of AbEx painting, replacing this once-dominant form with a loose but measured geometry that exuded an interest in the quotidian, echoing aspects of the structures around her—doors and windows, for example.
These works share the characteristics of a substantial, handmade, glazed ceramic piece. The sides of the canvases are painted, calling attention to the depth of the support, recalling a slab or tile. Across the surface, paint has been scraped and squeegeed. Take, for example, First Three For Two: Red, Yellow, Blue (1975). Two rectangular areas are stacked, a red band follows the outside edge of a yellow rectangle above, and a yellow band does the same over a blue rectangle below. The bands in both cases are scraped over the paint beneath, revealing that first color. Further layers of paint are applied later and removed by squeegeeing off the excess, the smears and knobs of paint resembling beautiful missteps. The layers, one breaking through to the other, read as transparencies. The effect recalls ceramic glazing, as do the simplicity and directness of the configurations, limited here by choice rather than technical requirement. Frequently, compositions are refitted and retried at different sizes, like Davis Sliding Square (1978) and The Ghost Square (1976), both of which feature a blue rectangle and square against yellow. In the latter work, the “ghost square” of the title is formed by a yellow plane overlapping a blue rectangle, leaving a square section exposed.
Far from purist, Heilmann’s reductive urge has as much to do with Superman’s costume or a Wonder Bread wrapper as with Barnett Newman or Piet Mondrian. Of course, these paintings are not Pop Art, but they are not high modernist statements either. Rather, they have an undeniable haptic appeal; they invite touch rather than reverence.