Until I found in my mailbox the eye-catching catalog of Mary Heilmann's exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art, I had never heard of her. The handsomely printed hardcover book, with its elegant layout and numerous color reproductions, is clearly a labor of love. For this California-born-and-raised artist, who now resides in New York, this is the first retrospective covering four decades of her career.
The introduction and three essays comprising the catalog describe Mary Heilmann and her art in the most glowing terms, with an emphasis on irreverence, style and wit. A childhood spent among the sand dunes of Southern California and her passion for surfing and pool diving are cited as the source of the adrenaline rush that continues to feed her art. Elizabeth Armstrong, curator of the exhibition, writes that Heilmann's paintings "affect us in unexpected ways, calling us to dive into their -- and our own -- secret spaces." Another source of inspiration is contemporary music and poetry: imagine an aspiring young artist living in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.
The title of a recent painting, Surfing on Acid, says it all. The abstract composition consists of horizontal bands of extremely bright, almost DayGlo, colors bleeding into each other. Seeing it up close can make you dizzy, even high, if you know what I mean. Celebrated art critic Dave Hickey, in a trademark over-the-top verbal riff, exalts Heilmann as the ultimate 'painter's painter,' with whom he "rode the same waves on adjacent beaches in Southern California... and floated in the same centrifugal cultural currents... that take you to the edge."
I read in the catalog that the artist went to Berkeley to study ceramics but never formally studied the craft of painting, and "readily admits to knowing nothing about it," a statement which I find a bit coy. But never mind. What I saw and read in the catalog was enough to make me jump into the car for the hour-long drive to the museum. The actual exhibition, with its rather haphazard, overcrowded installation, unfortunately turned out to be a letdown. Mary Heilmann's eccentric paintings have one great asset: they are extremely photogenic, in the way some plain-looking actors are magically transformed on the silver screen. However, upon close examination, the casualness of her work comes across as sloppiness. And having not lived through the high times of the psychedelic era, I have no particular nostalgia for the late 60's and early 70's, and Heilmann's paintings fail to evoke this era for me. I guess it takes someone like De Kooning or Pollock to infuse canvases with enough energy and anxiety so that even an outsider like myself feels as if he's swimming in the turbulent streams of the New York art scene of the 50's.
I asked a few friends of mine –- smart people who know a thing or two about art -– to help decipher the impenetrable (for me) writing of Johanna Burton, another contributor to the catalog. So far, every one has failed. Here is a quote: "In his... essay, Roland Barthes turns to John Cage, whose work he believes to disrupt set paradigms of listening. Instead, Barthes suggests, of 'syntagmatic extension'... Cage's music promotes a kind of 'vertical signifying.'" And so it goes. God help the reader adrift in this self-indulgent verbosity. I might be wrong in not responding well to the work of Mary Heilmann, but the way this exhibition presents her art, in combination with some of the writing in the catalog, makes it unlikely that I will want to give it a second chance.
Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone
Orange County Museum of Art
On view through August 26
Banner image: Mary Heilmann, Go Ask Alice (Detail), 2006; Oil on canvas. Collection of Phil Schrager, Omaha, on view at the Orange County Museum of Art