Mary Heilmann at Hauser & Wirth

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Heilmann’s art is demanding in the off-hand manner of the best song writing. Think Bob Dylan and his song Tangled Up in Blue. Roll along with the music, half-listening, until you get to some line like: “We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.”

Music in particular was important to Heilmann whose work is the subject of a solo show at Hauser & Wirth, Memory Remix, her first in L.A. in 20 years. Looking at her paintings, her furniture, her ceramics, you may have that same sensation of being tangled up as well, but in thoughts and feelings. 

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Mary Heilmann. Last Dance Remix. 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 61 x 76.2 cm / 24 x 30 in. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Last Dance Remix (2012) is a black rectangular canvas topped with two vertical rectangles and a square, all bright pink. It is hung quite intentionally in reference to two simple wooden chairs on either side of a small table bearing a ceramic teacup. All are the same bright pink. This is a hiccup in the usual art- viewing consciousness; a pause and question mark. What exactly is going on here? This is not the shock or awe of much of today’s art but work with a sly and knowing manner. A painting isn’t supposed to match the chairs. Unless, the chairs are also considered paintings. Yet, they also invite us to sit down and spend time looking at the paintings.

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Mary Heilmann. Pink Ocean. 2013. Oil on canvas. 40.6 x 73.7 x 1.9 cm / 16 x 29 x  3/4 in. Photo: John Berens

Heilmann, 78, who installed the art herself, came to painting and modernism through the circuitous but ultimately liberating route of being a Californian. Born in 1940 in San Francisco, she was influenced by the Beats of the ‘50s, their poetry and jazz. At U.C. Santa Barbara, she was introduced to the Southern California scene including surfing. While getting her MFA at UC Berkeley, she studied ceramics with the irrepressible Peter Voulkos. It was a talk by visiting artist David Hockney, however, that sparked her interest in painting. With no training in that area of expertise, she moved to New York City in 1968 and since then, has turned what might have been a liability into an asset.

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Mary Heilmann. The First Vent. 1972. Acrylic and bronze powder on canvas. 51 x 80 x 4.6 cm / 20 1/8 x 31 1/2 x 1 3/4 in. Photo: Stephen White

She painted as though she were glazing a ceramic pot with little regard for the clean-edged shape of a canvas or the modernist obsession with hard-edged minimalism. Also in contrast to her times, she named her paintings in ways that connected to her own biography, to a narrative thread, however obscure. Surfing, music, crafts, travel, friends, it all slips and slides through her art and Heilmann says it offers an entry point for a viewer into what can be the chilly nature of abstraction. Her art has what critic Dave Hickey called “professional unprofessionalism.” It has a “raggedy ambience.”

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Mary Heilmann. Overcast. 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 71.1 x 71.1 x 3.2 cm / 28 x 28 x 1 1/4 in. Photo: John Berens

Surfaces of her canvass can be thinly painted, geometric shapes are not cleanly defined, colors are more West than East coast. Like the best popular songs, it seems effortless but irresistable.

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Mary Heilmann. Piano.1983. Glazed ceramic. 47.6 x 33 x 1 cm / 18 3/4 x 13 x  3/8 in. Photo: Thomas Müller

Yet, Heilmann is far from naive. One of the most influential painters of her generation, Hickey correctly asserts her work “evokes the ebullience of Matisse rather than the incompetance of youth.”

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Mary Heilmann. Right. 2015. Acrylic on wood panel. 61 x 61 x 1.9 cm / 24 x 24 x  3/4 in. Photo: Thomas Müller

Back to the chairs, it was Matisse who once hoped his art could be “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

This exhibition by Heilmann offers all that and much, much more. It continues through Sept. 23.