NEW MUSEUM | OCTOBER 22, 2008 – JANUARY 26, 2009
As Mary Heilmann’s retrospective has traveled around the country (the New Museum is its fourth venue), certain facts and telling details have merged into a nearly universal characterization. Heilmann has been painting geometric abstract canvases for about forty years. Her paintings are casual—personal in the way of clothes hanging distinctively from an individual body—and rather amazingly free of abstraction’s historical romance with speed and mechanism. She’s called The Simpsons her “big heroes” for its use of color, titled a 2005 painting Surfing on Acid, and described herself as “ornery” for beginning to paint in 1968, when the medium was (at least in lower Manhattan) desperately uncool.
These are among the things one needs to know about Heilmann, and the loose, tough-funny qualities that make them so enjoyably repeatable are certainly in tune with the openness and sensuous pleasure of the exhibition. I wonder, though, if all of this doesn’t tend to triangulate to a somewhat faulty point, positioning Heilmann as godmother to the New Museum’s inaugural Unmonumental and other such manifestos of modesty—exhibitions whose highs and lows average out to something like two parts quotation of Minimalism/High Modernism, one part “critique” and/or pop reference, one part private language.
Ornery is a pretty a good word for Heilmann’s approach to making geometric abstract canvases, but not primarily because she broke the bonds of contemporary fashion when she began to paint, or because she continues to put the scare-quotes around “High” Modernism today. Ornery, rather, because when Heilmann turned to painting in 1968, her peers and drinking buddies Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, and Richard Serra associated the medium with a centuries-old, ideologically problematic quest to create a perfect visual fiction: the canvas as a window through which we look onto an imaginary world. They wanted to overcome that fiction, recasting art as a direct, materialist experience, and they were convinced that sculpture was the way to do it. Ornery, too, because those same peers further associated abstract painting with Clement Greenberg’s restrictively progressive formalism, which, at its worst, is simply an updated version of art history as a story of illusionism and its vicissitudes. And ornery—last and most interestingly—because while apparently sharing those concerns Heilmann went on to address them directly from within the medium of painting. If some degree of illusionism is built into the medium, how is one to paint with full knowledge of that fact and not produce a kind of lie?
Granted, the earliest paintings in the exhibition evade illusionism in ways that are thoroughly typical of their time, emphasizing the here-and-now processes of their making (folding, dyeing, scraping, blotting). But in the years that followed, Heilmann began treating these processes as techniques—means to a pictorial end, not demonstrative ends in themselves. She scraped a muted aluminum over a slightly glossy black to great palpable effect in “Black Mirror” (1975), for example, and practically combed a gauzy purple into the metallic lattice of “Grape Vent (The 4th Jalousie, Purple)” (1975). Such titles, meanwhile, make clear that her strategies vis-à-vis illusionism had ceased to be evasive. The words openly conjure portals into an imaginary world, but the paintings offer instead a kind of Jasper-Johns-meets-Wizard-of-Oz literalism: “Black Mirror,” for example, is both a mirror (though not a very good one) and a painting of a mirror (though it’s a good painting in part because it pictures a bad mirror). More recently, Heilmann has pushed this is-it-real-or-is-it-representation play into a complex spatial realm. This year’s Whitney Biennial included her “Truck Stop Trip (Blackwell’s Corner)” (2007), a diptych in which one panel features a tile floor receding woozily toward a vaguely defined vanishing point, while the other suggests a wood-plank floor viewed head on. There’s no suggestion of depth in the second canvas—except that its stretcher is quite a bit thicker than that of its counterpart, and the juxtaposition of distinct literal depths complicates the very loosely illusionistic pictorial space in extremely interesting ways.
Heilmann makes quite a number of diptychs—works that consist of two canvases and do not, as a result, have a central point around which the whole composition can be organized. There seems to be something inherently slow and ungainly about the format—if only because those of us weaned on the Western pictorial tradition are accustomed to being told where to look within the frame in order to comprehend the scene all at once. In works like “LA Pour” and “Chinatown” (both 1976), our attention, instead, tick-tocks back and forth between the diptych’s halves, driven partially by an urge to compare and contrast, but also by a desire to see the painted object in its entirety. For in these paintings—and in most of those Heilmann has made since the early 1970s, diptychs and single canvases alike—what happens on the outer edge of the canvas is extremely important. Sometimes she simply continues the composition from the surface, but in other cases she uses a contrasting color or flip-flops her elements. In any case, the result is that we see all of these canvases as objects in time, as aware of our perspective on them as we are when looking at sculpture.
Partly because they carry with them such a strong sense of time, Heilmann’s paintings refute one of the most vivid fantasies of geometric abstraction, a wish for instantaneous and total perception (Frank Stella wishing, for example, to “prohibit” people from dwelling over the details of his stripe paintings). In doing so, they also prod one of abstract painting’s historical insecurities, the fear—best expressed by Greenberg’s insistence that successful canvases are “inevitable”—that, once untethered from representation, painting will become arbitrary. Heilmann’s complex approach to pictorial convention keeps the paintings from feeling arbitrary, but they have no air of inevitability either. Very often a kind of well-aimed inelegance seems to lie at the heart of the compositions: the just slightly off-kilter geometries of the pink-and-black paintings from the late 70s, for example, or conjoined diptychs, like “Chartreuse” (1987) and “Tourmaline” (1992) in which the visual and physical sutures only come into the loosest of alignments. Looking at Heilmann’s canvases means, in part, thinking hard about these awkward moments, working through their against-all-odds quality. The paintings seem unusually honest, then, about the provisional, uncertain process of perception’s occurrence.
Anne Byrd is a visual artist based in Houston, TX.