New York’s Bowery area in the 1960s and 70s was pretty wild, and pretty tough; but like all areas that are wild and tough, a dirty underbelly drew in a community of artists that were fascinating, rule breaking and set a precedent for the sort of “anything goes” vibe we’ve learnt to associate with the era.
In amongst the drugs and the often weird, outré performance art, living in a commune-type building was an artist whose medium set out to shock: painting. That artist is Mary Heilmann, and her decision to work in a medium considered boring at best, dead at worst, was something rather radical in its quietness. Her work in paintings and sculptures are now going on show in a vast retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Looking at Pictures, and it forms a wonderfully rich survey of Heilmann’s five-decade career.
What’s striking throughout the works is a sense of optimism. While much of the composition and colour is born of a fairly theoretical, academic background – her idols were Josef Albers and Carl Andre – the rigour of her starting points is tempered by a deeply emotional attachment. The Whitechapel’s chief curator Lydia Yee points out that Heilmann has a postmodern, Eno-esque approach to making work, joining up fragments of abstraction here, memory there, minimalism and whatever else she fancies, and this energy and willingness to soak up her surroundings shines through in the work.
As well as her playful explorations of art movements (she has a passion for Judd’s minimalism, but executes it in a less po-faced manner); much of her work draws from the narratives of her own life. While this can often evoke a gloriously hued nostalgia, such as in her more recent drug works, which recall her early life near the California coast, it can also mean a profound sadness. Working in the 1980s, Heilmann watched many of her contemporaries disappear as Aids took the lives of many.
A case in point is the poignant and uncharacteristically representative piece Ghost Chair, which Heilmann says simply “talks about people who suddenly weren’t there anymore.” She gives special reference to Robert Mapplethorpe, and says that it’s “an abstract piece with an intense emotional subtext.”
Mapplethorpe was just one of an astonishingly cool gang that Heilmann hung out with during the 70s, when she found herself living in that crumbling six-story building in the Bowery which she gleefully tells us cost just $500 a month to rent. Other associates included modern composition pioneers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, artist Keith Sonnier (whose work is incidentally also appearing in a Whitechapel Gallery show this month) and Brian Eno, whose David Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lends its title to one of Heilmann’s canvases.
Eno crops up again in a slideshow Her Life, which Heilmann created first as an aid for lectures, then as an artwork in its own right. The piece shows her images next to personal photographs shot on her 35mm camera, many out the window of her loft, soundtracked with an eclectic mix of sounds ranging from the aforementioned Eno, to German industrial outfit Einstürzende Neubauten to rare jazz. When questioned about these wide ranging choices, the artist simply shrugs that it was a mix she stole from the radio.
That distinct lack of preciousness and a delight in elements of randomness and chance is what makes Heilmann and her work so charming. Nothing is precise, either in form or application of paint; and you get the sense that she’s not a woman who would make you take your shoes off when you walk in the door. The show opens with two canvases, The First Vent from 1972 and 1973’s Little 9 x9 which were both created through primitive, messy finger painting. “I was working with kids at the time,” she explains. “We were spending a lot of time at Max’s Kansas City [a New York bar and venue] in the evenings, getting drunk and people would get into fights, but in the day I was teaching children. It comes from everywhere, my ideas.”
Five decades have passed since those works were made, but anyone assuming Heilmann’s workload or sense of mischief has waned would be mistaken. Her most recent series is inspired by her friend William Finnegan’s adventures going surfing on acid. “I’m very interested in the idea of hallucinogens, and that sort of psychedelic experience,” she says. Pointing at her 2015 piece, Green Room, Turquoise Lights , an abstracted wave form on a square canvas she sighs: “maybe if you take acid when you’re surfing, you think you’re in a box.”
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.