Tuesday, 8 January 2008



A well-publicised survey of the paintings of Mary Heilmann recently ended its run at Houston. Heilmann has been a quiet but persistent presence and the retrospective was perhaps overdue. Then again, there is the suspicion that some quarters resort to her work at this point simply to prolong a fading glory.

Heilmann’s work emerged in the early 70s, marked by casual facture and colour relations measured against stripes, a grid or shaped canvas. Her work is often small scale, at a time when such work commands whole walls, but remains firmly in the wake of Minimalism in its focus upon paint technique, geometry (or symmetry) and colour differences (see also Posts 14, 18, 33, and 52). Minimalism quickly shapes as a matter of how much or which system (or pattern) to allow geometry, what additional properties to colour to allow paint and application. Work may promptly resolve to monochromes (acute symmetry) or assume specially shaped canvases in reconciling pattern to support, in appealing to the surrounding wall as a determining factor. Frequently the project turns to three dimensions, looks to architectural considerations to set standards and sometimes departs to temporary and hypothetical stages and the realm of Conceptual Art.

Pattern, on the other hand, cautiously concedes overlapping or interweaving stripes, attendant shapes and soon slender tone and volume, arrives at traditional motifs to ornamentation, even repeating figuration with Pattern and Decoration. These two strands, colour/material and pattern, in various combination, pretty much set the course for Minimalism throughout the 70s, chart its gradual dissipation, public indifference.

For Heilmann, however, neither option holds much attraction, which is largely why her work has not achieved greater prominence. Her interests remain with broadly brushed modulation to colour and precision of basic geometry. But once the equation is grasped between colour definition to a given shape – conversely, shape to a given colour - and pattern to picture frame, then choice of brushstroke or application, colour combination or rigour to pattern all begin to look increasingly arbitrary or trivial. Heilmann can play off the austerity of work by forerunners and urge a greater relaxation to pattern and facture, but this only places greater scrutiny on her dogged allegiance to stripes or grids in the first place. The work often feels like a tired or strained comic routine, relying on a ‘straight man’ as stripes or grids, in order to burlesque his role with relaxed facture, exuberant colour.

A work such as Surfing on Acid (2005) and similar, allow the horizontal bands variety in edge, width and length which in turn influence area and intensity of colour, contrasts with neighbours and consistency of technique. One ‘surfs’ the bands, aware that their identity as stripes, edges or colours is tenuous to the point of hallucinatory. Occasionally Heilmann stretches stripes into more figurative readings, as in Capistrano (1994). In Go Ask Alice (2006) she adopts a perspective to the grid and similarly overruns it with extravagant variation. Colour is again vivid, not so much to demonstrate a theory of harmonies or contrasts, but to add to the overall brightness of spirit, the relentlessly upbeat mood. Actually, variations on monochrome would serve her colour interests just as well, but this is perhaps to accept a rigour the work is now intent on dispersing.

Two later developments have been the introduction of line, in the late 90s, and curved or biomorphic shapes, early in the new century. Works such as 21st Century Fox (1998) and Chemical Tune (1999) use diagonal straight lines across a field of subtle rectangles and scattered circles of contrasting colours. The angles and intersections to the lines deftly coincide with background shapes and so build a tentative volume or projection upon them. Line is thus contrasted with colour as two dimensions are contrasted with three. Line here is also surprisingly uniform and straight, given the artist’s resistance to such rigour in many other respects. But it remains a striking formulation, if only as a prelude to more elaborate depth and objects.

Heilmann’s biomorphic shapes grew out of an interest in curves measured against the picture frame and especially with shaped canvases. But now regularity or familiarity of shape do not influence perception of colour much beyond vague proportions and placements. The works take on a different kind of approximated balance or pattern, size, placement and colour all sharing only a family of curves. This is hardly new territory for abstraction though. While a survey of her career can mark these changes, dwell on her compliance or complacency, it is hard to see what relevance it might hold beyond that.

No comments: