This studio visit with Susanna Heller is our “Topical Pick” from the archives on the occasion of the artist’s solo exhibition at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY, on view until April 24. [362-1/2 Warren Street, (518) 828-5907]
The walls of Susanna Heller’s modestly sized studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn are covered with drawings and the paintings she is currently working on. Each painting has a number of drawings stuck behind and to the sides of it. Heller composes her paintings by synthesizing elements from many different drawings. It is a distillation process. She has worked here since 1994. Even though she says that, “I was madly in love with New York City as a little tiny girl,” she didn’t take it up as a subject until 1985.
Heller was born in Manhattan but her family moved to Canada when she was seven. She said it was painful to be torn away from the city she loved. It all started at the MoMA: “I started drawing and painting as a little girl. Picasso did it to me. “Guernica” was still at the Modern at that time. It was the old Modern, the beautiful old Modern, which I still miss. My parents would leave me on the bench with the guard watching me and they would go off to see the special exhibits. And I would sit there like I was watching a movie. I could tell you everything about that painting.”
Two things are essential to Heller’s art; the sketches she makes during her daily walks or perceptual journeys from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back, and the act of walking itself. Although specific structures or views are essential to Heller’s art her imagery is abstract. There is a free floating quality to her imagery. She captures the energy of the roving gaze, the feeling we experience as our gaze travels great distances and traces forms, as if our eyes were drawing implements. She is obsessed with the way our gaze takes in complex structures that are near and far, simultaneously. Heller seeks out structures that allow light to pass through them or heavily reflect light, scaffolding, bridges, and buildings with rows of windows, because she is fascinated by the way weather and light interact with solid matter. She chooses not to simply paint objects because she wants to engage all of our senses. She often includes images of the same structure seen from different angles in one image. This forces viewers to reorient themselves when standing before her work. She is drawn to strong verticals, or objects that contain a prominent linear rhythm, like the steel cables that hold up suspension bridges or street lights that are gracefully sloping inverted Ls that seem to defy gravity.
Heller is interested in the way forces interact, how the transitory face of the sky changes the demeanor of solid objects. Her skies are liquidy, sooty, one could say corrosive. Heller’s imagination is drawn to the sky, the clouds, the streaks of airborne rust orange and brown and gray pollution that mysteriously coast over the tops of buildings. She is not interested in volumes, but in the countless number of verticals and horizontals one finds in Manhattan. Her expressive lines compress, elongate, and blend actual spaces that are transformed by her imagination. In one portion of the canvas we see something straight on from a distance, and in another area of the same work there might be an overhead view or ground view of a tall structure. Heller uses abstraction to incorporate many different perspectives and experiences into the same painting.
“I make drawings in paint.” Heller more or less paints with small to medium sized paint strokes, and this lends an astounding clarity to the jumble and chaos of the lines and moody colors in her work. Heller’s paintings are ecstatic confluences, the product of keen observation and emotionally charged memories. Her abstractions avoid obscurity because recognizable signifiers are always present. They are put together over a long period of time, and the viewer can get lost in her paintings because there are so many nuances to appreciate and the carefully built up layers of paint reveal themselves slowly through time.
Movement is essential to Heller’s work. The act of walking is a form of meditation for her. “I can’t think straight until I’m moving, my eyes are moving and my head’s somewhere else.” Heller returns to sites over and over again and draws them from different angles. “I’ll notice a place or a direction, a convergence, a clustering of things, someplace along the way, or something about a place. And I’ll just start drawing all around it, drawing parts and wholes.” She loves dramatic perspectives, looking down the length of train tracks until they disappear into the horizon, looking at the city skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge, looking down the length of the South Tower from the 91st floor of the North Tower. Heller’s imagery is all about flux. You are never quite sure if her agitated surfaces represent the rebirth or destruction of her subject(s). She juxtaposes multiple views of different structures that overlap and are melded together through a meticulously wrought linear structure, and the pulsing sky holds it all together.
The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen said that the destruction of the WTC was “the greatest work of art in the cosmos.” If he meant that it planted more unforgettable images into the psyches of people than any work of art could, he was right. Heller is the only artist I know of who has dealt with the tragedy over an extended period of time, and has created complex, ambiguous, emotional, and lyrical imagery relating to it. Heller’s memories of the destruction of the Twin Towers have haunted her and her imagery. The titles of many of her post 9/11 works reveal a mind that is pained by a traumatic event: “Fractured Ascension,” “Haunting,” “Cruel Blue,” “Ghost Tower,” “Up Into Thin Air,” “Black Cloud. Explosion. Absence.,” “Haunting,” “Yellow Ruins and Black,” “Tower of Blue and Ruin,” “Three Days After,” “Cloud Carrying Fragments.” All of these paintings contain traces of the towers seen from many different angles and during different phases of their destruction. She has fixated on the collapse of the towers, the moment when the planes crashed into the buildings and the sickly black and gray plumes of smoke that poured out of the blackened holes. Many of the paintings of the WTC are painted on asymmetrical surfaces that are roughly pieced together. This emphasizes a sense of rupture and the tenuousness of the post 9/11 world.
Heller experiments with color. She will cut off dried globs of paint from canvases and her palette and stick them on to surfaces in order to disrupt things and suggest different kinds of space. In a painting like “Up Into Thin Air,” (2003) Heller focuses on the moment of impact, when one of the planes hit the tower and, as a survivor who was a few floors below the impact said, “chunks of building flew out into space.” Even though Heller said that, “I use color for it’s physical presence rather than for its local color,” this painting of the deceptively calm blue sky of 9/11, and the multi-hued plumes of smoke dotted with flying debris that could have included human remains is powerful because of her intense observation and memories of atmospheric phenomena, and the care Heller took to evoke reality. “Well I never learned so much about blue until after 9/11. It was so hard to work on capturing the perfect sky blue from the fall of 2001. You have to put shit-loads of blues on of every kind. You’re painting the oppressiveness of perfect deep blue sky. You’re painting deep space.” The ironic and sad thing is that Heller is not represented by a New York gallery and her profound discoveries and insights can’t be seen regularly in the city that inspired them.
Her current paintings include found objects, scraps of detritus she finds on her walks. Her inclusion of these is a quasi-religious gesture, a communion. It is another way of bringing herself closer to the city she loves, of becoming one with it. Heller invests her images with a nervous erotic energy. She lovingly paints the sky and urban landscape as if they were flesh. She has wanted to paint people for many years, but has only done so once, in her self portrait “City on My Mind,” (1995). In this painting she literally melds the New York City skyline and the top of her head into one painterly field of exuberance and energy. Like Van Gogh’s landscapes and Soutine’s still-lifes, Heller’s canvases radiate with animistic energy. Everything she paints has a life of its own, and her fertile imagination is fueled by observation. Heller has achieved a wonderful selflessness, unique in this day and age, because she feels at home in the anonymous urban environment. The words Bauldelaire used to describe the perfect flâneur apply to Heller: “We might liken [her] to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. [She] is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’, at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.”