Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone at the New Museum and Mary Heilmann: Some Pretty Colors at Zwirner & Wirth

October 22, 2008 to January 26, 2009
New Museum
235 Bowery
between Stanton and Rivington streets
New York City, 212 219 1222

September 17 to October 25, 2008
Zwirner & Wirth
32 East 69th Street, between Park and Madison avenues
New York City, 212 517 8677

Mary Heilmann Jack of Hearts 2005. Oil on canvas, 42 x 60 inches. images courtesy The New Museum
Mary Heilmann Jack of Hearts 2005. Oil on canvas, 42 x 60 inches. images courtesy The New Museum

The New Museum (reopened December 2007) still feels new in its vanguard boxy Bowery reincarnation—the lobby all steel and concrete and plate glass—crowded with industrially-clad  European tourists and waifish art students.  This ground-floor space is employed to intentionally discordant effect to introduce curator Richard Flood’s Mary Heilmann survey, as the first grouping of paintings is hung in the terrarium-like narrow glassed-in enclosure that comprises a small gallery behind the snack bar.

Here, a number of works ranging from 1970 to 1994 share a palette of blue, white and black. All feature loosely-painted geometric motifs, ranging from constructivist-leaning floating rectangles, Blue and White Squares (1997) to straight bands of hard-edged horizontal color,Capistrano (1994). Some are on shaped canvas, Miramar (1994). In the earliest of these works, Malibu (1970), the canvas isn’t even stretched: it hangs freely. All evoke seascape, perhaps in homage to Heilmann’s California past (born in San Francisco, 1940, she studied literature and poetry at UC Santa Barbara before taking an MFA in ceramics and sculpture at UC Berkeley). This biographical thread is also picked up on in a series of recent ceramic sculptural objects juxtaposed, made in collaboration with Steve Keister and Rachel Bleiweiss-Sande, poised around the paintings on floor and wall.

That is all a teaser for the full impact of the show, which comes across visceral and forceful as soon as the elevator doors open to the large, second-floor galleries. Garishly colorful canvases—representing nearly 40 years of free-thinking and playful experimentation—vie for attention in a non-linear hopscotch chronology. Artist-designed rolling “Clubchairs” allow for contemplative viewing—but with an implied restless velocity (think: adult kindergarten).

Early experiments with ad-hoc sculptural materials, Starry Night (Night Sky) (1967) and The Big Dipper (1969), show the young artist already moving toward the painterly, with modeled celestial black and silver clumps played off each other to imagistic effect.

Soon after, by the 1970s, Heilmann is seen grappling with the minimalist ethos of the time, responding to that era’s mostly male color/geometry paradigm of Ellsworth Kelly, David Novros, Blinky Palermo and others. In L.A. Pair (1976), a horizontal diptych employs scraped-off paint to reveal two alternating primary-colored grounds beneath. This strategy—using overpainting to obscure or scraping away paint to reveal—is central to Heilmann’s ongoing practice. It’s a willfully perverse methodology, being assertive by negating the traditional role of the artist and his mark.

Mary Heilmann Neo Noir 1998. Oil on Canvas, 75-1/8 x 60-1/4 inches. Collection of Edward Israel.
Mary Heilmann Neo Noir 1998. Oil on Canvas, 75-1/8 x 60-1/4 inches. Collection of Edward Israel.

The show reaches a sense of triumph in the large nocturnes Neo Noir (1998) and The Third Man (1999), in which retinal chromatic rectangles of atmospheric space float, framed into window-like squares by surrounding strokes of dark sweeping brushwork. Delicate internal illumination is weighed against malevolent obliteration.

Heilmann’s most recent canvases are among her most assured. She often seems be daring herself to do something truly “awful”—only to find beauty in it. In Jack of Hearts (2005), for example, an undulating stain of blood red paint is laid transparent over a simple black-and-white checkerboard. The accumulated brushmarks and open drips make her act of painting transliterate into a kind of crime of passion.

Downtown, under the New Museum’s harsh fluorescent lighting, the paintings have a matte, plastic-like quality, pushing them towards confrontational “ugliness.” Uptown, by contrast, at Zwirner & Wirth’s elegant space, a spare historical hanging has the opposite effect. Here, Heilmann’s works look refined and considered, passing as masterworks of late neoplastic awareness. In this location, there’s no denying it: Mary Heilmann now is “someone.”