Mary Heilmann, Mar. 7-Apr. 18, 1998, at Pat Hearn Gallery, 530 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
When I look at Mary Heilmann's blowsily lyrical and sneakily philosophical abstractions, satisfaction reigns, replete with delicate discriminations and a certain funny, sexy moodiness. Why would I ever want to look at anything else? Later, I marvel to recall the power of such seemingly slight, slapdash handiwork. This has been going on for over 25 years, and I'm still not used to it. Nor is the art world in general, where Heilmann has flickered repeatedly at the verge of fashionableness while never rivaling the flare of any latest thing.
Scads of latest things have come and gone in this quarter-century, and Heilmann keeps glowing. If anything, her stuff looks more up-to-the-minute than ever. It is as if she arrived at the present long ago and, twiddling her thumbs, awaited the rest of us. Even the grid-based, conservative formality of her work, an element already conservative when she began, seems freshly right. Whatever Heilmann did not discard of modern-painting convention, back when she hit on her ever-green style, begins to appear eternally indispensable for everybody.
How weird is Heilmann? A decade before post-structuralist theory became a baleful fad, she was an instinctive post-structuralist, dismembering signifiers and signifieds. Her paintings insistently seem to be about something either poetic (a metaphor) or semiotic (abstract painting itself) or both, but their seeming-to-be-about-ness doesn't go anywhere. This art stammers on the brink of meaning. That's its meaning. Now for the weird part.
Raised in San Francisco, Heilmann came to her practice of svelte, skeptical esthetic delirium from arty craft -- from ceramics. In the 1960s and early '70s, she hung out with seriously smart artists, including Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, and imbibed at full strength that era's doctrinal conviction that painting was dead. What would one predict for an artist with such antecedents? "Leading painter" does not spring to mind. But, parachuting into painting history at its moment of maximum beleagurement, that's what Heilmann became.
Heilmann's hand and eye still betray, with oil paint, the ceramist's feel for the runny liquidity and translucency of glazes. (I think of Renoir, whose apparent originality in painting owed much to piquancies of technique he had learned as a decorator of porcelain.) Her fluency of touch and choices of catchy color are swift and sudden. They consort oddly with dignified formal armatures suggesting classical geometric abstraction, from Mondrian to Ellsworth Kelly, and even with such folksy motifs as evocations of Mexican serapes. The music of her brush can seem oblivious to whatever song is being sung.
Or else, as in bebop, the song gets reoriented to its rhythmic offbeat and harmonic shadow, scanting overall pattern in favor of component sounds. As the critic David Pagel has observed, "Heilmann can make a quickly flicked drip, a loosely brushed smudge or a solitary dollop of color seem like a big event." One may goggle at some odd spot of accidental paint as if it were the angel Gabriel popping in, ready or not, to mention an immanent virgin birth. How do you do this if you are a painter? Have it be easy for you. If it isn't easy, it isn't happening.
Six paintings in the front room at Pat Hearn are like hit singles. Popocatépetl is as representational as Heilmann gets: two panels, the smaller bearing a black-on-blue silhouette recalling a steep Mayan-temple ziggurat and the larger a serape-like array of banded mauve, pink, aquamarine, purplish red, purple, magenta and dark blue-green (color names approximate). You recognize an idea of Mexico but don't think it, because you can't think anything in face of the colorful, splashy sheer phenomena that the picture spills into the room. You just cope with pleasure that is both inescapable and maddeningly elusive, felt out of the corner of your heart.
Three paintings in the gallery's back room are like album riffs on themes of Abstract Expressionism, tricked out with a chic palette keyed to black, white and mint green. Jiggling rectangles and effulgent blotches -- forms spectacularly weak, like imitations of imitations -- play out old ideals of "sincere" abstract art as if they were cool computer games. Or imagine a visual equivalent of high modern literature -- James Joyce, say -- recited with a valley girl accent. If you can resist the goofy, sweet loveliness of it, you're blind.
Heilmann goes on her nerve: first thought, best thought. Traces of covered-up early stages in one of her paintings are never fussy. They convey simply that a better first thought came along in midstream. In Slice, an asymmetrical web of diagonal lines spiked with splotches of black, yellow, read, purple and blue looks to have started out arbitrary in one way and ended up arbitrary in another. It hints at a dilemma of having to choose among so many optional varieties of happiness, you could go nuts.
And yet there is a haunting undertone, an existential gravity, to Heilmann's never-fail spontaneity. Meanings that do not arrive do not cease to be wanted. Heilmann's funky and frolicsome layouts wait for Godot. A quality of tense, fateful irresolution accounts for her staying power, I think, and for her lately fructifying influence on fresh young artists as unlike each other as Jessica Stockholder and Elizabeth Peyton. What once seemed, in her work, mere whimsy now looms as a dominant preoccupation of contemporary sensibility: experience of deep delight occasioned by images that seem neither here nor there, this nor that, to the point of appalling triviality.
I think it is about love, which crazily singles out one thing or person from a practically infinite array. In this, Heilmann reminds me of a near-great artist whom she inspired, Moira Dryer. Dryer, whose death from cancer at age 34 in 1992 still hurts, invested veils of color on odd surfaces with presentiments like words on the tip of a divine tongue. Heilmann confirms the association with an elegiac painting in this show: Moira, in which a spectrum of black-banded colors ranges from pink at the top through orange, red, chartreuse and blue-violet to a thin magenta striated with black drips. The drips are like running mascara on a tragic face of imperishable beauty.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.