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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
I don’t remember much from the rambunctious late ‘80s, but I do remember seeing Mary Heilmann’s paintings, probably at Pat Hearn’s gallery in the East Village. Vaguely geometric yet relaxed and colorful, they had a feeling of possibility that was refreshing. They seemed to stand outside of the rigid history of abstract painting as I had understood it up to then. The color was cheerful, the forms wonky, decorative but slightly mauled. They somehow conveyed the feeling of just getting out of the bed in the morning, hair not yet combed.

When I recently visited "Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone," May 20-Aug. 26, 2007, at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, Ca., I was surprised to find that it was her first retrospective. The tremendously satisfying 65 paintings span 40 years. Carefully chosen by museum curator Elizabeth Armstrong, the show has no dead air.

Forty years isn’t as long as it seems -- in fact, I can’t help thinking of Heilmann as a younger artist whose work boldly announced the post-modern return to painting. Instead, the ‘60s and ‘70s were her formative years. Born in San Francisco, she spent her adolescence in Los Angeles, attended UC Santa Barbara and then returned to the Bay Area to pursue a master’s degree at UC Berkeley, where her teacher was the influential ceramicist Peter Voulkos (an artist who touched characters ranging from Kenneth Price to Frank Gehry). Heilmann also credits Bruce Nauman, who was then working in the Bay area, for the ironic and self-referential tendency in her work.

Young Heilmann launched forth in the realm of three-dimensions, pursuing process-oriented, Postminimalist sculpture. After completing her graduate work, she moved to New York in 1969.  Through a San Francisco friend, Richard Serra, she met Keith Sonnier and Dan Graham and hung out at Max’s Kansas City, where she met Dave Hickey. Hickey contributes a lively essay to the catalogue, which also includes a critical analysis by Johanna Burton.

Her early sculptures, such as Starry Night (1967), which is made of black papier-mâché and silver glitter, are delightfully odd, but she found little support for her efforts. By 1970, she had switched to painting but never lost her training in dimensionality and experimentation. Self-taught from the outset, her works were unconventional in a way that looks prescient today. "Eccentric Abstraction," an important 1966 exhibition organized by Lucy Lippard, who also wrote an accompanying essay, noted that Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Kenneth Price and Keith Sonnier had trained as painters but moved into sculpture. Heilmann moved in the opposite direction.

Though she was based in New York, the California esprit of rock music, surfing and humor provides the potent undertow of Heilmann’s paintings, offering permission to play, to revel in pleasure, to go to extremes. Heilmann began painting at a time when her smartest peers had turned their backs on what they saw as the trap of art history. At times, rejection is protection. She was able to approach painting as something malleable and inclusive, fueled by the influences of film, photography, writing, sculpture and music.

Though her paintings are abstract, their titles add suggestive possibilities for content. Take Little 9x9 of 1973. The red-painted canvas is wrapped around the stretchers so that it has the quality of a precious object while a grid of uneven lines scratched into the surface reveals an undercoat of black. It looks like the abandoned offspring of Eva Hesse and Frank Stella.

Some of her ideas have the simplicity of Barnett Newman but with less transcendental aspirations. L.A. Pair (1976), for instance, is a tall yellow painting with a thick red stripe across the base and a tall blue painting with a thick yellow stripe across the base. I can’t help looking at them as sun-washed and early-evening distillations of the city’s landscape.

The rose and black color combination emblematic of the punk rock years manifests in many of Heilmann’s paintings from the late 1970s. Save the Last Dance for Me (1979) features three bubblegum pink rectangles, two arranged vertically and one horizontally, with a few messy pink drops dripping down the ebony background.

Heilmann remained an artists’ artist until the 1990s. Often students can draw attention to their professors’ reputations, and the success of Laura Owens, Ingrid Calame and Monique Prieto has brought Heilmann more attention. She is now represented by Hauser and Wirth. At OCMA, the students’ paintings are hung in the museum restaurant as a form of marginalia to the show. Scattered around the spacious museum installation are brightly colored chairs on wheels designed by Heilmann so viewers can scoot around looking at pictures without becoming fatigued. More artists should consider this option.

The test of any retrospective is near the end. Heilmann’s pictures since 2000 evince even greater irreverence in abstraction. Jack of Hearts (2005) is a big black and white checkerboard blotched by a running red stain. The star-turn has to be the irregular paint strokes of magenta, lime, gold, red and black on magenta, knowingly titled Surfing on Acid (2005). Did I mention that Heilmann’s paintings really do need to be seen in person? They are too subtle, too tangible, too delicious to be captured by the forces of reproduction.

So, hail Heilmann, full of grace.

The exhibition travels to the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Nov. 3, 2007-Jan.20, 2008; the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, May 20-Aug. 24, 2008; and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Sept. 25-Jan. 25, 2009.

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.