Colors and Colors and Colors and Colors

“To Be Someone,” the first solo exhibition of Mary Heilmann’s work at a New York museum, is a stimulation of the eyes and ears.

poster for Mary Heilmann

Mary Heilmann "To Be Someone"

at The New Museum of Contemporary Art
in the Lower East Side area
This event has ended - (2008-10-22 - 2009-01-26)

In Reviews by Anna Rosencranz 2008-10-27 print

The New Museum enthusiastically labels Mary Heilmann a “painter’s painter”. The line comes up repeatedly in the press materials for “To Be Someone,” and viewers are provided with cute silver iPods containing audio commentary from art world luminaries chatting about how much they love Mary. In addition to these messages from the likes of Ross Bleckner, Marilyn Minter, Sue Williams and Jack Pierson, Heilmann has designed her own exhibition-themed playlist, which booms and thumps in one’s ears while attempting to pay attention to Bleckner et al, the reading material and to the paintings themselves. It is a lot of stimulation, to say the least.

Mary Heilmann, ''Lovejoy Jr.,'' 2004.

The sensory overload almost makes sense given Mary Heilmann’s list of influences: pop music (it’s said she coordinates playlists for the PowerPoint presentations she shows at universities), New York in its beatnik heyday, and the colors and beaches of California. “To Be Someone” includes her work over the last forty years, consisting of paintings, sculpture and ceramic pieces, and is on view until January 26th, 2009. Like pop music, Heilmann’s abstract canvases are bright and vibrant, even when done in grayscale; her brushstrokes are wide and strikingly deliberate. Thick rainbow stripes bleed and oil paint oozes – these paintings have rhythm. Although she works with heavy, graphic proportions, the results feel light and easy, not overwrought. Indeed, her lines are messy and unfussy, and her squares uneven and imprecise.

Mary Heilmann, ''Gordy’s Cut,'' 2003.

Many of the paintings serve as a clever, playful nod to the past that has informed her, for example French Screen and Red, Yellow and Blue Knot, done in 1978 and ’79, invoke Mondrian with a rebellious twist. Others employ an offbeat checkerboard to create unsettling negative space, using hard lines and soft squares to form a sort of painter’s braille. Two Spot Charm, 1995, and Wawona, 1999, are variations of the same imagery of a web or lattice. The two canvases are almost identical, recognizably different only in the subtle details of brushwork. Despite the use of intense color, her painting style feels restrained and simple – the opposite of manic.

Heilmann’s recent work remains dramatic, but her canvases are now often asymmetrical, and she plays with amoebic shapes instead of the sharp edges of her earlier paintings. Black Dahlia II, 2001, looks like an artist’s palette with its primary colors and Chemical Billy, 2001, resembles a cactus in both color and design. These latest pieces feel more varied, even a bit random, but consistency in color and dimension keeps the show connected. The museum’s stark white walls provide an excellent contrast to the works – the better to realize Heilmann’s masterful treatment of bold color.

What makes someone a “painter’s painter”? In Mary Heilmann’s case it is her enthusiasm- both visible and audible in this latest exhibition.

Anna Rosencranz

Anna Rosencranz. Born in Rhode Island and raised throughout New England, Anna Rosencranz currently lives and works in New York City, where she writes and freelances in the arts. She is a graduate of the New School University and enjoys food, travel and the ocean. » See other writings

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