"The off kilter rectangles and the webs and such work in a spatial way. The imagination is involved when you think about space or a weird cut-off triangle, or a pair of cut-off four-sided figures. You can have a kind of narrative — it’s like mathematics without numbers, or symbolic logic."
Mary Heilmann is a painter, but when working in the studio she sees her practice in terms of objects and ideas. Her playful practice incorporates endless experiments in wild use of colour, strange geometries, and painting ‘taboos’ including drips and clashing patterns. Her studio process often includes preparatory drawings, where she thinks through ideas with repetitive experiments, letting herself be free and loose to create fresh new ideas.
Heilmann's studio environment has been documented many times as a key part of her process and is notable for her self-designed chairs, playfully arranged drawings and paintings placed around the walls, bright colours and energised atmosphere, with multiple paintings and drawings often being made simultaneously. She is inspired by life as much as art, her upbringing in California’s beatnik and surf-culture, and the experience of community and collectivism she has embraced in New York. She also incorporates her extensive and eclectic taste of music into her studio and approach, whether this is whimsical 1970’s rock, disco, pop, soul, or punk - a genre that ties into her laid-back yet avant-garde approach.
Excerpt of interview with Mary Heilmann by Jennifer Samet for Hyperallergic, New York.
JS: In the essay he wrote about you, Dave Hickey mentions that you “readily admit to knowing nothing about the craft of painting.” Do you think that is true?
MH: It is significant that I wasn’t educated as a painter. I was educated in the craft of sculpture, starting with ceramics and then bronze casting and welded steel, and then mold making, at the time that new plastic materials were invented to make molds. I didn’t study the craft of oil painting; I picked it up as I went along.
My inspiration for art doesn’t really come from the history of painting. It comes from the community of art as it is now, and also popular culture, like movies and music and books and fashion, especially street fashion, not high fashion.
JS: You have talked about wanting to be confrontational with your artwork as part of the communicative process. You also allude to rebellions in your past (becoming an artist, going against art school teachers, debates at Max’s Kansas City). Do you still see yourself as this confrontational person with your work — or has that shifted?
MH: Not really, I don’t see it that way anymore. It’s more narrative and conversational than confrontational. I like relational aesthetics. I like where a few people sit like this and talk about stuff. I like going to shows with people; I don’t like going alone.
JS: For all the fake drips and off kilter rectangles, your work also makes full use of beautiful color chords, and complex understandings of space. What are some of the formal issues that engage you?
MH: The idea of making one painting with Asian space. That’s what I call it, where you have deep space — sort of Renaissance perspective — and then you also have abstract marks painted flat on the canvas. You play the two against each other as you look at it. That’s a big part of my work. I like that you can take them apart and put them together like puzzles. It makes it living and alive.
The off kilter rectangles and the webs and such work in a spatial way. The imagination is involved when you think about space or a weird cut-off triangle, or a pair of cut-off four-sided figures. You can have a kind of narrative — it’s like mathematics without numbers, or symbolic logic. That keeps me obsessively entertained to the point of insanity, actually, sometimes! It’s not a clinical situation. But I imagine that insanity could be like somebody looking at the world and taking it apart and putting it back together, without ever communicating verbally — super obsessive compulsive. I think about that, especially when I’m in a bad mood. But then people like you come over and we have a conversation and I figure out how to make sense.