"When I join two or more paintings to make a composite piece, the space between them becomes as important as the actual parts. Brian Eno talks about perfumery: “two quite familiar smells carefully combined could create a new and unrecognizable sensation . . . perfumery has a lot to do with this process of courting the edges of unrecognizability, of evoking sensations that don’t belong together.”
Mary Heilmann (b.1940) has become one of the most influential American painters of her generation. Raised in San Francisco and Los Angeles as part of the beat generation, Heilmann’s paintings merge geometry and minimalism with an intuitive and unorthodox use of colour and form inspired countercultural influences including surfing, psychedelics, and pop music. Heilmann began painting after moving to New York in 1968. Originally training as a ceramicist, she began painting at a time where minimalism and dematerial practice was prevailing, giving her decorative, exuberant painting a rebellious point of difference.
In the painting Cirque Mix we see the vocabulary of circles, stripes and squares typical to Heilmann's work with a similarly typified spontaneous and eccentric use of colour, and juxta-posing of dramatically different panels. Heilmann has also said that a lot of her work is inspired by the effects of drug-induced hallucination, showing a clash between the austereness of formal painting, and her playful approach. Heilmann is also notable for giving her paintings unique and evocative titles, which she has likened to the titling of songs. The reference to Mix in the painting’s title also speaks to Heilmann’s desire for her paintings to speak to the abstract feeling and emotion that can be brought forth by music. Like music, the organic and geometric elements of the work do not compete, but rather form a hybrid, with eccentric mark-making, composition, and tonal qualities forming their own harmony.
Excerpt from the essay "Mary Heilman: Surfing on Acid" by David Hickey, 2007
In apparent contradiction to this minimal toughness, Mary has always given her paintings fifties-type evocative titles of the sort favored by Laguna Beach abstractionists, titles like Enchantment, Music of the Spheres, Waimea, and Save the Last Dance For Me. The result is a low-tech, rat's nest of ambiguities: semiautonomous, semiautobiographical titles are appended to semiautonomous, semiliteral canvases to which semiautonomous, semigeometrical designs have been applied. Amazingly, though, Heilmann's hierarchal dissonances and cavalier informality invariably reads as absolutely knowing. The all-too-fashionable, deeply parental, assumption of innocence that allows bad craft to be read as a signifier of youthful sincerity is simply not an option with Heilmann's paintings. The titles, as dissonant as they are, contribute to the ambience of the paintings, and to their wily, surfer sophistication, by pointing out all-too-obvious figurative cues in the abstract image. The execution of the image, by virtue of its chromatic and formal sophistication, evokes the ebullience of Matisse rather than the incompetence of youth.
As to the craft of painting itself, don't get me started. Heilmann readily admits to knowing nothing about it. She never studied it and never planned to do it. At Berkeley, she studied ceramics with Peter Voulkos who specialized in the earth, in its brutal, tatty grandeur, so, when she started painting, Heilmann began painting canvases as if they were ceramic objects-as if, more specifically, they were pots, informal domestic accouterments with no specific shape and no vertical edges. The trademark "look" of Hielmann's paintings derives from this casual, vaguely oriental aesthetic, from Heilmann's contempt for the rectangular enclosure of the support and her willful refusal to address those "problems of the edge" that have obsessed every painter since Manet. The confluence of these wildly eccentric appropriations from the past, guarantees her work's stylistic currency. She has never set up housekeeping in the past, and as a consequence Heilmann's work remains resolutely high-style American painting in that tradition. She has never appropriated an image, juxtaposed anything, or interrogated anything. She has never trafficked in the "new nostalgia" of current European painting or participated in its self-conscious longing for the "lost" attributes of expression, gesture, and figuration.