Saturday, 9 July 2016

The warmth of the sun.

Southern Californian surf culture and 60s Bay Area counterculture were the wellsprings of the art of Mary Heilmann. The Whitechapel's current (and free) retrospective takes a look back at the career of the artist who mixed sunshine and pop culture with abstraction and conceptualism.

Born in San Francisco she moved to New York in 1968 so a lot of her work is more interested in the memory of the Golden State than any lived reality. She'd started off as a sculptor but, being a woman, wasn't take seriously in that discipline. So much for the progressive sixties. Having studied poetry, ceramics, and, indeed, sculpture, she soon moved over to painting and never really looked back.

Along with post-minimalist forebears like Agnes Martin, for Heilmann, process was vital. As important, at least, as the finished product. Where she differed from many of her peers, and influences (Malevich, Mondrian, Andre), was in allowing curves into her grids. Would it be a social faux pas to say her touch was simply more feminine?

The squares, irregularities, and drips all forming a kind of puzzle for the viewer to ponder, rather than solve. For an example see Little 9x9 (below):-

Albers was another influence. Witness Chinatown, below, named after the part of NYC she was living in at the time.

She mixed the formalism of the prevalent East Coast art scene with not only Californian tropes but those pertaining to New Mexico, the SW corner of the United States, and beyond. El Nino (1983) took from Pueblo architecture and the patterns on Mexican shawls and blankets.

1978's Pink Sliding Square is textbook Heilmann. Introducing a Malevich/Albers square but filtering it through the NYC/SF post-punk scene. Black and pink being the favoured colours of that movement.

Chartreuese ('87, above) played around a bit more with form and colour. Both accepting and resisting the strictures of grid based painting and finding resolution in the juxtapositions. Lifeline ('90-'94, below) revels in its strong monochromatic and diagonal form. It's ludicrously simple yet highly satisfying to the eye.

Along with the paintings themselves there are ceramics, works on paper, and watercolours. All fine. But better is the digital slideshow Her Life, from 2006, with music by Brian Eno, John Cale, and Jane Siberry. Swimming pools, cars, river deltas, parking lots, clouds, beaches, and crockery permeate the slides. Often next to one of Heilmann's paintings. It does a fine job of showing how her seemingly abstract art actually borrows from patterns seen in both the natural world and the built environment. It makes sense of the stuff you've previously looked at.

Later in life her works started to commemorate the loss of friends and celebrate favourite musical and literary pieces. Old age, for Heilmann, saw not a darkening or closing of doors but a joyous explosion of colour and a desire to explore further. She invites you to sit on her chairs, write poems, and solve more puzzles, obvs.

She gave props to Jean Genet, Franz West, her own grandmother, Eno & Byrne, Warren Zevon, Iggy Pop, David Lynch, REM, and The Beach Boys. The three works below are titled Bush of Ghosts (1980), Passenger (1983), and Nightswimmer (1998). Pop fans won't have a problem solving the puzzle of their titles.

The last painting is from as recently as 2014. It's called Maricopa Highway and shows a road stretching out into the distance. A metaphor perhaps for Heilmann's, and our, futures but also an actual road. The one that leads from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's one I hope to travel very soon and when I'm on it I hope I'll be full of Mary Heilmann's colour, warmth, and love.

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