BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Mary Heilmann


BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 06 JUN 01


In London it's raining and cold. The exhausted sky is low and heavy, the colours of the city a little mute and waterlogged. Slightly damp, you walk through the door of Mary Heilmann's first solo show in Britain, and it's like diving into a swimming pool on a cloudless day. Thirteen high-keyed, pared-back, abstract-ish paintings (mostly big, one small) line the walls, and every one of them feels hot, even the ones in which cold colours dominate. Primaries jostle joyously with acid greens, well-worn whites and impenetrable blacks so intense it's as if they're struggling against the limitations of the canvas. Hard lines, a little wobbly at the edges, pierce bright areas of paint like a spear thrown at a sun decorated with dots, fissures and horizon lines; suddenly the sky is back where it belongs, too high for words. Perhaps if you were a certain type of person you might immediately start considering the paintings' more formal qualities, but I simply felt happy. The temperature had finally risen.

Heilmann has been making paintings for 35 years or so. Although she has worked in New York since 1968, she was born in San Francisco, which - if you subscribe to the idea that personal histories feed into the objects an artist makes - is the only place she could have been born. Her pictures are at once restless and lazy, full of heat and seem a little preoccupied with the 'spiritual'. They appear to be daydreaming in the way you do when you gaze out to sea; they're slender and healthy and slightly underdressed, and they wrestle with a language that appears less animated by theory than by a jumpy imagination.

It's hard to know why these paintings work so well - after all there's not much to them - but they do so in a mysteriously satisfying way. It's not just the cheerful thing (although it is so much easier to love something or someone who makes you happy). They are, in fact, more complex than your initial impressions might lead you to believe: the harder you look at them, the more contrary they get. Why, for example, don't they feel dated when they use a language that has been around for at least 40 years? How is it they emanate such exuberance and well-being when their currency is kind of cheap? (Very little paint, very few marks.) How do they look so controlled when, in many ways, they're pretty sloppy? (Hard edges bleed for no apparent reason, drips seem to drip simply because the brush hung around too long.) How is it they are as determinedly organic as home-grown vegetables when they seem so obsessed with geometry? And lastly, why is it that they manage to be so blatantly musical when they don't actually play a note?

These are all questions which, in the asking, answer the question itself. Most things you can't work out tend to be interesting, as long as some pleasure is allowed in the lack of conclusion - and really, when you think of it, what could be better than a good-looking picture that keeps you guessing? I hasten to add, however, that this isn't a flashy kind of attractiveness, but a thoughtful, even reciprocal one that respects the lack you might experience when you can't find a word for everything you feel. To label them simply as decorative would be blatantly wrong (they're too knowing of where they have come from for that, and it's not a decorative tradition). Yet, to attempt to describe exactly what it is they appear to be discussing would be to negate their almost visceral use of language (and frankly, who needs explanation when feeling will suffice?). That said, if in these paintings pleasure is a primary ingredient it is also a clever way to introduce other ideas: in particular how somewhat sober languages (in this case Minimalism) can be renewed with a sly twist of repetition and titles that tell tales as they weave an atmosphere: The Big Wave (1995), Pacific Ocean (1998) or Chemical Tune (1999), for example.

In a culture so overloaded with visual information, not understanding everything shouldn't be an unfamiliar sensation. This is, perhaps, the very urban appeal of Heilmann's paintings - they let you see what you think you don't really get, but let you delight, even bask in them, nonetheless. Ultimately, they're not really asking very much of you, just that you trust your instincts in the same way you might with the kind of music that you love. In this case, it's a leap of faith that's worth it.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.