Mary Heilmann and David Reed were both born in California and have spent most of their working lives in New York. These biographical correspondences, and a longstanding mutual admiration of each other’s work, were the starting point for ‘Two By Two’, described by its curators as a ‘temporary alliance’ of the two painters. Though both have spent nearly half a century investigating the conditions and possibilities of abstract painting, their oeuvres diverge wildly in approach, emphasis, means and effect.
A film by each artist introduces and contextualizes their work in the show. Reed’s In Our Solitude (2014) pictures a beautiful house: an elegant, light-drenched concoction of California modernism. Built by Reed’s uncle, this was where Reed grew up, along with his sister Pamela, co-author of the film. It highlights the importance of location and illustrates Reed’s stated ambition ‘to be a bedroom painter’. Heilmann’s animated film Her Life (2006) journeys through her works, juxtaposing paintings and interspersing photographs that illustrate a California state of mind: cars, ocean, sunshine. It pictures a practice of transformations, where abstraction is rooted in a plastic appreciation of the familiar things around us. That Heilmann came to painting from ceramics makes sense: the levity and free-ranging curiosity of her works seems to owe much to having bypassed training in that particularly encumbered discipline.
A well-matched pair of paintings opened the exhibition: Heilmann’s unusually referential Road Trip (2010), in which white lozenges on a grey background sketch out a road, and Reed’s stretched-out horizontal canvas approximating a car’s bumper and headlights (#113, 1976/2005–06). The exhibition continues with explicit pairings of the two artists’ work, always hung 12 centimetres apart. Some couplings are harmonious and thought-provoking, while others are rather awkward yokes. Those that prove most rewarding are from the same period, especially the early years, before each artist began to dig deeper into their separate concerns. A great example of their divergent but contemporaneous meditations on the possibilities of geometric abstraction occurs with the vertical black block versus thick horizontal brushstroke of Reed’s #138 (1978), alongside Heilmann’s diptych of red squares floating off-centre on a fleshy background (The Red Square, 1978). More often, however, the pairings seem to short-circuit the analytical or haptic power of both works. Hung so close together, it is as if they are almost forced to fuse into a new collaborative work. Though certainly interesting as a playful opening gesture, sticking to this strategy throughout the exhibition becomes a dogmatic exercise that does a disservice to two painters of such subtlety and distinction.
How best to install two essentially diverse bodies of work, each spanning 40 years, in a relatively small space? Keep them separate to preserve developmental integrity? Or mix them up, freestyle? This exhibition – the result of three years of conversation between the two artists and the curator, Udo Kittelmann – seems to have grown out of that difficult proposition. As a solution, it is no doubt illuminating for the artists themselves, but it’s frustrating for the audience, particularly as this is the first institutional outing of both artists in Berlin.
The essential differences between the two painters appear clearly in the least compromised and most effective works in the show. Reed’s Scottie’s Bedroom (1994), a mise-en-scène presenting a 1950s-era wooden bed and lamp with a painting by Reed hanging above the bedstead. A TV set at the foot of the bed plays a short scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which features the same bedroom furnishings, and the same painting by Reed inserted into the filmed interior. In response, Heilmann sampled the soundtrack, a sound piece that plays intermittently in the space, amplifying the ringing of the telephone in the film itself. Across the room on the opposite wall is a spirited composition by Heilmann featuring a yellow canvas diptych and a smattering of brightly coloured, irregularly shaped ceramic dots across the wall (Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David, 2012). Each of these pieces, unencumbered by didactic comparison, thrives: Heilmann’s are bold, playful and irreverent; her geometric abstraction is felt rather than prescribed by modernism’s rigid grids. Reed’s gestures, meanwhile, seem to rehearse themselves, his self-consciously performed brushstrokes playing at abstraction, just as his work assumes its role of ‘bedroom painting’ in the Vertigo set.
Reed has written explicitly about the importance of exchange between artists, as a counter to the competitiveness that can underlie art-making: ‘Because within a lifetime one can barely accomplish all the developments necessary to making original art, these exchange relationships become critical,’ he wrote in an essay on Blinky Palermo. ‘It’s a misconception that one person can alone claim artistic discovery, since art develops socially and psychologically.’ Heilmann, too, has embraced two-person shows, showing recently with Palermo at the Kunstmuseum Bonn. The most generous conclusion about ‘Two by Two’ is that it was an experiment that didn’t quite come off. Or else it was another misplaced curatorial enterprise that attempted to turn painting into something more, rather than letting the works speak for themselves.