Poetry, jazz, physics; the palette of the Pacific, gestural vernacular folded into assertive minimalism, an anachronistic affection for clay sculpture, and an urge to blur the boundaries between art, architecture and design. Also the occasional painting of a blacktop roadway. All of these influences, witticisms and aesthetic qualities contribute to artist Mary Heilmann’s enduring identity as a California painter — despite the fact that she moved to New York City in 1968, hasn’t had a proper solo show in L.A. in some 20 years, and is also a sculptor.
In fact Heilmann’s work specifically, deliberately, self-consciously exists in flux on the painting and sculpture continuum, with furniture and especially ceramic objects augmenting her core painting practice. She’s been making work in this vein since 1983, and really since school in the 1960s. In addition to rarefied clay objects and wall-mounted, glazed ceramic paintings, she also makes furniture. For example, her chairs are arranged around the galleries in her current exhibition in the Arts District — they are intended to be sat upon, the better to contemplate the other works in the show, especially the paintings. In this way she achieves the merger of painting and sculpture that she arguably has been after for decades.
Despite all that, a large part of the reason people still tend to think of her as a painter is because she is mainly a colorist. The core of her practice is fueled by her relationship to colors, and the patterns that emerge from their deployment. Pink, green, red, blue, black and white, sometimes a rainbow gradient, and the recurrence of checkerboards are all common. Within each painting she lets the individual layers of loosely applied paint remain partly autonomous. They blend a bit roughly so that we witness their merging but we can still see the components — the white laid in over, the heavy wet blue, or the red applied in nesting squares.
This chromatic mixing speaks to Heilmann’s broader idea of the remix/redux — a frequent motif within individual works as well as overall exhibition installations. It’s no coincidence that she speaks of this, her first solo show in L.A. in 20 years, as being about the “soul of California.” This is where she was from, after all, and it’s called “Memory Remix.” In it she takes California as both casual muse and actual subject, as well as for what it truly is — her own past.
“I designed the show myself,” Heilmann says. She’s basically responsible for the layout, the choices of the timeframe in the range of the works, and the array of chairs and tables, so that it makes a kind of micro-survey of works from the last several decades up through this year. Heilmann made her choices, as she frequently does, according to factors of architecture, color and shape and not by chronology, so that the timeline takes its own meandering path through the show. “There’s no such thing as linear time, anyway,” she helpfully points out. “Time is a chunk, not a line. I’m thinking and writing a lot about that right now, actually.”
She knew before she started designing the show that she was to be paired with Larry Bell, and Heilmann has some feelings about that, an occasion that caused something of a memory prompt for her as well. She studied at UC Berkeley until 1963, and she moved to NYC in 1968, but all through that time she describes making trips to L.A., to La Cienega Boulevard to see the galleries. “The L.A. scene was huge,” she recalls. “I knew Larry Bell from those days. Well, I knew his work. He was at Ferus with the Cool School guys. That scene, it was very guarded, kind of a clique, but I knew them a little.”
“Irving Blum likes my work now,” she adds.
“But yes, I knew about Larry and of course I loved the idea. He’s a lovely and very gentle person. We have similarities, or at least, I can see why they’d put us together.” Both Bell and Heilmann were influenced by many of the same figures, especially Donald Judd — in her chairs and Bell’s cubes, in their shared interest in squares and grids, in the way they think about painting while they are making sculptures and sometimes the reverse.
“I used to tell all those guys my work was painting just so they’d fight with me at the bar! Painting was supposed to be dead back then, remember. But I stayed with sculpting in 3-D the whole time, mostly in clay. Judd was a hero of mine in terms of the way he related his work to domestic life — it wasn’t about comfort.
“The women’s movement in L.A. back in the 1960s, it was pioneering too,” Heilmann recalls, mentioning Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis, Mary Corsea and Vija Celmins. “But it was under the radar of the press and the critics. So in 1968 I knew my move to New York would be permanent.” She had some friends; she knew Richard Serra from school, and Eva Hesse, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson.
“But you know in a way,” she laughs, “I think they were interested in me because I was from California!”
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