Archive for January, 2012

A studio visit with Mary Heilmann

January 5, 2012

           Walking into Mary Heilmann’s studio in the Hamptons, I first smell turpentine, as if all the paintings lining the walls are wafting their perfume out into the room.  As a painter, I know this fragrance and find it a welcoming invitation to create. 

            Mary’s standing politely by the door, allowing us to crowd in around her.  I am traveling with fellow SVA artists and we have been making studio visits in the area, including those of Steven Miller, Karin Waisman, and Paton Miller.  Mary’s open, relaxed persona is particularly memorable.  We sit in a circle around her and rather than launch into explanations of her paintings’ influences, she calmly asks us how we are doing and smiles.  We talk about ourselves; we relax. 

            Talking to Mary about art feels like a casual, informative conversation.  She has a way of easing her audience with her methodical, sincere tone of voice.  Her storytelling draws us into her life and we find out about her artistic influences organically.  Mary is very quotable and I find myself writing much of what she says down in my notebook as I sit inches away from her newly drying, brightly colored wave painting. 

            “I didn’t want to be the girlfriend” but, “part of the gang,” she says about having had to work around so many successful men in the art world over the decades.  I remember making a similar comment, years ago, to one of my female high school students who was delving into poetry:  “Don’t be the girlfriend, if you know what I mean.  Be the artist, herself.”  Over the years, Mary has done just that. 

            Her latest productions employ geometric canvases that break out of the traditional rectangular form, recalling Kasimir Malevich and, what she calls her “Malevich phase.”  Much like Malevich’s play with simplified, geometric shapes, Mary uses a cross shape or squares and rectangles both in the actual frame of her pieces and as the subject on the canvas.  She has painted geometric forms of different sizes on her canvases “referenc[ing] landscapes in a hallucination kind of way.”  As I look around her room at paintings hanging on the walls and leaning up from the floor, I sense Mary allowing form, color, and subject to come to her naturally and intuitively, but not without some forethought.  She tells us that she spends much time thinking about her pieces before actually painting.  Then when she finally delves into the canvas, she executes them quickly.  Occasionally, she uses Photoshop to play with the direction of her compositions before attempting them on the canvas.

            The swiftly brushed, bright colors of her canvases contrast with the off-white tones on the walls and the floorboards.  Her studio space is comforting and filled with dynamic objects– an embroidered kerchief thrown on the back of one chair, a bright geometric form hanging from the ceiling catching the sun as it swings slightly, and two doors that open out into lush back and front yards.  Far from the grey floor, white wall, industrial look of quite a few studios, Mary’s studio is one of those that really encompasses her home life as well as her art.  Except for the smell of turpentine, there does not appear to be a sharp delineation between living space and work space.  

            After visiting her home and studio, many of us remarked on how we felt comfortable chatting with her and asking whatever questions came to our minds.  Mary was personable and unaffected, lacking that insufferable aura of self-importance of some artists.  Most of us will remember her especially for her genuine personality.

 


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