Hail Mary

Newport Beach, CA

Left: Mary Heilmann. (Photo: Carla Rhea) Right: Paul McCarthy. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)

Say you are invited to Mary Heilmann’s first traveling retrospective, debuting at the Orange County Museum of Art. Naturally, you want to travel, too. Heilmann is a stunning colorist, modest yet buoyant. Her abstract paintings of cityscapes and seasides exude the force of nature with uncommon delicacy. She may be the most important underrecognized artist in America, and it’s about time she had a museum show in the US. Where better to start than her home state of California? Paul McCarthy will be there. Christopher Williams will be there. So will LA MoCA’s Jeremy Strick and Ann Goldstein and the Hammer’s Gary Garrels. To be Mary Heilmann is to be someone—that’s the title of her show, “To Be Someone”—so you have to go, even if you live in New York.

Say that getting there means driving on the 405 Freeway from Los Angeles at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. Here’s my advice: Do it in a brand-new Lexus on loan from the carmaker, lately a player in corporate arts sponsorship. It is a tank, so spacious that six-foot-four art dealer Curt Marcus can stretch out in the backseat and have a nap and so classy it can make this driver and the fabulous LA architect Miggi Hood feel like princesses on the way to a ball.

That illusion shatters the moment we walk into the museum and are offered green-apple martinis. You know you’re in the provinces when they offer you green martinis. And you really begin to doubt you’re in the right place when the dinner menu lists surf and turf as the main course. Then again, it is not every day you see people from the New York art world try not to laugh at their food. Rarer still is to find the subject of a retrospective organizing a concurrent show of artists whose work she has influenced. It’s called “Something About Mary,” and introducing it in the lobby as an aperitif to the survey was a brilliant stroke on the part of OCMA curator Elizabeth Armstrong. Amazing no one has ever tried it before (to my knowledge, anyway). The catalog offers something different, too: It is available in a two-hundred-dollar limited-edition version—only 398 were printed—with each cover featuring a beautiful sample fabric from an edition Heilmann made at the Fabric Workshop.

Left: OCMA curator Aimee Chang. Right: Artist Christopher Williams and LA MoCA curator Ann Goldstein. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Not only were guests treated to a well-paced overview of Heilmann’s development, from her student days at Berkeley to Surfing on Acid, a recent “wave” painting in saturated red, yellow, and pink that OCMA bought from 303 Gallery. We could see Heilmann’s hand in artworks by Laura Owens, Monique Prieto, Ingrid Calame, Kim Fisher, Don Christensen, Mary Weatherford, Stanley Whitney, and Taro Suzuki, among others. “When was the last time you saw anything by Taro Suzuki?” Marcus marveled. “Just trying to give my old pals a boost,” said Heilmann, beaming in a borrowed jadelike necklace and silvery gray duster.

Indeed, with Robert Hudson and Jim Melchert—Heilmann’s teachers at Berkeley—on hand, and some high school chums and a New York contingent that included Jack Pierson, Marilyn Minter, Billy Sullivan, Manuel Gonzalez, Johanna Burton, Lisa Phillips, Mari Spirito, and Lisa Spellman, the event felt more like a family reunion than an opening. “I’m seeing my whole life flash before my eyes,” Heilmann said to the crowd seated for dinner at tables on the museum’s patio. “Only it doesn't flash,” she added. “It stays there.” Clearly, the generous Heilmann doesn’t just inspire artists. She’s a champ at instigating friendships, too.

Left: 303 Gallery owner Lisa Spellman. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Mary Heilmann, OCMA director Dennis Szakacs, and Liane Thatcher. (Photo: Carla Rhea)

At my table, the vivacious collector Carol Appel left the side of her husband, David, to spend the meal chatting with Pierson, but not before letting on that Annie Leibovitz was about to photograph Heilmann for an upcoming profile by Dodie Kazanjian in the August issue of Vogue. That’s the hefty, all-important back-to-school issue. “Isn’t it great?” Heilmann enthused, when I asked about it. She didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the prospect of becoming fashionable at age sixty-seven. Why should Brice Marden be the only grayhead to turn people on?

The real party began when guests started gathering around Heilmann to say good night, the New York contingent mixing with Jennifer Bolande, Cannon Hudson, Shaun Caley Regen, and Tom Solomon from LA; Ivan Wirth from Zurich; and Sherri Geldin from the Wexner Center in Columbus (another stop for the retrospective, which is also going to Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum and the new New Museum in New York).

“No one paints like Mary,” OCMA director Dennis Szakacs told guests at dinner. “I can’t believe I never knew about her before,” said my architect friend. “She’s so good.” There are many reasons for museum retrospectives, but when the artist is a woman deserving far greater attention, none are more satisfying than watching the chickens come home to roost. “Hanging this show has been very emotional for me,” Heilmann agreed. “When we were done, I went back to the house where I'm staying and saw the gray fog off the California coast and remembered what it was like as a teenager to feel not someone. And now I know it's not true.”

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artist Mary Weatherford and Hauser & Wirth's Alex Israel. (Photo: Carla Rhea) Right: New Museum director Lisa Phillips. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky)