A painter, sculptor, and ceramicist for over forty years, Mary Heilmann is perhaps best known as a consummate colorist. Her high-keyed exhibitions often blend elements of Pop and Minimalism, devotion and sociality, and are always infused with an inimitable chromatic charge. Heilmann’s latest show, “Visions, Waves, and Roads,” features new canvases, a wall of ceramic tiles, and chairs; all are on view at Hauser & Wirth’s Savile Row location in London from February 23 to April 5.
THE WAVES have always been in my life and work. My father was a bodysurfer and as a kid I would join him on the beach in San Francisco. I have a very early memory of watching him in the huge, crashing, cold surf. Whenever I’m in the Bay Area, I go to the beach and check it out. California remains a big part of my life even though I’ve lived in New York since 1968.
I went to Santa Barbara to study literature in 1959, and I got by just fine, but I never really felt like I was there for academic reasons. The surfing scene was really cool back then. I was constantly zooming up and down the highway from Santa Barbara to Mexico, stopping at all the surf spots. One of my boy pals from school loaned me his surfboard, and I tried it, but never pursued it. I wouldn’t say I ever really surfed––not too many girls did back then. But I loved to watch.
I was studying criticism and poetry, and then started making ceramics as a hobby; there was a whole crew in Santa Barbara getting really into that. I loved it so much that I ended up in Berkeley in 1963, studying with Peter Voulkos in the art department. Of course when I moved to New York I couldn’t get any attention for that kind of work. So I started painting. Everyone in the city hated painting, including me! We thought it was the lamest thing. But by 1972 I was building stretcher bars and really getting into it. I felt like I was pushing paint around in almost the same way I did for sculpture and ceramics. I was inspired by what was going on with anti-form and with the works that Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Barry Le Va were making. They are huge influences.
My titles are usually poetic and often refer to places or things––in this show, for instance, there are works with names like Vanishing Point or Yuma Arizona or Renny’s Right Geometry of a Wave––so perhaps as you look a certain image might arise. The paintings have always had some connection to reality even though they are mostly abstract. I’m also totally obsessed with symbolic imagery, geometry, and Ellsworth Kelly. The waves come out of this and so does my Malevich-inspired work. I’ve been in a Malevich phase for a while, which has meant a lot of deep thinking about geometry and pushing geometric figures around in a sort of puzzle-making way. In Malevich Spin, for instance, there’s a sense of movement through geometry––perhaps in your mind you rearrange it, move the pieces around.
I’ve been thinking about the design for this show for nearly a year. I always want my exhibitions to be read in a theatrical way; people walk in and just around the corner one of the first things they see is a two-lane highway road image. And then they become part of this set. Perhaps they sit in the chairs, which have wheels, and they move around, getting nearer to each other, or looking closer at the work. This show will have a domestic element, too, with some of my pottery, dinnerware, and a couple of tables. My shows have never encouraged a quick visit––just standing in front of one work and moving swiftly to the next and then the next. It’s always been important to me that visitors be able to sit down, relax, and have a conversation in the gallery.