PRINT September 1992


IN TUNE WITH A WAVE of artmaking that openly revels in the inarticulate, the lax, the psychically and formally unintegrated, Mary Heilmann’s “lazy” abstractions readmit the pleasures of pure pictorial invention through the back door. Recalling (in a decidedly down-scale key) the virtuoso formalism of Henri Matisse, her relaxed variations share an unexpected affinity with painters like Gerhard Richter and David Reed who, by subjecting the body of abstraction to scrupulous vivisection, manage to reanimate it. Treating painting as a lexicon of gestures and styles, rather than a quest for final form, Hellmann liberates a whole realm of quirky formal play. Full of casual missteps and anemic lapses, suddenly her low-key comedy of errors looks like high style.

We asked Jessica Stockholder, whose sprawling, slipshod installations seem to admit a similar sort of visual free play, to visit Heilmann in her studio. They met, squared off at facing typewriters, and sent back these notes.

—Jack Bankowsky

JS: The figures or protagonists in your paintings are the viscous, fluid skins of paint. Clyfford Still’s paintings were also involved with the paint in a primary way, but where his foremost concern was that the viewer recognize the paint as paint, to you this is only a starting point. Your paintings are sexier and more evocative than earlier Color Field paintings; each skin of paint or shape seems like a juicy watery organism.

MH: Early on, when I was looking at Morris Louis, people spoke of his paintings as using “skeins” of paint. . . . Even the fact of talking about color as a field is great. Paintings are not seen as pictures when they are thought of in this way. I started out as a sculptor in school and came to painting later, so I initially saw paintings as sculptural objects; the paint was part of the larger object.

JS: The relationship between the separate panels of your works makes sense to me when I think about each veil of paint as an object with an “objectness” equivalent to that of the stretcher. Mondrian hinted at the object quality of his canvases when he curled the paint around the edges.

MH: When I join two or more paintings to make a composite piece, the space between them becomes as important as the actual parts. Brian Eno talks about perfumery: “two quite familiar smells carefully combined could create a new and unrecognizable sensation . . . perfumery has a lot to do with this process of courting the edges of unrecognizability, of evoking sensations that don’t belong together.”

JS: The idea of the “space between” is crucial.

MH: What seems like empty space is really very full. The drawing that the edges of the canvases make on the wall activates the wall; the architecture becomes part of the work.

JS: When we did the show together in Cologne, I enjoyed certain parallels between our work. My installation inserted itself into the space of the gallery so that it was both an object in the space and a slip of color stuck to the space. For me there is a tension that arises from the possibility of some third kind of space or object emerging between the space of the gallery and the structure of the building.

*MH: In my case, there is a kind of hybrid dimension that occurs, as a result of the interplay between the object quality of the painting and the illusionistic space inside the frame.

The experience in Cologne clarified something that has been going on in my work for a long time. I’ve always looked at my paintings as they relate to each other; when I lecture and do a slide show, I present the images in pairs. I’m just as interested in reading across from one work to another as I am in focusing on the internal composition of each piece. This is why I pursue collaborations and why I like seeing my work in combination with that of other artists. Collaboration links up with quoting, sampling, combining, appropriating, and remixing.*

JS: Are there any painters whose work you find it useful to discuss in relation to your own?

MH: I feel no affinity with unself-reflexive formalists such as David Row, Jacqueline Humphries, or Sean Scully. I do think about Jonathan Lasker because he deconstructed and then reconstructed the vocabulary of abstraction to make new paintings; David Reed because he isolated and codified the brush stroke; Gerhard Richter because he separated different painting languages and then represented them together as components of his own language; Philip Taaffe because of his recombinatory practice; Peter Schuyff because he treats style as his language, and finally Blinky Palermo because he made work that is right on the edge between something and nothing.

JS: Someone told me that you once jokingly referred to yourself as a “slacker.” What did you mean?

MH: An attitude of self-deprecation has always been part of my work. It comes from a place of world-weariness, decadence, the vernacular decor of the street, the morning after the party. But work expressive of this attitude has its opposite built into it. I began as a “humble potter,” always certain that the Bizen tea bowl that looks like a lump of earth can vie for glory with a Sistine chapel.

Jessica Stockholder is an artist living in New York.