New York

Mary Heilmann

The Clock-Tower

As these four paintings, all 1983, reiterate, Mary Heilmann’s work forms an uninterrupted link with the hard-edge abstraction that developed in the early and mid ’60s. The hallmark of that style, at least in the hands of its two ablest practitioners, Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held, was the simultaneous exploitation of a resolute, quasi-geometric drawing style and a fully explored Modern palette of nuanced public color. For whatever reasons, both Kelly and Held moved away from the loaded, almost tensile repertoire of allusive forms each refined through this period toward styles that could accommodate grander, less particularized meaning. Heilmann, younger than either of these two and a San Francisco–born and –trained artist, came to their work (and whatever kindred goals for it they may unwittingly have shared) with an outsider’s perspective.

Heilmann consistently records the vagaries of her mark-making in a reportage that in fact is the content of all her paintings, with a frankness quite foreign to the mature styles of either Kelly or Held. Their common insistence on a no-hands look, on the litheness of their respective painting acts, tellingly connects them to such late School of Paris artists as Jean Arp, and it is not coincidental that both studied in postwar Paris. Heilmann, by contrast, grew up in a San Francisco Art Institute ambience that set great store by hand work. She studied ceramics there and has continued to work with clay all through her subsequent painting career. Her hand is the informing intelligence behind her work. In this way she is in step with the current expressionist vogue, but unlike the remedial surrealists now in the headlines, her imagery remains confidently abstract. Irving Sandler’s “concrete expressionism” nomenclature for the work of Held, George Sugarman, Ronald Bladen, Knox Martin, and David Weinrib—a title he devised for a show of this work in 1965—comes to mind for Heilmann. Her paintings are definitely concrete.

The largest piece here, Passenger, was also the clearest exposition of Heilmann’s newest spatial construct. If many of her best paintings of the past set up a kind of edge-to-edge topological space (in the best tradition of hard-edge painting), this new work concerns an overlaying and intermingling of figure and ground. A thick, irregular black frame and horizontal slats have been drawn over a serapelike striped field of orange, red, mauve, aquamarine, and pink. The fluid washes of the brightly colored ground enhance the wide black lattice figure, and its construction tells the whole story.

Each of the three other, more opaque pictures embodies other figure-ground propositions. In one, October 22, 1983, the black overpainting paradoxically becomes the ground on which float two searingly bright upright rectangles—one azure, the other yellowish orange—and a red square. Robert’s Garden, a washy white grid over black, acts as a negative to the comparably sized and composed Gaieté Parisienne, in which a black grid blots out and muscles up against the highly pitched tones of the underpainting—pink, purple, azure, red, and yellow, all so luminous as to underscore Heilmann’s great faith in the communicative possibilities of an otherwise all but abandoned abstract style.

Richard Armstrong