New York

Mary Heilmann

Pat Hearn Gallery

Like many abstract painters who began exhibiting in the early ’70s, the waning days of Minimalism, Mary Heilmann is an empirical artist. What distinguishes her from the rest is the fact that her concern with process, image, and the bond between the two did not lead her to make any of the sanctioned choices. She did not, for example, return to the “what-you-see-is-what-you-see” mode developed by Frank Stella early in his career. At the same time, she neither evolved a “new image” look nor concerned herself with the zany elaborations of an Elizabeth Murray or the tamer decorative elements of a Valerie Jaudon. Given that she has continued to develop from her own beginnings for more than a decade, we should reexamine her accomplishments.

Heilmann studied ceramics in art school, became a sculptor, and then a painter. Her ceramics background—the insights she must have gained into the relationship between process and object, surface transparency and glazing—continue to inform her painting; accident and intention are inextricable from one another. The linear bands, swaths, and rectangles of color she uses range from the physicality of oil paint to the transparent layers of acrylic and watercolor. Color becomes light and light becomes color.

Compositionally, the linear bands are deployed as units that can be placed adjacent to one another or made to overlap. The resulting geometry is sensuous and formal, austere and rough-hewn in its matter-of-factness. Eschewing reductiveness and elaboration, Heilmann is concerned with building up a painting from a vocabulary of essentials.

With such titles as Rosebud, 1983, Ming, 1986, and The Beach House, 1986, Heilmann’s paintings in this show were evocative of a wide range of personal, rather than cultural or social, experiences. Although the artist is concerned with formal issues, the final objective is neither formal proof nor elaboration, an idea to be illustrated. At a time when art has become increasingly bound up with various critical discourses, Heilmann’s work seems particularly heroic.

John Yau