New York

Mary Heilmann

Pat Hearn Gallery

For Mary Heilmann formalism is less a prison than a resort—a space so well defined that it admits a measure of free play within its precincts. One painting, entitled Sunshine, 1991, consists of a moderately scaled sunflower-yellow rectangle whitewashed with transparent layers of mat white. That this work recalls the obfuscation of the sun by constantly shifting clouds is characteristic of Heilmann’s ability to coax a range of vivid sensations from the dryest painterly conventions (in this case the grid).

In this show, the viewer is routed through a taxonomy of abstract types: the grid, the flagstone pattern, the constructivist image, the stripe, and the shaped canvas. There are more paintings here than one is accustomed to seeing in a single show; some are paired (#1 For Pasolini, 1990, and Sunshine), some are hung high above the viewer (Black Cracky, 1990), and some look as if they are parts of a single painting though they are actually discrete works (Serape III and Shaped Serape, both 1991). The installation as a whole creates a kind of abstract narrative in which the effect of the single painting is slightly diminished in the service of a more general expression of sensibility.

All of Heilmann’s paintings look as if they were wrought in a split second, though manifold washes of thin oil paint evidence the contrary. The painterly process is readily apparent in the form of brushstrokes and drips, but gratuitous gesticulation is avoided. Heilmann paints with an offhanded confidence, and nothing is added to the works once the image and the quality of light have been achieved. Her colors—bright yellows, chalky or aquamarine blues, and bubble-gum pinks—remind one of sun, water, and the exteriors of buildings in the tropics. Even the enamellike blacks and blood-reds in paintings such as Beauregard, 1991, in which brightly colored lines radiate out of a shiny black ground, have a sheen and intensity that jumps off the wall. Heilmann’s palette is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s; sunny pale shades are anchored by an occasional patch of black, navy, or a saturated jewel tone, and even the darkest works offer an intense experience of light.

One of Heilmann’s distinctive stylistic traits is her concern with the sides of the painting. She treats them as part of the work’s surface and thus insists on the painting as object and not just as field. On the second floor of the gallery, she presented a series of 27 little variously colored ceramic monochromes, along with a diptych entitled Red, Yellow and Blue, 1976, in which a dark red square bordered by lighter red is reversed in an adjacent panel. The linear border is softened by Heilmann’s washy technique, and the sides, which have an unusually deep projection, are painted gray-blue and sunflower-yellow respectively. One can recognize in Heilmann’s paintings of 14 years later a more sophisticated consideration of the side, having more to do with integration than with separation. Rather than using the sides of the painting as a base or a pedestal, Heilmann now tends to wrap the image around them. Shaped Serape suggests two partially overlapping squares, in which a sequence of thick, colored horizontal bands, painted in a thin, freehand manner that registers the path of the brush, continues around the sides.

Horizon, 1991, is the painting that is perhaps the most emblematic of Heilmann’s sensibility. Unlike Untitled Seam, 1990, Red Cracky, 1991, and Peter Young, 1990, which use line and blocks of color to create surface pattern and fluctuating relationships between image and ground, Horizon consists simply of a thickly painted, smooth white square turned to hang like a diamond. Just below the middle of the painting, Heilmann has dragged a brush loaded with thinned aquamarine paint so that the lower half glistens with transparent, drippy blue. As in Sunshine, representational qualities are suggested only in the most abstract sense; the horizontal division of an abstraction inevitably suggests the horizon. Yet Heilmann’s use of the materiality and colors of oil paint evokes the brightest lights and darkest nights nature has to offer.

Matthew Weinstein