Mary Heilmann

Galerie Hauser & Wirth/House for Constructive and Concrete Art

It’s hardly a coincidence that the first two large exhibitions of Mary Heilmann’s work in Europe were held in Zurich. After the shock waves sent out by Zurich Dada during World War I, the city became a center for Concrete art, thanks to the efforts of Max Bill and Richard Lohse. And now Heilmann—whose painting both echoes and moves beyond these traditions—has come on the scene. Combining the anarchic spirit of the Cabaret Voltaire with analytical acuity, she deviates from stylistic norms, but with the kind of precision for which Lohse became known. In the process her work remains painterly, losing only the rigidity that undergirded many of Modernism’s aesthetic programs.

Together, these two shows mixed paintings from three decades with an immediacy and element of surprise that was well-suited to the individual pieces and to the character of the work as a whole. Because Heilmann does not maintain a fixed aesthetic position, each of her works achieves its own provisional identity. Behind overpaintings formed of broad brushstrokes, ghostly forms shimmer, as if each layer possesses its own nomadic past and future. Like wrappings veiling the paintings, the pictorial surfaces extend around the edges of the canvases, endowing each piece with a sculptural quality. The geometric and organic do not compete with one another in these works, but, rather, yield an intense hybrid. Arresting color relationships, the joining together of shaped canvases, and the interrelationship between canvases through overarching grid structures are among the elements that emerge like an abbreviated sequence of Modernist positions. Heilmann’s work also has an almost filmic quality: sequences, lapses, movements or traces of movement, and fade-outs were visible in the work shown in both venues.

In Zurich, Heilmann’s work has generally been received as a fresh take on Pop, a feminized form of Concrete art, or a forerunner of “neo-geo.” It is perhaps equally important, however, that Heilmann began to paint during the time of Happenings and Fluxus. From the beginning of her career, she has addressed persistent crises in painting, but only to use them as a point from which to embark on a playful journey. The title of one of the works shown here, Kachina, 1982, evoked Hopi kachina dolls as tourist souvenirs as much as spiritual emblems—just as Heilmann’s paintings themselves are souvenirs of her aesthetic mobility.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.