View of “Mary Heilmann and David Reed,” 2015. From left: David Reed, #550, 2005–2006; Mary Heilmann, Yoshimi, 2004.

View of “Mary Heilmann and David Reed,” 2015. From left: David Reed, #550, 2005–2006; Mary Heilmann, Yoshimi, 2004.

Mary Heilmann and David Reed

View of “Mary Heilmann and David Reed,” 2015. From left: David Reed, #550, 2005–2006; Mary Heilmann, Yoshimi, 2004.

A strict presentational concept rules “Mary Heilmann & David Reed: Two by Two,” which presents the work of two late-career American artists. Udo Kittelmann and cocurator Sophie Mattheus have chosen to display about forty paintings, ranging in date from 1973 to 2015, along with an installation and a digital projection by each artist. Every painting by Heilmann hangs directly to one by Reed, with just over four inches between them. (Only the pair at the entrance are separated by a bit more space.) The result is, in most cases, a forceful and provocative confrontation between works.

This presentation is rooted in parallel biographies. Both artists were born in the 1940s in California and spent their early years there before starting to work in New York in the late ’60s. Both retain strong connections to their West Coast roots, however: Heilmann writes that Los Angeles is a huge part of the backstory of her work, and Reed mentions California optimism as a fond memory. The work of both artists is “abstract-ish,” as Heilmann calls it, but does their shared background and formal orientation produce some deeper chemistry between their works? After all, abstraction is a wide-ranging phenomenon, and the exhibition proves that the two artists have chosen quite different paths through it.

Heilmann’s works show a playful and lighthearted development of Minimalism, supported by unusual painting formats. Reed either works in high, narrow formats or makes very horizontal paintings that might recall a wide-screen movie; he takes as his principal subject the brushstroke. A clear dialogue between the artists can be found in two earlier pieces, both reductive in composition: Reed’s #138, 1978, paired with Heilmann’s The Red Square, 1978, but this is rather the exception.

In the ’70s, Reed was painting with an expressive, fast, and subjective stroke. Heilmann’s work is also very direct in facture though with a drier, thinner texture. But as the years go on, Reed’s style evolves, and he distances himself increasingly from the direct, expressive brushstroke. His later works show a successful confusion between (or layering of) a photographic and a painterly look. He develops into an observer of painting possibilities, while Heilmann seems more at ease with enjoying the actual practice in a carefree way, and her approach does not essentially change over the years. Reed seems to have said good-bye to the twentieth century, while Heilmann still finds her sources there.

Not surprisingly, then, the curators’ pairings evince little chemistry, solidarity, or other types of interchange between the positions of the two painters whose works have been brought so close. Mostly, the paintings don’t like one another; their relations are dissonant and each one cries out for its own space. As a result, the curatorial conceit, rather than the individual works or the artists’ development, becomes the focus of the exhibition—a disappointing result, given that the work itself is good enough to make a convincing show. I’ve rarely had such an urge to rehang an exhibition, to regroup the works by artist and affinity. It would have been great to see a show that explores the experimental-painting attitudes that have developed in the United States since the ’70s, in a climate critical of painting—but this isn’t it.

Jurriaan Benschop