Southampton, NY

Mary Heilmann, Long Line, 2020, acrylic on panel, 24 × 96".

Mary Heilmann, Long Line, 2020, acrylic on panel, 24 × 96".

Mary Heilmann

Mary Heilmann’s solo exhibition “Highway, Oceans, Daydreams” featured paintings the eighty-one-year-old artist executed last spring and summer in her studio on Long Island’s East End during the Covid-19 lockdown, along with some earlier pieces for good measure. For five decades, Heilmann’s treatment of light, form, and space, frequently via a restricted palette, has been impressive. She tends to work within the easel tradition, and her surfaces—wood panels or stretched canvases—are modestly scaled. Thankfully, Heilmann has never received the memo that art has to be supersize and gratuitously show-’em-everything-you’ve-got.

Several of Heilmann’s new paintings—many of which were visible through the gallery’s shop-like front windows—commanded Hauser & Wirth’s Southampton, New York, outpost and are among her most beguiling abstractions. A range of hues showed up in these oceanic vistas; however, two seemed to predominate: a luminous teal and a sandy white. The former was used to suggest bodies of water, while the latter, which incorporates acrylic granules, called to mind sea foam and bubbles. As usual, the artist gets a lot of mileage from her coloristic limits. In some of her pieces, the teal passages graphically divided the composition in half. In others, the frothy waves flowed down from the tops of her images, as if the artist were tracing the route of someone joyously riding a surfboard.

There’s also a now-you-see it, now-you-don’t quality to Heilmann’s paintings. One moment, you feel as though you’re watching rolling waters from imaginary shorelines, yet in the next everything becomes totally abstract (befitting such motifs, her nonobjective imagery is more organic than geometric). The works on view ranged in format from long, horizontal rectangles to smallish squares, one of which was so tiny that it was practically the size of a museum label. As for the titles, they referred to surfing sites in nearby Montauk (such as Ditch, 2019); far-off Hawaii and La Jolla, California (Waimea and Windansea, both 2020, respectively); and Sagaponack, New York (Town Line, 2020).

While perusing this show, I was reminded of Pacific, 2016, a large work by Heilmann that’s rendered in subtle gradations of blue. It resides at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, where it occupies a wall opposite the gallery’s restaurant, Manuela. The titular ocean has been dear to the artist throughout her life. She was, after all, born and raised in California and studied in Santa Barbara and Berkeley, places where breathtaking views of the Pacific are never far away. You can almost envision the piece as a Brobdingnagian paean to that body of water while the smaller pieces in this latest exhibition—made on the opposite coast, near the Atlantic—could be imagined as little valentines to the environs of her current home and studio.

In the not-too-distant future, I’d love to see an exhibition of Heilmann’s enticing ocean works paired with the equally enthralling pictures of skies executed roughly two hundred years ago by English painter John Constable. What a dialogue they’d engender: the California native’s effervescent waves in counterpoint with the Englishman’s billowing clouds!