Interview with Mary Heilmann, Looking at Pictures at Whitechapel Gallery

Interview with Mary Heilmann, Looking at Pictures at Whitechapel Gallery

Mary Heilmann (b. 1940) provides bold perspective on colour, line and shape. Experimenting with them in unexpected and disparate journeys, her multi-disciplinary works have achieved much critical acclaim over the years for the poetry and tension in the geometric. To coincide with her new exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, London, Aesthetica interview the artist about her work and the art of metaphor.

A: Your works focus on an alluring abstraction between line and colour. Is there a sense of release or power to execute an independent will, do you think, in this form of artwork?
MH: Yeah, I think so. Actually, I am playing with the formal edges of line and colour and sort of going against the rules. So, a formalist, non-subject matter type of painting – totally abstract painting. Now, my works all have a sort of subtext to them.

A: What is it that brought you to work with this particular style?
MH: I came out of doing sculpture – abstract sculpture – as a graduate student at the University of California and then the art started changing. There were no straight lines anymore, that’s the main thing. You’ve got the implication of figuration and landscape, but still being a non-image type of idea.

In the beginning it was without colour, it was all natural earth colours or black and white. Then I moved on and segwayed over to painting when I moved to New York. I decided to use colour and that was a huge major breakthrough: I made red, yellow and blue non-image paintings – geometric paintings.

A: How do you think artworks are responded to by their audience when there is this freedom from objective context that seems to pervade your practice?
So, what I am always doing is playing with metaphoric. So, that is what this looking at pictures metaphor is, that as you look at it, the subject matter reveals itself and this is sometimes helped by the titles.

Sometimes they are like little one word poems but sometimes they are confusing types of clues. So, if you have any interest in it and you are seduced by the painting because of colour, lines, scale – formal stuff – you might spend some time trying to figure out what the story is.

A: So, the audience kind of responds to it in terms of it being a journey into the artwork – trying to figure out what they see in it. Maybe that is quite a personal thing to them?
That’s right. It could be their own story in there. And that is why I made the chairs so that they would stay a while without standing up ­– it works.

How have aspects of your life influenced your works, for example the 1960s, counter culture, poetry and music? Do you think that these influences have an impact on how your works have kind of expanded over the years?
MH: Yes, totally. I came out in the 1950s which big in my development – catholic high school girl. Then the beat generation came in the and that inspired me, I was really into that and the lifestyle and kind of aesthetic and philosophy that came with it. And then in the 1960s Santa Barbara had a lot of zen Buddhist kind of culture – not a lot but there was a wave of it, and that was new. Back in San Francisco the hippies were kicking in, changing the lifestyle, what you wore, how you did your make up. (By the way I sort of determinedly didn’t like hippies, I wasn’t really for peace and love. I was honorary like a beatnik.)

A: But it still followed you through your practice, these different kinds of contexts.
MH: Dealing with that is really important to the work.

A: So would you say that there’s a particular tone that runs through the works or because there’s this disparate past behind them do you think they’re different in terms of consistency?
I think the fact that the opposites are there really becomes part of the whole work and sometimes that is the subject matter of individual pieces.

A: So it is not like an overarching theme; they all have their own tone or influence behind them?
It’s almost like a conversation or an argument even.

A: Could you discuss how your pieces begin in terms of ideas. Whether is it build upon a conversation or ideas – is it an idea that comes out of you first or influence, colour or shape. How do you start constructing a new work?
MH: All of the above. Here is what happens. I am in my studio now, I sit in my studio and look at what is there already and I arrange things around and think and look and then I look at other stuff, like other artists, pictures, magazine images, outside of my window is a big farm field which is a big part of my inspiration. So I think and daydream and kind of like meditate and I get inspiration from the work that has already been made, then I look on my computer, I zoom around online, catching up with things and that’s where the inspiration comes from.

A: You have spoken about how there might be a conversation between pieces or ideas. Do you personally think that each of them have a narrative or do you think that the formal contributions are read by an audience or by yourself?
It is actually both. But the imagery – what you see – is open enough that it isn’t able to be interpreted in arbitrary or intuitive kind of way. By whoever is looking at it. Then when it is more than one person to have a conversation about it, that is sometimes quite of an input.

A: How important do you think it is for artists to be multidisciplinary in terms of what cross of variety of media? How do you think this has helped you to kind of further your practice and develop what it is you want to do in the future?
MH: Yes, I think the different practices do inspire each other and the same thing was my thinking, going there and actually physically making things out of clay and then coming back and making the same kind of imagery out of paint and a panel is part of the deal.

A: In terms of other artists having been named as a central point of interest for you consciously or unconsciously and the impact on the works you have made over the years?
I am really thinking about Ellsworth Kelly all the time now. He inspired me a lot from when I first heard about him – even in school. So the last two shows he did at Matthew Marks and the last show he did, I see a similarity in our works.  I got an awful lot from thinking about him and then actually meeting him and talking to him once was one of the big minutes of my life. Also today I was thinking about Agnes Martin and she was an inspiration for me: her life story as well as her non-objective geometric painting, which have titles. There’s this one called Blue sea, it is a plain, imageless painting, but there it is and then you can’t let go of that vision.

A: In terms of the exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, how do you think that the space of that particular gallery brings a new context to your works, how has it been to work with the space in general?
MH: It was so wonderful. First of all, working with Lydia and the beautiful, kind of eccentric space that Whitechapel is. I love the fact that there is the metro station right in the middle of the two spaces on the street. Then you go up that beautiful, marble staircase when you go to the next gallery: the eccentric architecture turned me on. Lydia is a genius curator with a very strong personality and I would keep trying to interrupt her to tell her my ideas. And then I said, wait, we are on the same page here, so I should relax! It really was a partnership or even a team effort to make that show come together including the wonderful catalogue by Briony Fer, Mary Heilmann Painting Her Way.

A: What are your plans for the future? MH:  You know, I have decided to just chill and not plan anything – I have nothing planned. I really need this time. However, I do plan to do something and not just sit here and think about ideas. I am interested in making arrangements of my work including furniture, ceramics, pottery, chairs, paintings. I imagine installations with those things all organised together in a way that has never been done before.

Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures, Whitechapel Gallery until 21 August.
For more information about the exhibition:

1. Mary Heilmann The Thief of Baghdad (1983). Oil on canvas152.4 x 106.68 cm©Mary Heilmann. Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery. Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.