Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Saturated with California cool and New York edge, the electricity that runs through Mary Heilmann’s paintings is super-charged with references to her own life, pop music, and the free-wave movements of the Sixties. Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective, Looking At Pictures, delivers on the margins of Heilmann’s five-decade spanning oeuvre from geometric to organic, canvas to ceramic. The exhibition flows like the highways and ocean waves of her most recent paintings: splashing in your face at times and drawing you in further to take in more.

Strolling through the exhibition is like taking in a fragmented and abstracted representation of Heilmann’s life. The slide-show video Her Life, created by Heilmann originally as an aid when lecturing, is set to a hand-selected eclectic soundtrack. The works included in this piece, and all those on view in the galleries, seem to resonate the same energy as the pulse of the music.

After growing up within the surf scene in California, Heilmann moved to the Lower East Side of New York in 1968 where she became immersed in a circle of artists. Instead of adapting her practice to be in line with the minimalists at the time, she was liberated to focus on her colourful abstract painting. However she didn’t disregard Minimalism altogether, as traces such as grids and squares can be found in her work. Heilmann pulls her surrounding environments into her paintings, from architectural elements in The First Vent, cars in parking lots, the colour of her the wallpaper in her grandmother’s house in 311 Castro Street, and Brian Eno’s David Bryne collaboration in Bush of Ghosts.

Her compositions and palettes can be attributed to her academic background, yet there’s a vibrancy and emotion behind the works that can be felt immediately upon entering the gallery and experiencing her gridlocked red paintings. There’s a lightheartedness that shines through her work, especially her delicate pastel coloured glazed ceramic pieces. Poignant without being precise, the scattered circles that make up Good Vibrations in the following gallery represent Heilmann’s take on an acid trip. Her works encapsulate both the gritty environment of New York and the loose, laid-back California nature, which creates an overarching sense of controlled freedom. Her postmodern approach combined with fearlessness gives her paintings that “anything goes” charm and it clearly works.

While Heilmann’s work almost shines with the glow of past memories, as with life – light is balanced with darker times. The artist also evokes heartfelt emotion, and through a more figurative painting of an empty chair entitled Ghost Chair. The piece speaks of her friends lost during the AIDS epidemic, including Robert Mapplethorpe.

Overall the exhibition is refreshingly warm and inviting, the artist even offers the opportunity to sit back in her brightly hued beach chairs. It’s a welcome sunny Californian oasis in the midst of the British summer with the warmth of the American west coast felt through vibrantly cast colours. It’s hard not to be optimistic when surrounded by Heilmann’s works, they are sincere and effortlessly cool – and a testament of a woman who, during a time when painting was once thought to be dead, brought new life to the medium.

Ashton Chandler Guyatt

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

1. Mary Heilmann, Crashing Wave, 2011 (detail), Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.60 cm, © Mary Heilmann, Photo: Thomas Müller, Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth.