On September 17, 2008, Zwirner & Wirth will present a selection of paintings and works on paper from the last three decades by the American artist Mary Heilmann. Named after one of the artist's signature colorful, abstract canvases (Some Pretty Colors, 2001; illustrated at right), the exhibition will explore the development of Heilmann's distinctive painterly style with works that date from 1989 to 2006.
Drawing inspiration from her own experience, including the Southern California surf culture of her childhood, the San Francisco beatnik era of her teen years, the punk and new wave music scenes of 1970s and early 80s New York, and her formal training as a sculptor and ceramist, Heilmann incorporates a complex amalgam of personal references, cultural influences, and craft traditions in an artistic practice that includes painting, painted ceramics, and constructed furniture.
Heilmann's unique style, with its loose brush work, runny streaks of paint, and visceral color palette, resists easy categorization. Though informal in their appearance, the artist’s canvases maintain a simultaneously celebratory and self-reflexively critical position in regard to the legacies of geometric abstraction, minimalism, and color-field painting. Her canvases exhibit a raw physicality, with brushwork continuing along the edge of the canvas, and often, as in such works as Sisters of No Mercy (1989) or Yoshimi (2004), employing unconventionally-shaped painting surfaces, which the artist makes by joining different canvases together. Heilmann’s works are formally playful and inventive, offering a new painterly idiom that points beyond the limitations of abstraction.
The titles of her paintings are often based on personal experiences and interests, referring in some cases to memories, song lyrics, books, films, friends, or fellow artists, thus inscribing Heilmann’s abstract canvases with alternate stories, biographies, and emotions and imbuing her work with a deeply personal element. Winter Surf, San Francisco (2006) presents horizontal layers of paint in a green palette, exploring the wave motif that often recurs in the artist’s body of work, while the colorful, dotted canvas Franz West (1995) points to Heilmann’s admiration for the Austrian artist. As Heilmann has explained in her own words: “Each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker, a cue, by which I evoke a moment from my past, or my projected future, each a charm to conjure a mental reality and to give it physical form.”1
Mary Heilmann was born in 1940 in San Francisco, California. She moved to New York in 1968, after receiving her M.A. in ceramics and sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley. Since her first solo exhibition, which took place at the Whitney Museum Art Resource Center, New York, in 1970, her work has been exhibited in the United States and internationally in numerous group exhibitions, and solo shows of her work have been presented at such venues as The Clocktower, New York (1983); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1990); San Francisco Art Institute (1994); Kunstmuseum St. Gallen (2000); and Secession, Vienna (2003). Her work was recently featured in the 2008 Whitney Biennale and is currently the subject of a major traveling retrospective organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, which will be on view at the New Museum, New York, from late October 2008 – January 2009. Heilmann lives and works in New York.
1 Mary Heilmann, in Mary Heilmann: The All Night Movie (Zurich: Hauser & Wirth, 1999), p. 26.