Mary Heilmann’s must-see exhibition takes two floors of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The ground floor includes her early and more experimental works from the 70s while the upper floor has her latest works (since 2000) where irony dangerously flirts with silliness. I liked her early works and really disliked her latest ones. From this point of view, one could see the Whitechapel show as an allegory of the way art was transformed, during the last 30 years, from an optimistic human endeavor into the Gestallt for a time infested by cynicism.
Born in 1940 in San Francisco, Mary Heilmann participated in the surf culture of Southern California where she studied poetry, ceramic and sculpture before moving to New York in 1968 where she began painting when she realized that she could not get any attention for her sculptures as a woman artist. ‘Looking at Pictures’ surveys the artist’s five-decade career beginning with paintings based on the square, the grid and domestic architectural details. Although the curatorial text puts maybe too much emphasis in her post-minimalistic playfulness at undermining the purity of geometric abstraction with irregular lines, non primary colours and dripping paint, the visual evidence tells otherwise.
Her post-minimalism is evident in works like Chinatown (1978), a diptych inspired by the artist Jose Albers where she paints a blue and yellow frame around each canvas drawing attention to the painting’s objectuality. But this dialogue with minimalism starts vanishing as her works progresses only to delve into the kind of investigation of the shape of that object called ‘painting’ that later on Frank Stella will develop with his Moultonboro series during the 1990s.
In Orbit (1978), she keeps the square frame but starts playing with the imperfections of composition and the painting’s finishing (including a few drips as if something went wrong after completion). Chartreuse (1987) belongs to her most important series where she explores the shape of paintings as objects differentiating intended shape from literal shape. There, through form and colour she alters literal shape forcing the eye to adjust. The same happens in Matisse (1989) and in her series of smaller squares with painted frames. Her taste for ironic silliness has an early appearance with Little Mondrian (1985) and Ming (1986) but her further investigations around ceramic and colour field and abstract expressionism are steps in the right direction.
In the upper floor, however, she undoes all done before. It is as if she has given up on any serious attempt to discuss paintings from the point of view of its medium specificity in order to throw herself into a celebration of silliness by deploying visual ironies (through non primary colours, pastels, fluos and pinks). The room is ironic to the point of dullness.
Having given up on her, the show finishes with Green Room/Turquoise Lights which brings a moment of self scrutiny and absorption to the point that could be read as an apology of sorts after so much silliness. Painted in 2015, that last painting shows Heilmann tired of laughing at painting and herself and wisely pointing at the time when she still believed in (conceptual) beauty and social change. J A T