Women in Art: Mary Heilmann

There are some artists I have to love for their work, and then there are artists like Mary Heilmann, who I mainly love for something else. With Heilmann, she has an incredibly magnetic personality. She has this urge to be in the spotlight and has always chosen the most dramatic options available to her. 

Mary Heilmann

 My 2D design class watched an episode of Art21 featuring both Mary Heilmann and Jeff Koons. While we had all heard of Koons’ work none of us had heard of Heilmann. Upon viewing her paintings we didn’t think they were anything special. Us students are impressed by things that are flashy, exciting, maybe a little bit taboo (This always reminds me of something I heard from one of my teachers at the Cranbrook summer camp: “If you can’t paint well, paint red. If you can’t paint red, paint big. And if you can’t paint big, paint shiny”. If anyone knows who my teacher was quoting I would appreciate you letting me know!). And Heilmann’s work? Heilmann’s work was small. It was colorful, but not in a way we found to be special. And her composition and subject choice at first seemed lacking.

However, as we continued on through the episode we started to feel two things. 

  1. Jeff Koons should really stop trying to excuse the fact that he has workers who physically make the pieces he designs. We knew and accepted this from the start, and the defensiveness just make him appear to feel guilty.
  2. Mary Heilmann may be one of the most entertaining Art21 artists we had ever watched. Her amazing personality extended to her work, which became interesting, groundbreaking. It was subversive and surprising in a way that was less overt than Koons’ sculptures. 

"Go Ask Alice" (2006)

Heilmann originally studied ceramics, and we can see the influence of ceramics upon work  throughout her career. While many artists treat a canvas as merely a two dimensional object, flat surfaces with sides only acting as extra, rather than a part of the work, Heilmann treats her canvases as three dimensional pieces. She’s quoted as saying,
First they’re objects and then they’re pictures of something.
We can see this in her use of nontraditional canvas shapes and thus her incorporation of the sides of canvases and the walls into her work. We also see this in her use of other three dimensional objects, such as brightly painted chairs to slide around and view her work in.

The viewer would sit in these chairs and view Heilmann's paintings. They gave the audience the ability to roll around the gallery.

The thing that my class loved so much about Heilmann was her desire to be contrary. To go against what was popular at the time (in this case, nontraditional materials in sculpture, ceramics, etc) and embrace what was considered a bit passe (the seemingly less and less important field of painting). Despite defying some of her ceramics teacher’s requests and often making work that they did not like, Heilmann won awards and made a number of useful connections at this time. These connections are part of the reason she left the field of ceramics and entered the field of painting. As she entered New York in 1968 her goal was still to excel at nontraditional materials and “play with the boys”, the boys being renowned artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Donald Judd. However, the art world was still very much a boys only club, and Heilmann found it difficult to gain acceptance into this group of sculptors. Heilmann, of course, didn’t give up. She instead defiantly refocused her efforts on a field many sculptors of the 60’s looked down upon, painting. In fact, Heilmann said of this shift,

I wanted to be on the edge. Original. And that meant going against the status quo.

And go against the status quo she did. Heilmann’s paintings are not the clean, minimalist designs we think of in regards to the 60’s and 70’s, but messy and colorful, often combining multiple perspectives and types of space. And the thing that seemingly differed the most from the artists she would have been taught about and inspired by was the size of her work. Her canvases were not the large blocks of color or the enormous behemoths created by artists such as Rothko and Pollock, but generally fairly small, contained pieces. My 2D teacher claims that Heilmann was creating something that was considered more feminine in response to the overwhelmingly male dominated art community she was surrounded by. I’ve yet to find concrete evidence backing this up, but it’s not a far jump to make. Heilmann recognized that she had the capability to excel in the world she wanted to be a part of (in the way that Jackie Winsor and Eva Hesse became successful), but she also seemed to recognize that things would be harder for her. Here are a few quotes where she acknowledges that there was a boy’s club and would have a difficult time being fully embraced in that world: 

Social relationships in the art world then, as now, were very sensitive.

One of the big things about being a sculptor in the beginning when I was in college was that no girls were sculptors…just guys. And it was a very good way to be able to hang out with guys, although they made it a little bit difficult (laughter) for me to get in there.  At Berkeley they kind of resented the girls coming in, in overalls, to weld for example- some people.  But again, it was a way of getting a lot of attention.

‘I wish Smithson would come back,’ Ms. Heilmann said of her onetime idol, who died in 1973, “and say, ‘Oh, you’re not such a dumb girl.

Clearly there was a boy’s club. And clearly Heilmann did not care. She was going to be successful no matter what obstacles stood in her way. This is one of the things I admire the most about Heilmann, she knew what she wanted so she went out and took it. She demanded attention and wouldn’t back down when others expected her to.

"The First Vent" (1972)

"Little Three for Two: Red, Yellow, Blue" (1976)

"Mateo" (1996)

"Surfing on Acid" (2005)

Heilmann has enjoyed a recent surge of popularity. She was profiled in the August 2007 issue of Vogue with a portrait by Annie Leibovitz.

Leibovitz's portrait of Heilmann

In 2007 she had her first retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art. The show included many of the paintings, ceramic work, and furniture pieces that were created over her 36 year career as an artist. Her biography was published in 2007. In 2009 she was featured in the fifth season of Art21. 

Clearly, Heilmann’s influence on abstract artists and the art world in general has been huge. Her use of color, her use of stories behind her work, and her defiant attitude towards whoever is in charge or popular at the time will inspire artists for years to come.

I’m going to end this with a quote of Heilmann from the Art21 episode my class loved so much. For me, this encapsulated Heilmann’s demand for attention and her love of the dramatic. The way she told this story made our class laugh, even as we all connected with what she was saying.

I’m a very holy little catholic girl at about six, seven, eight years old, and what I wanted to do was to be a martyr. And I would be in Rome in the colosseum and the lions would come running out and they’d get me, and the audience at the colosseum, the bad Romans that were killing the Catholics would be cheering, and then I’d just go flying up straight to heaven! Crazy as the martyrdom fantasy is it just made such a fabulous story. And the way you flew up to heaven! 

"Neo Noir" (1998)

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2 thoughts on “Women in Art: Mary Heilmann

  1. Love this article. She deserves more credit. I remember being struck by the Leibovitz pic when it appeared in Vogue- so thanks for including.
    p.s. agree with what you say about Koons 🙂

    • Thanks! I definitely agree with you in that she deserves more credit. Heilmann’s been overshadowed by her male peers for a long time, so it’s nice to see her recently receiving more recognition for her work and influence upon other artists!

      I loved the Leibovitz picture too. She looks so strong and confident, it suits her very well!

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