Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone


of an Exhibition

by Will Crow

Published on January 16, 2009

  • Description:

    Visitors to the (new) New Museum of Contemporary Art find themselves entering off the Bowery—a wide street in Lower Manhattan known for its hip and trendy stores, restaurant supply houses, and homeless shelters. The Bowery is filled with the residue and products of New York: peeling posters, litter, and of course throngs of young people, both locals and visitors. “Colorful” might be a euphemism used by writers about the nabe, or maybe a “cacophony of images” that display the clutter of urban life. So, when I entered the New Museum of Contemporary art today, stepping foot into the sparse and sterile lobby of white walls and concrete floors, I welcomed a sight that both mirrored the outside world, and yet brought it into a clear and wonderful focus. I saw, and became entranced, by the beautiful paintings by Mary Heilmann—colorful, clumsy, whimsical, and decidedly American.

    Mary Heilmann, one of the preemiment abstract American painters of the 20th (and now 21st) century, is deserving of this retrospective exhibition. Her paintings, along with a few scattered ceramic works (she trained as a sculptor and ceramicist in Berkeley, CA), demonstrate a personalized merger of the discipline and rigor of Donald Judd’s Minimalist works, along with the brushwork, expanses of flat and bright color, and quirkiness that David Hockney or Elizabeth Murray would admire. This exhibition, “To Be Someone”, organized by the Orange County Museum of Art (curated by Elizabeth Armstrong) and under the direction of New Museum Chief Curator Richard Flood in its current location, takes the visitor on a journey through Heilmann’s whimsical and idiosyncratic abstractions. Not arranged chronologically, the works establish new relationships with one another through color, size and scale, and even break out beyond the “white cube” contemporary art space tradition by interacting with the visitors and retail spaces of the museum.

    Occupying both the street-level exhibition space and the second floor gallery, “To Be Someone” is entered first through the Museum’s café. This seems delightfully appropriate, as one sees the bright colors of coffee cups, cupcakes and winter hats superimposed on top of Heilmann’s paintings in the gallery through the glass-walled space. Most works are hung at eye-level, but some pieces are displayed high on the wall, or sculptural works on tables that might cause the visitor to feel that they’ve entered a colorful candy store. The exhibition comes with the standard white text labels, in a small (read “non-access friendly”) grey font, that parallels the other grey, reflective signage in the exhibition. As one enjoys the works in the street-level gallery, it’s impossible not to look back into the café and lobby—watching visitors drink tea, chat with friends, or text on their cell phones. The paintings seem to welcome this, as they include lop-sided gridwork, thick brushy rectangles that wink to Rothko, and imagery that seems inspired by the parking lots, soda pop, and beach umbrellas of popular culture.

    Going up the stairs (or elevator) to the second floor gallery—a much larger space—the visitor sees an arrangement of paintings positioned across the white walls. They vary in scale—some works are very large, while others are less than letter-size. A video display in the center of the gallery invites visitors to watch a PowerPoint created by Heilmann, a result of giving many lectures to art students, which found itself morphing into an abstract work in itself as the images of Heilmann’s paintings fade in and out of one another.

    Visitors are invited to “sit a spell” as Heilmann has provided a number of plywood chairs, outfitted on casters for easy maneuvering, and embellished with the plastic-vinyl straps often used on folding lawn chairs, or maybe safety harnesses. As we peruse the galleries, entranced by the abstractions, visitors recline in the chairs, shift and roll about, and even create their own abstract works as we see their clothing through the grid of the chair backs—colorful, kinetic paintings that certainly Heilmann considered in this arrangement.

    It’s difficult to tell exactly where to go in this exhibition—which works just fine for this writer. It’s a show that invites visitors to go where they want, do what they want to do, see what they are attracted to. Large works loom on the walls, sometimes in pairs that are gentle giants of color and pattern, and then as one turns the corner in the circular-arranged second floor galleries, one finds a beautiful gem—a small, soft, gridded painting that looks like a plush net of rainbow colors, or the stripes from a package of chewing gum.

    In sum, the exhibition is a playful arrangement that invites the visitor to consider the works one at a time, and yet make connections to the environment. While the show might be criticized that the exhibition design itself isn’t breaking any molds, it doesn’t have to. Instead, it provides an inviting environment in which we can enjoy, and give thanks to, Heilmann’s contributions to American abstraction.

Latest Comments (1)

Thanks, Will

by Kathleen Mclean - January 17, 2009

I had a very similar experience, and your review takes me back there one more time. I particularly loved the chairs that Mary created for the exhibition—even small ones for kids. It was a lovely experience. K

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