BOMB in the Building

Flash Points

An Interview with Mary Heilmann by Ross Bleckner

bomb_logo1 Welcome back to BOMB in the Building, where each week we’re featuring a vintage BOMB interview with a Season 5 artist. This week, we head back ten years to revisit a classic conversation with Mary Heilmann, conducted by Ross Bleckner. “Heilmann’s style defies the fashionable,” Bleckner writes, “her paintings contain a joy so contagious one smiles upon seeing them…[they] sing with a life force hard to match.” In this interview excerpt from BOMB Issue 67, Spring 1999, these old friends and peers discuss memory, nostalgia, and a body of work that was 40 years in the making. Read the full interview here.

Photo courtesy of Mary Heilmann

Photo courtesy of Mary Heilmann

Ross Bleckner: What do you consider yourself?

Mary Heilmann: Sometimes I’m a light artist and sometimes I’m a heavy artist. Significantly, in the making of our work, we artists channel the artists that worked before us.

RB: Naturally, but I think you’re a light artist. That’s what I’ve always liked about your work, the casual attitude. I’ve known you for a long time but I don’t know you that well. I think you’re very serious and something of a formalist. But it’s the character of your abstraction that’s always interested me. I can’t really say whether it’s backhanded—but it seems to be—which is now equated with ironic, but wasn’t back when I first saw your work. That’s what I mean by light. I don’t mean that as good or bad—I actually think it’s very interesting in your case. I remember seeing your paintings when I was a little pup.

MH: When you first showed up here in New York, you mean?

RB: Yeah. You were showing at Holly Solomon Gallery. And what was funny about your paintings is that they were simple—squares within squares, kind of quasi-minimalist, brightly colored—everything was slightly off register, even the shape of the canvas itself, right? The square would be lopsided.

MH: I don’t think so, not on purpose anyway. The interior square—

RB: Well maybe the interior square set up a perception that made me think of it as being slightly…goofy.

MH: Yeah, it’s true. It had that.

RB: You’ve managed to maintain that character for 30 or more years and it always seems very fresh to me. It’s actually what younger artists respond to in your work. What comes around goes around—that freshness, your approach to abstraction, seems very unencumbered. It gives the paintings a lightness. You could translate it emotionally or spiritually, but it’s like air. The paintings have a lot of air in them.

Anyway, take us back and give us an idea of the book you’ve been working on and what it means to you to go back over these 30 years—finding yourself with some new popularity.

MH: The book goes back to when I was born; it’s the story of my whole life. It’s to show that the paintings reflect events and visual events that I experienced ever since I was a little child. I put this book together because it was an opportunity to make something about my work that wasn’t just another art catalog. I wanted to make my own biographical book. And in it I’ve told some stories from my life, some little anecdotes, and I’ve chosen things that the paintings recalled. The painting Rio Nido has little spots of light—in the ‘40s we went to a summer vacation spot where it was common to put colored lights around the porches.

RB: They’re very popular. Pool motif.

MH: This was a working-class resort where teachers, nurses and policemen went. The memory of this place is just fantastic to me and that picture reminds me of it; that happens all along.

RB: Is that how you enter into your pictures?

MH: It’s not always the way I enter them. But sometimes I go there from a memory place…

RB: Can you look at all the paintings in your studio and recall specific memories?

MH: No, but sometimes I look at one and I can start mentally and verbally riffing on it, and come up with something. They often do clock a style from some period, like this mint green is very ‘40s and it’s fashionable right now as well. People get that. You see chartreuse, you see an old and a current fashion.

RB: So you’re trying through your use of colors to create a doubleness of meaning.

MH: Yes, a nuance or an undertone of meaning. There’s a 40s-style drawing in this Calder painting and in Ice, this big curvilinear, open piece, a ‘50s/’60s style, color field painting that was fashionable.

RB: Is there something a little retro about these ideas?

MH: Yes, a little sentimental and a little nostalgic, as well. When you speak of this work as being light—I’m walking on thin ice here—you could go towards corny, hackneyed and familiar. I like to tread on the edge of that. I’ve said this before, I like to get at deep sentiments through sentimentality.

RB: What do you mean, through sentimentality?

MH: Like notating abstract imagery from the past, that kind of nostalgia. Or you can have a sentimentality of scale where I have a small event in the painting, a lot of empty space, and another small event which might give you a feeling of angst or longing.

RB: Do you think that anything has that capacity?

MH: I look at paintings and try to sort them out—mine and other people’s—I get a feeling from a painting and then I try to figure out how it made me feel that way.

RB: Do you always get feelings from paintings?

MH: Well, if I’m passing one and I happen to get a rush from it, then I spend some time with it. I try to figure out how it works. It helps me with my work.

RB: One of the things I like about your work is there’s an anonymity to the imagery. You take boxes or squares or balls or stripes—basically you keep the vocabulary pretty elementary.

MH: (laughter)

RB: There’s a brushiness and a layered transparency to the painting quality itself that gives it its free spiritedness. You’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. Do you ever get tired of that free spiritedness or that sentiment, those memories? I mean, personally I can’t bear memories. (laughter) To make memories into anecdotes sometimes gets a little tired.

MH: I hope it isn’t tired. I can see how it could be.

RB: But what I’m saying is that when I look at your paintings, they don’t look tired. If that method is tired, you manage to make it look fresh even if you’re doing the same old thing, again and again.

MH: If you were to look at my work that you saw back in the ‘70s and at what you saw in the ‘80s and at what you see now, there has been quite a change. It seems the same but the brushy thing, that looseness and ease was not in the work way back when.

RB: You know what? We’ll just have to put them together at some point in your future. My opinion is you’re one of the most underrated painters in New York.

Read the full interview in BOMB Magazine here.


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