September 2007, Mary Heilmann Interview for Whitehot Magazine by Tom Butter

September 2007, Mary Heilmann Interview for Whitehot Magazine by Tom Butter
Mary Heilmann, installation view photo courtesy of the artist 303 Gallery New York, Hauser & Wirth Zurich London photo: Chris Bliss, Bliss Photography


by Thomas Butter

Mary and her assistant Liane Thatcher greeted me at Mary's studio in Tribeca Tues. Sept. 11. We immediately began talking about her huge retrospective exhibition titled “To Be Someone” organized by the Orange County Museum of Art in California. Spanning over 30 years of work, and including her paintings, ceramics and furniture, the exhibition ran from May 20-August 12 at the Orange County Museum and now travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, opening November 3, and running to January 20, 2008. Mary mentioned the space at the Orange County Museum as having a '70's feel- “kind of flat, unaesthetic- plain and clean, which fits well with my aesthetic- how to get beauty and joy out of a workingman's beauty. I'm really invested in that. Especially in this art world, where it is so much about “luxe”, and showing off wealth.”

At the Orange County Museum, the ceramic objects, and her chairs were scattered around the space, inviting viewers to sit and look. I heard a tour on the internet Mary gave for the exhibition to high school students. She said it gave her a real kick, and she related the following story to me about this tour: “I was saying that the chairs are on wheels you know (she instructs me to roll the very comfortable chair I am sitting in), and that's really good, because if you see someone over there who you want to talk to, you don't even have to get up, you can just go over there...and this girl interrupts and says, “oh, do you mean like a cute boy?', and I said, Yeah...It was so cute, then they started moving around in them.”

She showed me a model of the space at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.. The Houston space is trapezoidal and looks like it will be a beautiful venue for her exhibition, which is extensively and thoughtfully documented in the catalog produced for the exhibition “To Be Someone”, with essays by Elizabeth Armstrong, Johanna Burton, and Dave Hickey.

Tom Butter- Right now you have a large retrospective exhibition touring the starting at the Orange County Museum of Art, it will travel to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Wexner Center in Columbus OH, arriving at the New Museum in NYC Sept. 2008. How does it feel having a retrospective show touring across the country?

Mary Heilmann- It's fabulous! It's a little weird because I have always worked from a sort of underdog position and got a lot of energy from that. So being “top dog”, now, is a little bit unsettling- I don't exactly have the moves for that...but I'm gettin' 'em! (laughter)

I'm getting the velvet rope moves down...But it quite a transition, and it is also making me very busy with different commitments and is kind of hard to make the adjustment from having a very private way of working, and now going into this way of working with other people in a more public way. 

In your autobiographical book “All Night Movie” you write a lot about the communities you were part of- both art and otherwise. What have these meant to you and your work over the years?

MH- Well the work was always made, ever since I started, to put something physical out into the world so that people could have a conversation about it, or even a fight! You know in the beginning I was very invested in radicality and trying to upset the status quo in art, and at school that caused me a lot of trouble, but also caused me to have a lot of fun, too! It was about having this conversation, and putting work out so that you would be asked to join a community, so that you would be welcomed into a community. And now, as being part of a community, to welcome other people, and have some effect on the small community, and maybe on the world at large. One good thing about “high art”, alleged high art, going so mainstream in the culture of the world is that it might offer opportunities for more people- because more people will respect art- to be artists and get themselves out of, for example, Western Africa because of their art practice- and getting out of other challenged countries-this is happening...women from the Middle East are having opportunities in ways they haven't had before. That’s pretty exciting.

TB- That's very interesting.

MH- Yes it is.

TB- As part of your exhibition at the Orange Country Museum you curated a related exhibition titled “Something About Mary”. What do the artists in this exhibition share?

MH- That idea was fomented by the curators at Orange County, and I liked the idea and went along with it. They chose people who told them they had been inspired by my work. And it turned out it was all young white women: Monique Prieto, Laura Owens, and Ingrid Calame (whom I met when they were students in the '90's) and then Kim Fisher and a few others came on board, and then I pulled in there three guys who inspire me- Stanley Whitney, Taro Suzuki, and Don Christensen. They are all really good painters, and it goes back and forth with all of us.

TB- So it was collaboration with the curators at the museum.

MH- Yes, and by the way, about the title “Something About Mary”- they came up with that (laughs).

TB- But in terms of these artists' work would you include this in what you were saying about community? 

MH- Yes and it is also generational- being their “mom”- and then, let's see...the inspiration?... Well, I am kind of like-minded with all three of the young women: Laura, Monique, and Ingrid- we all have an on-going conversational relationship. I just went to Ingrid's show the other night. Don Christensen is one of my best friends, and we talk about art all the time. He's doing a lot of paintings that are about Renaissance perspective, and video games, deep space, two lane blacktop, and that kind of thing, and I am really interested in that kind of thing...

TB- Music has been important to you both in itself, and in relation to painting. What are your thoughts about the relationship?

MH- Well, this is an old story about abstract painting, but the structure of music, the way music is structured almost mathematically, relates to the way I think about my painting, and the way Kandinsky and Mondrian thought about painting way back. I love “Broadway Boogie Woogie” because it is just so clear. The other thing about music is it's totally abstract, and you get incredible emotional power from it- without having words to the songs, with just the changes in the music as they happen. It really is a good metaphor for the painting practice. Then, you give a song a title, or you give a picture a title, even a song without words, and then, in your mind, you “put in” the text. That has been a real important way for me to configure abstract painting, and give it more than just formal meaning. So a title to an abstract painting, for example- “Blood on the Tracks”- giving that title to a black and white and red painting makes the viewer put that title with the painting in a poetic metaphor. That was a big mortal sin before, but now I use that as part of my content.

TB- I remember years ago you used to talk about the “Doo Wop Shop."

MH- Yes radio music, ever since I was a child was big in my life. In the 40's when you had the Hit Parade- everyone listened. I remember there was the number 1 song of the week-and then in the 50's it was rhythm and blues, then rock and roll, then the British Invasion, then Punk Rock (laughs), Glam Rock, yeah it's really important to me. The culture of music- because I love Heavy Metal, and Death Metal, not necessarily to sit around listening to it, but the culture of it.

TB- Right. It's a way out, a way to leave the norm?

MH- That's right, a way for young people to establish their differences from others by embracing Metal, or embracing Disco...I mean the thing about Metal is the idea- I was just watching this movie “American Hardcore”- and I was looking and looking- I mean there isn't one girl in there, and God help her if she's in the crowd there, because they are punching each other and smashing around. It's a way for boys, and a lot of times men, to figure out who they are...this big, hyper-exaggerated violent theatrical setting- it is so interesting...

TB- Women were involved more and more as time went on...

MH- That's right. I think the hardcore band “Black Flag” had a girl in it...(Kira Roessler).

TB- You have said you identify with Sid Vicious' rebellious attitude and music. Why Sid and not John Lydon?

MH- I think I was really profoundly touched by the story of Sid and Nancy, which I knew before the movie came out. That story and the Chelsea hotel, which was also familiar to me, the fact of the alleged killing, and then the suicide of Sid Vicious, was almost like a Greek tragedy, (it was) a huge cultural event. I identified with his rudeness and badness as a trope for his work-just like the Metal guys- and also (felt) a deep sadness as part of his story. I identified with that. His story was an exaggeration of the way I saw my story.

TB- That's interesting.

MH-’s pretty interesting.

TB- Water and fluidity have always seemed important imagistically in your work- you were a high-diver as a teenager, and recently you moved out to Long Island near the ocean. How does the geometry work with the fluidity for you in your paintings?

MH- The geometry of the water...that's a nice idea because to think of water in geometrical ways is good, because it is opposed to Euclidean “straight-line geometry...Something people think is interesting in my paintings is that the straight lines are done in a gestural way, so you have the Euclidean and the non-Euclidean going on at the same time. The drift of the ocean is very inspirational to me, as is the culture of the beach, and surfing. The diving thing was way back when I was a kid, wanting to get noticed and have an identity. A little girl who is doing flips in the air gets a lot of attention. (laughter) And that's why I did it. I mean there is this beautiful aesthetic part of a sport like that, but for the most part, it is very scary. It usually isn't fun- (learning how) to dive is very long and hard, and scary. 

TB- Yeah. You have a great phrase- “Diving formed a picture of my desire”- very eloquent! Can you talk about desire as a subject of your work?

MH- The diving is good as a metaphor for that because on the one hand there is the social attention you get from being able to do something so difficult and strange. On the other hand, the physicality of doing acrobatics is very joyous- you get feelings of great joy in your body, which is parallel to sexual feelings, feelings of desire. As a child when you flip, and go over-back and forth, and then hit the water just perfectly, the exhilaration is unspeakable. As a kid, you don't have the words for it; you don't know what that is. That's pretty neat about sports- the sense of grace you can have. Especially when you’re flying through the air!

TB- I like the connection you are making between grace and desire...

MH- Yes it's beautiful- I can say it is beautiful because you said it… (laughter) but grace in resolution too- you go through the moves and then you land and are in resolution, you’re in repose.

TB- Your gender has always been, it seems to me, part of the implicit meaning of your work. You have spoken about the bias generally held in the art world- that girls were supposed to be fun, not have fun when you first moved to NYC and got involved with the scene. Has this changed during the time you have been involved here?

MH- I did athletics as a kid, high school was high school, but in college and after college I started getting into art. 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.

TB- You had studied ceramics before that with Voulkos, right? I would guess that was the introduction to that kind of physicality.

MH- Yes, I started doing ceramics at Santa Barbara as an English major, as a sideline. It was part of a bohemian scene, and I was very good at it, right from the beginning. I was a natural- it is physical in the way sports are physical. I never did any work in undergraduate school, so I was just an average student. So I really wanted to go to Berkeley to study with Voulkos, and that segued over into doing other kinds of sculpture.

And I was always good at sculpture- I could make molds, weld, do anything. I wasn't an elegant craftsman, but I could use my hands...

TB- In a recent article in Vogue (Aug) by Dodie Kazanjian, you mention Abstract Expressionism and say, “I admire those artists- DeKooning, Joan Mitchell, Pollock- a lot more than I ever did before.” What has changed for you?

MH- As part of my Post-Modern practice, I started making (sort-of) fake Abstract Expressionist paintings- and it is really hard to do! (lots of laughter). A couple of summers ago I was reading the DeKooning biography and doing this abstract painting in which I was sort of channeling Joan Mitchell, I thought, I'm saying this in a kind of light, flip way, and then I'm reading and the poor guy is tortured making this painting. I'm thinking this is a fun Post-modern painting, but I'm having a hard a time as they (DeKooning and Joan Mitchell) were! It is interesting, and it is really hard. Poor Pollock, trying to get it right.

TB- Both Ken Johnson and Dave Hickey use the word “insouciance” (meaning carefree.) as they describe your painting- how does this sound to you?

MH- That fits in with what we're saying, because I don't like to carefully work really hard in a labor intensive way, and my whole practice has been based on this light, almost Japanese ceramic type of craft- and of course I'm very serious and I work very hard, but the pre-thinking that goes into it, and the feeling you are supposed to get when you experience my work, is something about lightness and the carefree. The wabi-sabi in ceramics, and Japanese tea bowls. That is the basic sort of earthy impact I want my work to make. It is also significant that it is going over more and more into making furniture, making bowls- I've been making a lot of bowls- the crafts, and the light- not serious art are a really important part of my practice now. 

TB- So it is not supposed to look hard, no matter how hard it is.

MH- No, and if you notice, I haven't done too many of those abstract expressionist paintings- it's just too much trouble- (laughter). But a lot of the really hard work I do is just sitting and looking at it -the arithmetic, and symbolic logic and thinking. Thinking about scale, and measure. But I don't like to do real labor-intensive physical stuff.

TB- In line with that, I have always been fascinated in your work by the feeling of willfulness coupled with an almost humble “lightness”. This contrast gives me a very specific feeling that you want us to think about your intention as the deep subject we are to reach for, the content beyond the pleasure and inherent satisfactions of color and form your work delivers. What do you think?

MH- Yeah I agree.... (laughs). It's the same thing- you might be enjoying something you see of mine in this light way, and then all of a sudden you think, “Wait a minute, how did she do that?” 

TB- All of a sudden we stop and say, “What is she thinking, and concentrate on your willfulness...”

MH- Yes I like how you say that. And it happens after, not before. I didn't know it before...both “before” when I just started to paint at the beginning of my career, and “before” each painting I do, even now...sometimes it reveals itself to me after I finish it.

It's nice when that happens. The name of the show- “To Be Someone” is psychologically

significant because I always wanted to have this identity, and so what you describe as my looking at my own work and its speaking back to me is one part of me establishing who I am, and now, having this identity in the world a lot of other people are relating to me- it is a back and forth thing that makes me be able to share my practice with other people.

TB- Jessica Stockholder was involved with you this way, wasn't she?

MH- That's right. We did a show together way back, and it really was important. Rather than having it be a two-person show, it was a collaborative show. It started that idea of that back-and-forth dialogue as being the basis of my art practice. Dialogue with another person, or a dialectic within the culture.

TB--Dave Hickey is a great critic, writer, and thinker- totally unpretentious, totally on the mark. While describing your work, he says, “the canvas support on which she paints somehow manages to remain, in the minimalist tradition, a literal object- a literal object however, that has been impudently covered with painted marks.” Both he and Ken Johnson lead us back to you (example- the words “impudently”, “insouciance”), and your expression of emotion…thoughts on this?

MH- That is the same kind of thing- you put down the structure, and then you make it go away by what you do to it...I guess you get a feeling of transgression and the “carefree” when you see something like that. I was just reading the “High Times, Hard Times” catalog and a review of the show. All of those people, a lot of whom I didn't know- painters working around 1970, deconstructing painting practice and then reconstructing it

were very important to the culture. It looks like making two-dimensional things, by hand, to look at isn't going to go anywhere...isn't going to go away. It's going to be with us.

TB- That's your current definition of painting?

MH- Yes, that's good. (laughter). Yes it is!

TB- Hickey goes on to describe your risk-taking and bravery in your work process and your engagement with the history of Western Art. It is a beautiful paragraph centered around those who kept working after the scene fell apart somewhere around 1975. I know 3 close friends of your died in the late 70's and you went back to the West Coast to return a couple of years later.  Reading about that scene now I think it sounds magical and serious committed and free. Can you talk about this time for yourself?

MH- That was the '70's and it was a real community. Seeing the Gordon Matta-Clark show at the Whitney with the wonderful videos gave a great feeling of how that time was. Gordon and his milieu were so important to that time- community was such an important part of his work. A lot of us lived in this hippie commune in Chinatown on Chatham Square, I have a lot of pictures looking out the window there...It is very exciting that the New Museum is opening a building up the street. I hope that in one of the galleries in the neighborhood, there will be another “Something About Mary” show- which will highlight all of the artists who were working around there at that time. John Duff, Chris Wool, Artschwager was up the street...

TB- You lectured on Matta-Clark a the Whitney recently, no? 

MH- Yeah I gave a talk up there. A great experience. He was a very, very generous spirit and a great artist…very early doing community engaged work. Social space type of practice. His studio was over on Christie St. when he first got here. He was close with Jeffrey Lew and 112 Greene St. A little later, he and his wife started “Food”. It was really radical. Really beautiful. Sonnier, Rauschenberg, Tina Girouard were cooking real earthy food there- gumbos...That has had a tremendous influence on artists and the thinking and philosophical writing about social space as a theoretical idea... I'm very interested in that, that’s the way I want to see my practice- now that I have a real sense of my being part of things. In each of the communities that came along in NY, I was a part of them, but always an outsider too. Even with “Food” I wasn't always too sure about the “cooking thing.” Now I really value that way of engaging. I see all aspects of my life as being part of my art practice- I see my garden, my house where my studio is in Bridgehampton as a place for people to gather in a similar way to how “Food” was. 

TB- Are your chairs part of this direction?

MH- Yes, you gotta sit down! Right. It takes a lot of chutzpah to make a chair, because there are a lot of good chairs around. (laughter) Why would you make another chair, why not just go and buy one of those plastic ones? But I really love doing them. I'm very proud of my chairs...

TB- There's a fine book titled “Mary Heilmann Save the Last Dance for Me” by Terry Myers. It takes your painting by that name as an entry point to build a beautiful and descriptive study of your work. As a working artist, how does such an analysis affect you?

MH- That's a great thing that happened. Again, it fits in with using the art practice as a way to engage with the world. Terry's book is almost like having a personal love relationship...yet abstracted. The painting “Save the last Dance for Me” is about that too. It's about love in general, and love in particular. Another great thing about artworks is that, for example we were at Richard Serra's show the other day, and you go in having these strong emotional feelings-again back to the “diving thing”- around an object. You put a painting on the wall, and people come in there and they fall in love with it! The response is very similar, almost like an erotic response. The book is like that- the response is one of joy, desire, communication, and fulfillment. It's very intimate. And I do love this guy Terry as a theoretical writer, and a poetic writer, and also as a friend. The way that relationship evolved in the beginning was his work and my work coming together. It is a beautiful book. It is a gift. This is nice this conversation, because we are talking about the things I'm involved with now, along with the historical part over the last 40 years that have led up to them. This is good.



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Thomas Butter

Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others. website:


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