16.11.08

MARY HEILMANN at the New Museum

Mary Heilmann, Little Three for Two: Red, Yellow, Blue, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 13.5 x 24 inches

Mary Heilmann, Lovejoy Jr., 2004, oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches

Two years ago I called Mary Heilmann to invite her to do a Visiting Artist talk at the university where I teach. As she graciously declined my invitation because she had suddenly become far too busy for such things, she joked, "haven't you heard, I'm the hot new painter in town?" The multiple layers of inference and irony in her quip are obvious to anyone who has followed Mary's work over the years. Her project has occupied its own space and time, and proceeded with informed indifference to prevailing trends for more than 35 years -- constantly, restlessly shifting, yet staying remarkably true, remarkably alive. My first encounter with Heilmann's work was in 1976, I think, at Holly Soloman or maybe 112 Greene, where I saw Little 3 for 2 or a similar piece. It stood out as a kind of rarity -- a glowing, lushly offhanded encapsulation of the most fundamental form -- loose but very facile, playful but very savvy. Most of all, it was absolutely solid in a way that characterized the best painting of that moment -- Palermo's To the People of NYC, Johns' crosshatch paintings -- and renewed the vitality of the embattled medium.

Mary Heilmann's retrospective at the New Museum is proof if we needed it that she has continued consistently to renew the vitality of painting with each new effort. Freewheeling and elegant, breezy and awkward, colorful and raw, intelligent and sly -- this is pure love of painting -- pure painting about love.