Mary Heilman is a contemporary American artist who creates paintings, ceramics, and furniture. Her paintings blur the boundaries between representation and abstraction and often contain references to Christian religious iconography. Her abstract paintings contain spidery lines, window-like squares, dots, and horizontal bands of ascending color. Sometimes they are painted across two or three canvases, which are cut out and fitted together like a sculpture or a puzzle.
Heilman grew up in an Irish Catholic family and believed that she would never be good enough to escape damnation. “It was very masochistic,” she said. “Punishment. Suffering. It worked for me.” Her father was a civil engineer. When he heard that she wanted to study architecture, he told her that girls can’t be architects. “They’ll just make you sit in a big room, drawing plans.” This would be her first brush with the sexism that would follow her through her education and early years of art.
Her father died when she was 13 years old. She attended a Catholic girls’ high school and junior college for two years before enrolling at U.C. Santa Barbara as an English major. She went to the beach often, drank too much, got pregnant, and had an illegal abortion in Tijuana. She did however earn a teaching degree from San Francisco State University, which served her well. Teaching always sustained her financially and allowed her to pursue her art.
Her art career began in the ceramics department at San Francisco State where she studied pottery making. Soon she was at Berkeley studying with Peter Voulkos and earned a master’s degree in ceramics and sculpture – one of the very few women in the department. She met members of the Black Panther Party who were influential in San Francisco’s Bay Area. She only dated black men, one of whom was Bill Grier, coauthor of “Black Rage.”
In 1968, she moved to New York and had a relationship with Gordon Matta-Clark. She had uneasy friendships with rising stars like Carl Andre, Keith Sonnier, and Robert Smithson, because she knew that they, like most people, were not taking female artists seriously. In 1969, when nothing of Heilmann’s made the cut for the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” – a show that included many of her male friends – she “started making paintings that dissed paintings.”
She would start with a grid and then would mess it up, leaving drips, and blurring lines. Her canvases were maps of star constellations, and she showed them at a small gallery in SoHo. Her work continued into the 1970s and was thought to be too girly or too decorative. She was engaged in process and was feminist in her palette colors, painting in a looser kind of abstraction than the harder geometries of male artists.
Heilmann’s career flourished, and her support from other artists increased when she started showing in Pat Hearn’s gallery in 1986. Her palette became more gemstone-like and her surfaces more luminous. Her subject matter was tied to actual people or saints, such as Saint Sebastian who inspired her “Rosebud” or the Sisters of Mercy, the teaching order of nuns of her Catholic girlhood, who are referenced in her “Sisters of No Mercy.”
When the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its Renzo Piano-designed building in New York’s meatpacking district, it commissioned Heilmann to make an installation of a group of chairs for an expansive outdoor gallery. Her brightly colored red, green, blue, and yellow wood chairs were an enormous success with visitors. Also included on the wall above the terrace was her huge billboard sign of a strong, bright pink detail from one of her paintings. The Whitney wanted a dramatic formal presence that would also work as a social space, and Mary Heilmann gave it to them.
Heilmann received the Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation Award in 2006, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation grant. She has had major exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and varied Biennial exhibitions and is in the permanent collections of major museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, and Orange County Museum of Art. In June, 2018 Hauser & Wirth presented “Mary Heilmann, Memory Remix,” her first Los Angeles solo exhibition in over twenty years. This comprehensive survey of paintings, sculpture, and furniture combined her love of the abstract with her own personal narrative.