Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures – Whitechapel Gallery

Opening today is the first major UK exhibition of American artist Mary Heilmann, spanning the artist’s five decade career. It includes her early geometric paintings from the 1970s to her recent shaped canvases in day-glo colours as well as a selection of ceramics, chairs and works on paper, many of which have never been shown before.

Born in California, Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics and sculpture before moving to New York in 1968. She then took up painting, almost in defiance to the fact that it was seen as ‘dead’ at the time; her contemporaries were predominantly working in sculpture and video.

Although abstract, there are many autobiographical themes that run through her work. Chinatown (1976, below), draws inspiration from Josef Albers with it’s juxtaposition of colour used for the undercoat of the borders, but references her time living in Chinatown, New York. Similarly, Ghost Chair remembers Robert Mapplthorpe and losing people close to us.

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It is very charming hearing Heilmann as she talks through her works; there is a distinct contrast between the curator’s analytical approach and Heilmann’s, where she describes the magical coincidences in her work, often citing her spiritual nature. Titles often come after the work has been created when she realises where the inspiration has come from – in 311 Castro Street (2001) below, the title references her grandmother’s house, the source of the green colour.

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The exhibition closes with recent works inspired by scenic highways and ocean vistas such as Maricopa Highway (2014), which evoke road trips, road movies and video games, while Crashing Wave (2011) uses rich greens and blues to depict the surf along the ocean’s coastline.

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Left: Maricopa Highway (2014) Right: Crashing Wave (2011)

Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures opens today at Whitechapel Gallery until 21 August, admission Free.