‘These Simple Ideas Become Obsessions’: Mary Heilmann Talks Catholicism, ’60s Counterculture, and Her West Coast Roots

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Still from "Mary Heilmann: Fantasy" courtesy of Art21.

Mary Heilmann’s signature style of painting is indelible: Her neon colors, asymmetrical shapes, and off-kilter arrangements have the syncopation of a jazz standard, but if it were being performed on a beach instead of a smoky bar.

Currently, at Hauser & Wirth’s Los Angeles outpost, visitors have the rare chance to experience Heilmann’s paintings, design objects, and sculptures. Mixed together, they work in concert to create a buzzing environment, informed by her more than 50 years of art making.

Mary Heilmann: Memory Remix” is the artist’s first solo show in LA in over 20 years. As the title suggests, it draws heavily on the artist’s recollections of an earlier, countercultural California and its lifestyle, as well as her exposure to the writings that came out of the Beat Generation and Minimalism in New York.

In an interview with Art21 in 2009, the artist recounted her childhood fascination with Catholicism. Growing up she loved hearing stories of the saints who would ascend to heaven after being persecuted on Earth. “What I wanted to do,” she says, “was to be a martyr.”

Although she considers herself more spiritual than religious these days, Heilmann still sees her paintings and ceramics as having the qualities of religious icons, inspiring thought and devotion.

Still from “Mary Heilmann: Fantasy” courtesy of Art21.

In the course of her career, Heilmann has oscillated between mediums, having begun her career working in three-dimensions, before turning to painting.

Later works are the result of multiple canvases fused together. Many feature vanishing points or converging lines that challenge a single perspective. “Often I put a deep space kind of motif on a shaped canvas… and then the two squares that are the empty space make the wall be part of the painting.”

The works have titles that Heilmann considers “three word poems,” resonating with viewers despite the often banal subject matter.

Two-Lane Black Top, for example, immediately makes its black surface evoke an asphalt road, familiar to anyone who drives along congested California roadways. “It’s one black thing with two little lines on it… These simple ideas become obsessions, almost like a meditation.”

“Mary Heilmann: Memory Remix” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles, through September 23. Watch the segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists throughout the summer. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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