Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures at Whitechapel Gallery
Mary Heilmann is one of many female artists whose work has been overlooked in favour of her more popular male peers. Heilmann herself sees much of her early artistic practice as a response to male colleagues failing to take her work seriously because, as she says, “I was a girl”. Her new one-woman retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, however, is an attempt to set the record straight, re-establishing Heilmann as an important artist both within her artistic social circles and in her own right.
Spread over two floors of the Whitechapel’s expansive gallery space, Heilmann’s work holds its own, offering an array of colours, textures and media. Taught by David Hockney and a friend of artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Steve Reich and Gordon Matta-Clark, Heilmann’s paintings and ceramic pieces weave a lively narrative that touch on some of the cornerstones of the art world from the last five decades, whilst also telling a unique and individual story.
Almost all of her work is abstract, making use of bold colours and confident brush strokes. However, this is not the cold, composition-focussed abstraction of some of her contemporaries or of the minimalists: Heilmann’s work is as full of life and personality as the irrepressible artist is in person.
One painting is named after her childhood address, because the foregrounded colour reminded Heilmann of her grandmother’s kitchen cabinets. Another is inspired by a song by the Beach Boys, while several make visual references to the ocean, beside which she has lived throughout her life. Heilmann could have pursued a career as a swimmer and is fascinated by surfing and surf culture. These off-beat references are not usually the material for fine art, which perhaps partly helps to explain her former exclusion, but they are fruitfully explored here.
The accompanying texts for the exhibition could perhaps be a bit fuller to explain Heilmann’s approach more thoroughly. However, this is only a small mitigating factor to the viewer’s enjoyment. Unusually for an exhibition of this scope and scale, Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures is free of charge and is therefore doubly worth seeking out. The show offers a fresh perspective on a formerly overlooked artist that will have you rethinking abstract art.
Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures is at Whitechapel Gallery from 2nd June until 11th September 2016, for further information visit here.