Portraits of Artists 20

Conversation with Mary Heilmann

Kasper König: I'm speaking to Mary Heilmann. We just met half an hour ago. We spoke together on the phone beforehand about more technical matters of the exhibition. But today we have the opportunity to just sort of talk about you and to get some kind of a sense of your painting – even though you are very much involved in performance kind of art, pottery and now have come to an extremely low-keyed, relaxed, very open-ended kind of abstract painting. And I was struck by them when I saw them first, because they didn't have this sort of tough, tight, forced masterpiece notion. So, I think it would be interesting if you just sort of talk about how you – after your long biography – came back to painting.

Mary Heilmann: Yes, how I evolved. Well, you know, I come from California, and I always wanted to be a writer. And as an undergraduate student I was studying literature and writing, and I started doing pottery – it was part of being a beatnik. There was a whole scene around living a very simple life and making pots. So that was a lot easier for me to do than writing, and I decided to study ceramics. So I went to graduate school studying ceramics, and from that I started going into doing sculpture – that was the late sixties.

KK: But that was in northern California, not in southern California?

MH: First southern, then northern.

KK: Ah, yes.

MH: So – very much about the coastline. We went, you know, up the coast. I was from San Francisco. So I went to Berkeley, and I started doing ceramics and then all kinds of sculpture. And at that time painting was really looked down upon by me and my friends. We had no use for the painters, we thought they were stupid. And I came to New York after I finished school at Berkeley studying sculpture, and came into a scene which was also – like a very heavy bar scene where everyone was hanging out, and no painting was around in that scene for me either.

KK: Well, San Francisco – that was sort of City Lights Bookshop and Ferlinghetti?

MH: Yeah, late beat, early hip.

KK: But that was prior to Haight Ashbury?

MH: Right. First, in the early sixties there were the beatniks, and then in the middle the hippies started to appear.

KK: So it's kind of a switch from alcohol to pot?

MH: Right, yes.very interesting, yes. Let me think about that a minute.

KK: I mean, culturally there was definitely a change, right?

MH: Yes, and actually the beatnik influence which came through San Francisco when I was in high school was a very powerful influence for me. And the beatniks were very hard and very rough. And the hippie was almost like the beatnik but filtered into the culture more and became very fine and gentle.

KK: Yes, because men also allowed themselves to have a female quality.

MH: Yes, it began with the long hair and the robes and the flowers. Actually, I didn't have a lot of sympathies for that softness. I liked the rough, hard attitude toward life at that time. I've changed a lot now.

KK: Jack Kerouac?

MH: Kerouac. and drunk – so anyway.

KK: I think that was very different than southern California. Los Angeles was probably sort of provincial at that time. And San Francisco had a kind of bohemianism. I remember when I went to San Francisco, I felt it was a bit pretentious. They always talked about their sourdough bread, and they thought they were so European. But that was at a time, I guess, when the kind of density had already faded, you know? And that was in the mid-sixties.

MH: Mid-sixties, yes.

KK: So, when did you move from Berkeley to New York?

MH: To New York. Yes, it's interesting. I went from L.A. to San Francisco to New York, and I came to New York in 1968, which was a very hot time in New York. And I came because my friend Richard Serra was already there, and we had been in college together. So he introduced me to the scene there. And I came as a sculptor. This was really significant. I came, ready to do sculpture, thinking that my kind of sculpture was what was really happening. I'd been in school on the West Coast studying. I knew Bruce Nauman – I was very influenced by that work. When I got to New York, it looked like all the slots for sculpture were taken. And so it was at that time that I switched over to being a painter. And that switch was a very aggressive and antagonistic move.

KK: Going against the mood.

MH: Going against the mood – to do something that was considered very stupid and very effete and finished.

KK: You know, people said, "You have these heavies like Ryman and so on. And Mary Heilmann is very different, very loose." So I guess in Europe there is probably more appreciation for this very kind of relaxed, subdued, not forcing the issue, just painting – not as an ideology, but as something that defines itself, but which also has a cultural – you know – social context.

MH: Yes. All my work always came from a place of irony. It was terribly serious, but terribly playful at the same time. And whenever it became known to me what I was doing, then I would switch and do something else.

KK: But you always worked with geometry and patterns and abstractness. Had there been any kind of.?

MH: The grid which I was educated to in the early seventies with Minimalism, and that appealed to me. It was good for me.

KK: Yes, but you sort of took the pith out of Minimalism. I mean, it's not dogmatic, it's very loose, hm?

MH: Yes, it is. And that was in opposition to the austerity of Minimalism – that kind of poetry.

KK: And people like Gordon Matta Clark and the kind of social movement of "The Kitchen" and of expanding traditional ideas?

MH: We had a scene that was like a very "hippie" kind of scene. We had a hippie commune in Chinatown, and we all lived there in one big old building; and Gordon was a very important person in that group and Keith Sonnier and Jackie Windsor and Joan Jonas. And we hung out, and we drank a lot, danced a lot, talked, smoked a lot of grass. We had a garden on the roof; it looked like Vietnam up there, looked like a jungle. And the music was developing; like Phil Glass was working there at Chatham Square making his music. Everyone just hung out.

KK: But then your painting was sort of autonomous all along. Or did it also take on aspects of a decor or of dealing with space?

MH: Well, that thing about dealing with space – really seeing that my painting has to do with architecture – has happened in the last ten years. Architecture and spaces have always interested me, but really – I guess since I've been working with Pat Hearn, because she has a wonderful eye for spaces also. I started showing with her in the mid-eighties when she had a beautiful gallery on the Lower East Side.

KK: Yes, she was one of the first who supported these kids, you know, sprayers and subcultural kind of momentum coming in, right?

MH: Yes, and she was also one of the progenitors of Postmodernism in doing a Neo-Surrealism, a Neo-Geometry and re-doing previous styles. And Pat's sense of architecture was brilliant. She had a gallery on Avenue D, which is in the heart of the roughest drug neighbourhood of New York. And you would go all across town, through a jungle of dereliction and addiction, and come upon this beautiful, fresh, pure space. And when I saw that space, I wanted to show there. So I started working with her, and that's when my work really became clearly in relation to the space. That's when I started doing shaped canvases, which included the wall in the composition of the piece – the pieces that have a kind of cracked motif – I cracked the painting to include what is behind the painting as a part of the subject.

KK: And the gaudy choice of colours! I mean, sometimes it's .

MH: Beautiful choice of colours, yes! Loud, hot, very influenced by the culture of the street. And vernacular decor is really an important thing about my work – I often think that my paintings are made to go into a rumpus room or a den in a house of a working family from the fifties. A lot of times I think of the styling of movies, when I think of where my work belongs. It's not really work that is made for museums, that is made as a masterpiece, a mistress-piece.

KK: Yes, like these tenement buildings. They quite often have these shiny lacquer surfaces, just for hygienic reasons and .

MH: That's interesting – to keep them clean. And then – also like the way houses are painted in – what would you say? Not highly cultivated, acculturated cultures, countries where the people paint their own houses, the poor people.

KK:Yes, especially a lot of Puerto Ricans live there. And, you know, it's a different sense of colour – exotic.

MH: Also the way you see colour in Morocco or Mexico, places that I've travelled.

KK: A great compliment to your work is, I think, that even though it has this folkloristic innocence, it's very clear art. It's not illustration of an atmosphere. It's very decisive – it defines itself. I mean, Claes Oldenburg's stall was made in that neighbourhood, too.

MH: Right, that's true.

KK: And they are very glossy, coloured objects which deal with a kind of street life which is very universal. And you have this Mediterranean, Latin-American momentum in New York. I mean, New York has the same geographic positioning as Naples, you see? Like in the hot summer.

MH: It's hot!

KK: .the rich people go, the poor people stay.

MH: .and they stay outside.

KK: They sit on the porches, drink beer. This is, I guess, a reality which isn't romantic, but it's very gripping.

MH: It's gripping, and again it's kind of hard and rough. The work does not come primarily out of high culture, even though it's very informed by all of culture, my work.

KK: Yes, that's where it all comes together.

MH: It comes together in art. That it is finally art. It's not streetwork, it is high art now. Which is funny, because it's something that I never took a stand at valuing. I never really valued art. Well, it was always necessary to have a sort of sacrilegious attitude about what was ever really revered. And that was when I was younger. I have much more reverence now than I did as a kid.

KK: But I guess it's the anthropological dimension, dealing with culture at large. And then specific being, or .?

MH: Yes. Anthropological is a funny expression – like anthropology or archaeology that's happening right now. So that the archaeology, the dig, is going on while life is still happening. So you're exploring the underside part of the culture while you're living in it.

KK: And to what extent does your continuous work revitalize itself in relation to what you did ten, twenty years ago?

MH: You know, all the work I ever made is always in each new piece. And all the work I ever saw too, I can see now, is contained in each piece. As you go along, you make a lot of work, and I have a lot of my early work around still. Sometimes it gets damaged or destroyed or lost, and that isn't a worry because the new work always contains the old work. The actual objects aren't really that important.

KK: And how important is the doing of it? I mean, is it all in your head .?

MH: Well, the life, the day-to-day domestic life that includes making art is very similar to the kind of craft-like work that a potter would do. It's very repetitive, very highly involved with the craft. Rather than tearing down the craft, it's very respectful of the craft of painting. The reason that I don't still do ceramics or pottery is that when you do a craft-type of work, you have to work too hard, you don't have much time for contemplation. My painting is not – what do you say? – labour-intensive. It's about saving energy so that there is a lot of time for just gazing at the work and contemplating the work.

KK: The social context of art work has changed so drastically. It has become a really tough, competitive business.

MH: Oh yes, that happened in the eighties, right.

KK: And now things are kind of down again. So I guess you're prepared for all of that?

MH: Well, when you say that, I have to kind of clock back a little bit, because since I was always in the middle of it and always there, it's hard to record that change. But I do remember in the early eighties, mid-eighties, it became necessary to become very businesslike and very aggressive in order to survive. I had to let go of the kind of laid-back hippie lifestyle and relationships.

KK: So you made that move?

MH: I made that move, yes.

KK: You got your act together?

MH: I copied them. I got on the phone. I cleaned up my studio. I got to know everybody. I changed my personality. I had to start really working in a way that a Jack Kerouac never would have done.

KK: Did it affect you psychologically? I mean, did you get depressions? Or did it help you?

MH: It helped me to become like a part of the world, a part of a world that I always had kind of a contempt for.

KK: And did you ever get out of New York?

MH: Well, leaving New York isn't a very important part of it. It was mainly cultivating and relating to my community in a deeper and deeper way, and I became very social in a way that I never was before. I became very accepting of other art. Before, my stance was always an antagonistic one. But then I began to see that I had to be a part of a community. It was very interesting, and it's been very exciting and very good – so psychologically just the opposite of being depressing. I thrived on depression before.

KK: Let's talk about your painting again.

MH: Well, the painting is kind of a joyous, survivalist type of response to living in the midst of a real scary world. It was very, very hard to come to New York after living in California – it's so fresh in California in comparison.

KK: The survival of your painting can only exist in relation to other paintings, so that's a criterion. It has to measure up against – you know – a hundred years of painting. I mean nobody can do a painting today without being aware of the fact that it has been going strong and then has been forgotten and has been called marginal and ridiculous and stupid, and you know?

MH: And all of that's true, too.

KK: It's a kind of dumb activity, and it's very necessary poetic momentum as well.

MH: It's funny that you can get such a lot of powerful juice out of such an old, used form, but it is amazing that you can.

(Vienna, May 1993)