Mary Heilmann

The Clashing of Colors

    BY: Jes Zurell

    Saturday, July 22, 2017

The most sensual and cerebral art embraces contradiction. The clashing of colors, the deliberately tense laying of shapes in relation to each other, hard edges over soft, gossamer wisps of medium – these juxtaposed elements are the heartbeat felt throughout Mary Heilmann’s work currently being shown at the Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York City, now through October 28, 2017.

Early in her career, Mary Heilmann decided to read a biography of Willem de Kooning. She paused at a line describing how de Kooning sat in a chair for years trying to pull perfection out of a single work.

“I’m painting my fake abstract expressionism doing exactly the same thing,” Heilmann says. “Looking at it, poking around at it, sitting down – and I’m reading the book, thinking, ‘Get a life, de Kooning!’ until I realized [painting is] hard to do.”

Heilmann’s work navigates intimate layers of color and texture. Her palette hinges neon hues that spark like California dance clubs in the 70s with polarized brush strokes – some hard-edged with the help of masking tape, others whisper soft like a secret smile.

“When I started painting, my paintings were coming out of sculpture, and I was using acrylic paint almost as a sculptural material,” she explains. She painted perpendicularly, jutting one color against another, dulling the clarity of her strokes to her satisfaction, before introducing hard-edged lines. To experience her work in person is to be reminded of something to which many can relate: the desire to have it all, and the rare bliss found in moments when you do.


“The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.” – Willem de Kooning, 1968

Red Mirage, painting by Mary Heilmann
Red Mirage, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo by Thomas Müller.
Taste of Honey by Mary Heilmann painting
Taste Of Honey, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo by Thomas Müller.

Primalon Ballroom by Mary Heilmann painting
Primalon Ballroom, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Green Mirage painting by Mary Heilmann
GreenMirage, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo byThomas Müller.
Little Three For Two by Mary Heilmann
Little Three For Two, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Narrow lane #3 by Mary Heilmann art
Narrow Lane #3, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo by Parrish Art Museum.

Night swimmer by Mary Heilmann
Night Swimmer, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo by Frieze.

Little Left by Mary Heilmann, 303 gallery
Little Left, painting by Mary Heilmann. Photo courtesy of 303 Gallery.