The big museum show in New York this weekend, the one not to miss, is the Mary Heilmann retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized by Elizabeth Armstrong, a curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, where the show originated, “Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone” runs until January 26.
Today, a lot of artists are hatched straight from the M.F.A. egg. Heilmann is one of the rarer cases in contemporary art: a talent patiently developed, a slow success. Born in San Francisco in 1940, the artist got her start in the Bay Area back when there were still such things as beatniks. Heilmann (who was profiled by the NYT earlier this month) moved to New York in the late 60s, and has worked here ever since, to inconstant attention. (Heilmann teaches at the School of Visual Arts and has a studio on Long Island.) The artist sat out the success-speculative panic of the ’80s art world, and kept painting. Over the last five years or so has she gotten her due.
Why now? Heilmann doesn’t paint abstraction so much as she practices it. She shuffles through styles (Minimalism, Color Field, Hard Edged, cut outs from Ellsworth Kelly) the way one turns the dial on a car radio. This converges, pleasurably, with current habits of looking at art: randy wandering, a weakness for beguilement. Heilmann’s paintings–especially the juicy, Pop color inflected ones–are jumpy but unhurried.
One painting in particular, “Surfing on Acid” (2005) has done a good deal to establish the artist’s reputation.The much reproduced work, which appears to have been painted with wet ice cream, ran on the cover of Art Forum and Art in America the same month (Nov. 2007). It’s included in the New Museum’s show, which is great, because it’s an out-and-out classic. Although not familiar with surfing while being fried, I thought I did recognize the painting’s attitude, which drips with feigned looseness. What do you call that again? Oh yeah. Cool.