Mary Heilmann

Bridgehampton, 2014

Casual and relaxed with one leg slightly bent, artist Mary Heilmann sits on a turquoise chair in a field of freshly planted vegetation. The latter is seen in perspective, extending into the distance in foreshortening rows. On one side, the field is already a dense green; on the other, it is an earthy brown. The view is limited and no horizon line is visible: never-ending nature as it were?

At first, the photograph seems to have been taken spontaneously, but it conceals the not inconsiderable time and effort that went into the laid-back staged pose. It was the artist’s express wish to be photographed in this exact field with the first greenery of spring: a portrait of the artist and, equally, of the site.

The location is no matter of chance. It is a patch of cultivated earth beside her rural Long Island residence, wonderfully situated off the main road, and lined with both trees and scattered houses. As is typical of the vernal season, the light appears bright and cool. However, in order to create this specific mood for the photograph, the scene had to be lit artificially. A few footprints in the sand indicate the preparations for the photo shoot, hinting at subdued bustle and disarray amid the strict rows of plants.

The foreshortening is reminiscent of some of Mary Heilmann’s compositions, in which receding lines indicate a perspectival and simultaneously abstract space that could always be a remembered place. In recent years, these have sometimes been small-format dark paintings that bring to mind endless journeys on highways at night and invoke a quiet longing for the vast expanses of the American West.

Even the contrast between orderly planted vegetation and aimlessly wandering footprints finds its painted counterpart in Mary Heilmann’s art, when clear visual structures dissolve in a free painterly style or constantly call into question any intrinsic pictorial order. Now the artist sits here, casual and nonchalant, just as if the questioning of handed-down painting traditions were the most natural thing of all. Since the 1970s, Mary Heilmann has been demonstrating this with incomparable ease in her paintings, against all opposition – and she is now entitled to calmly recline on a turquoise chair in a verdant field…

Konrad Bitterli