Craig Staff / Painting of the Week

Painting of the Week: 100

 Mary Heilmann, Little 9x9Mary Heilmann (1940-), Little 9×9, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 55 x 55 x 4.5 cm, Ursula Hauser Collection.

Having undertaken graduate studies in sculpture at the University of California in Berkeley, Mary Heilmann moved to New York in 1968. Becoming a painter for Heilmann was an ‘antagonistic move.’ [1] Indeed, such a combative approach was evident when the artist claimed that,

I had seen the work of [Dan] Christensen and [Peter] Young, and also Al Held, and had started doing some painting while at school, but I had little in common with the painting students. In fact, they were adversaries. The same was true in New York… so even though I looked askance at the culture of painting, I chose it as a practice in order to have arguments with people like Robert Smithson. [2]

The challenge then, as Elizabeth Armstrong notes, ‘was to find a way to paint while rejecting the history of painting.’ [3]

Whilst to a certain extent Little 9×9 (1973) is organised around the modernist trope of the grid, it remains characterised by a somewhat nonchalant series of vertical and horizontal lines that have been etched into the painted surface of the canvas and its edges apparently by the artist’s finger or another blunt instrument. Unlike, for example, one of Mondrian’s linear abstractions that imbued its geometry with a quasi-spiritual austerity, Heilmann’s painting by comparison appears lackadaisical, reminiscent of a child using their finger or a fork to make some form of repeated pattern on their dinner plate. In both cases whilst there is intent, there is also distracted playfulness. CS

After Modernist PaintingCraig Staff is an artist and currently Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Northampton. His new book, After Modernist Painting, is a timely critical re-evaluation of the contested medium of painting over the last 50 years.
[1] Mary Heilmann, ‘Biography,’ in Mary Heilmann: A Survey, Boston: ICA, 1990, unpaginated
[2] ‘Mary Heilmann,’ Siegel, p.45
[3] Elizabeth Armstrong, ‘To Be Someone,’ in Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone, Elizabeth Armstrong et al., Newport Beach, California: Orange County Museum of Art, 2009, p.20
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