Strictly Formal

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Mary Heilmann

Mary Heilman Studio

Cory Arcangel: So anyway, let’s start. Ok, what is the first thing you do when you come to the studio? … how about that? Is that an ok question?

Mary Heilmann: Yeah, that’s a good question. When I get up, I come out here first thing in the morning.

CA: Really? Right away?

MH: Yeah, this is where I have coffee in the morning.

CA: So, literally, roll out of bed…

MH: I have my jammies on. So I sit here and I have coffee … probably around 7, sometimes it’s earlier, sometimes it’s later. But between 7 and 9. And so then, I’m sitting here looking at this, all this work.

CA: Maybe you could explain what we’re looking at for all the viewers at home.

MH: You can take a picture of this.

CA: Oh really?

MH: Yup, and put it on (editors note: see above picture). This is a good way to get an idea of how I work. So, I drink the coffee and I look at the work. I try not to go on the internet or check my email, but I’m not doing too good with that.

CA: So, you might …

MH: Poke around on here (pointing to laptop on coffee table), excessively, trying to find African photographers names and who collected him and did they pay him and things like that (editors note: this is referring to an earlier conversation that day CA and MH had about Malick Sidibé).

CA: So, in the morning you are already researching,…like vague cultural interests.

MH: That’s a good thing to say because I have been thinking, and also this period of time in the morning, I also consider meditation. I’m trying to clear my mind and think about just the here and now. Looking at the work is part of the here and now, so that’s OK. And I’m thinking about manipulating it and what color to make it and this and that. But, then I ding-ding-ding see who’s getting with me, what’s online, and I’m beginning to see that that is part of the work, because I get ideas form what I find out online. Like I just told you, I was gonna take the African photographers idea and nick it and put it in my photograph. And that’s a good thing.

CA: So let’s say this is the morning now and that is your current idea. So you would go and read, you just want to find out about this photographer?

MH: Right. And as you know, it is challenging to poke around on the internet to try to find this information. At a certain point, I force myself to stop. I go in and I get some paint.

Ca: Oh wow, so literally you have to like, force yourself to start working.

MH: Doing physical work. Yeah, because that’s different from back in the day.

FS: What was back in the day?

MH: No, computers!

CA: Yeah, tell me about pre-computer, what was your routine pre-computer?

MH: That’s interesting. I would come in to the studio, which was in Tribeca before, in lower Manhattan. I’d be sitting there and I’d be looking at the work just like this and I’d be thinking about all these thoughts: what color to make it, other things that inspired it, all the other aspects of life. Now, you poke around on Google and find out. You would just try to figure it out in your head… and later on, call somebody maybe. Listening to music, not so much listening to music for the pleasure of the aesthetic experience of the music but getting the information about where it comes from, how its made … just the culture of music. And the culture of art, the culture of movies, even the culture of sports. All this stuff from the world is what I’m obsessively thinking about, pre-computer and now, but much more now. Because all that information is so much easier to get at now.

CA: Oh ok, and so you basically always had the interest and now you’re able to feed it more …

MH: More obsessively.

CA: And that has changed your work, yes or no?

MH: Yes I think so. The work is basically formal and has always been a lot about measuring and counting and putting together shapes, images, but usually non-pictorial types of images – geometrical images. More and more the cultural influences started becoming more and more a major part of the work.

CA: Even though it’s not pictorial?

MH: It’s more pictorial than it was and it references imagery, sometimes only verbally. Sometimes a piece …

CA: Oh yes, the titles, of course.

MH: The titles are a big part. Equally as important as the image.

CA: That leads us to another question, although I might come back to a lot of those things. Let’s say you have a great looking painting that … well this gets even to another question, ok a bunch of questions at the same time.

MH: OK (laughs)

CA: The first question is, at what point do you know that one is done? And the second question is, let’s say you have a great painting that you just love and you don’t have a title yet. Does that mean the work isn’t done?

MH: Yeah they have to have titles. They really don’t go out without a title.

Ca: Do sometimes you think of the title, like when do you think of the title, or is it part… Tell me about the whole thing.

MH: The title comes creeping in at the same time as, say, the color yellow.

CA: Oh ok, so it’s really just like a …

MH: A part of the process. And there is a concept, like in this room, one concept that is going on is psychedelic visions that I imagine. I’m not having any psychedelic experiences now with drugs, but I am working on the idea of seeing things, seeing things that aren’t actually there. So these paintings are images of that sort of thing. So I have that concept in my mind and that came up in the midst of everything else. So I’m kind of working towards that. I’m also doing these “road” paintings, which I’ve been doing for a couple years. It’s merging over into the combination of psychedelic experiences and driving on the road. I’m thinking about the ‘60s and ‘70s when I used to take a lot of road trips all over America. And then I’m also thinking about when I was a little kid in the ‘50s and we live in Los Angeles and I always drove with my dad up to San Francisco on these weird back roads in California, because he always wanted to find shortcuts.

(laughs) And you didn’t go on the freeway, it was really most two-lane roads.

CA: Because there was no freeway?

MH: There wasn’t a freeway from LA to San Francisco in the ‘50s.

CA: Oh, wow.

MH: There was probably four-lane highways, but they always had side roads coming off them.

CA: Oh right… Finished. Is that a terrible thing to ask?

MH: When something’s finished? Well, usually I have a picture in my mind of how a things going to be.

CA: OK. Let’s get back to the morning then. Does that relate it to the morning?

MH: Um, yes. I would come out and say I’m working on a version of a painting that I’ve already done before and I’m gonna make a new version of it. Like, see that pink one on the left?

CA: The one with the yellow and the green and the red and the blue.

MH: Yes. I’m thinking of making another version of that with different colors in the corners.

CA: So tell me about this whole, like what all your thoughts are about, like, just making a new version of that.

MH: Right, so I’ll be sitting here thinking. I’ll be looking at the old piece, the one that’s already made and sort of editing it and changing the color in my head and sometimes even a little bit on the computer. Like in Photoshop dumping the bucket.

(laughs) And so I do that for a long time, I spend a lot of time just thinking and poking around. Say the painting right in the middle is a version, a negative version of the one I end, another version of the one on the end. So what I’m doing there is trying to get the colors to be all the same value, so they’re all light. Nothing sticks out, there all sort of flat against the wall. So that’s the way I think. And it really is thinking abstractly. Or formally, like thinking formally the way (pauses) like maybe how Albers thought, he worked with the value of color a lot. (pauses) And, that piece on the left is called “La Cienega Boulevard”, which is a street in Los Angeles. The reason it’s called that is because, it kinda reminds me of it, it’s kinda Hollywood-ish and Los Angeles-ish. The original painting that had the same motif was called “Music from Big Pink” and it was named that after the record, but also because I was working with the color of pink. So sometimes the titles are not very intellectual, they’re just playful.

CA: So the one on the left, is a version of another painting is what you’re saying.

MH: Yeah there’s gonna be another one. It’s gonna have all different colors with pretty much the same value. The way I know it’s finished I guess is just, it just looks good to me, not any kind of smart way.

CA: When something is looking good to you, is it the kind of thing where you know it when you see it, or do you often go back, you know, one morning it might be done and another it might not be done.

MH: I change it again sometimes. And you have to kind of stop that at some point, arbitrarily.

CA: Oh isn’t that interesting. So it’s not like this like moment where you’re totally sure

MH: Well sometimes…

CA: Sometimes!

MH: Sometimes I’ll say “Yes!” I’m so genius.


CA: So its like a sliding scale. Has there ever been a long stretch where you’re like “Yes! I’m so genius” one after another, for like year?

MH: Like where I get a bunch of goods ones?

CA: Yeah, what’s you’re ratio of hit and miss? Can I ask that? Is that rude?

MH: No, it’s ok. I don’t know, they usually seem OK to me. Sometimes I put some away…

CA: (laughs)

MH: … and then later on I look at it and it looks OK.

CA: Putting something away is one option, do you ever keep it around and just keep grinding away at it until you like it?

MH: Yes (laughs) That’s tiresome. I started out as a sculptor, kind of early conceptual art, and we hated painters. We just thought they were so lame. I said “Please, give me a break. Why would you waste your time on that?” And so a few years ago I was doing some kind of quoting abstract expressionism. And I’m painting away on these post-modern abstract expressionist paintings and I’m in my Joan Mitchell phase and at the same time I’m reading the biography of de Kooning, who would sit in his rocking chair and would stare at a painting for like two years and he would keep poking at it and I’m reading it and I’m thinking, “Get a life!” Then I put the book down and I go over there and I try to make my painting look right. See this work isn’t really about the kind of mathematical, geometrical arrangements and when you finally put all the pieces together, it’s right, it’s done. Abstract-expressionism you would always be trying to make it work. They used to say, “Does it work?”

CA: Wow.

MH: It’s crazy. In fact, I finished that painting. I turned my back on it and it’s the last abstract expressionist painting I made. It is a mystery why sometimes one is better than the other. A little more pink, a little thicker paint or something like that. It isn’t something that I’m interested in doing, thinking about.

CA: So you just kind of, move on.

MH: Yeah and I wanted to have just sort of a dialogue in a show that included sort of name-checking this era of work. I was being ironic about it. It also made for some really emotional, romantic type of paintings. One of those paintings was called “Heaven,” and it had a mate that was called “Hell.” (laughs)

CA: But these paintings here, what you’re saying is you can’t be finicky about them.

MH: Well, it’s a little more straightforward than playing. What I’m doing is playing in this sort of Albers-ish type of way with making the color values in a certain type of way, so that there will be some kind of visual trick played.

Fabienne Stephan: For the untrained listener, what do you mean by “color values”?

MH: The dark and the light. For example the yellow one – both the paintings on the end there, on all three paintings – the yellow is almost the same value as the wall. So it kind of just disappears and gives you a kind of optical pleasure. The painting in the middle is called “Over and Under” and what that is about is trying to think about what image on there is on top and what is underneath. Like a puzzle in a way.

FS: Like plaid.

CA: Do you ever talk on the phone when you paint?

MH: Mmm… no. But I do take phone calls when I’m in here.

I would sit in here and talk on the phone … Yeah, no.


CA: That was Fabienne’s question, I …

FS: (interrupts) …because I know painters who have like, a headset, and talk…

MH: No, no. I’m really concentrating. And I barely listen to music. I mean a certain part of the process I listen to music, but um, sometimes I really have to think, in a sort of linear way. Almost like doing mathematics. Like doing a sort of symbolic logic, a kind of logical thinking that doesn’t have words to it. You know, like a calculus or something.

CA: And this empty, this white canvas…

MH: On the top?

CA: Yeah. Can you tell me about that?

MH: I just stuck him there because I’m working in that size and that’s a big part of the work. Like, the relation of the parts to the whole. And then I do look at the whole collection of works when I make a show so that a show is like a statement, too. So that’s what’s going on here. I’m looking at that wall, I’m thinking of what’s going to go on the white ones.

CA: Do you mind letting us know, hinting at what kinds of thoughts you have? Like where are you in the process and what has happened so far in your mind and what might happen in the future to that painting?

MH: To Whitey?

CA: Yeah to Whitey, the one, the empty one.

MH: Well he’s probably going to be … It’s sitting right there, the plain unpainted canvas. There was a thought about making a version of the “Spot” painting in a horizontal form on the white. And then, the version of the “La Cienega” with the different color value jumps up onto there in my mind. As we’re sitting here talking now and looking at the “road” painting on the other wall, a two-lane highway got into the middle of that pink painting, “La Cienega.” In fact, La Cienega boulevard kinda got onto “La Cienega Boulevard.” So it really is visual thinking that’s going on. It’s verbal and non-verbal at the same time. And they do get a gender. When I start it, it will come down and I might make it that kind of aqua blue. Aqua-marine type of blue. Paint the whole thing that color, to get ready to put the spots on.

CA: And, does, how much do they change from your starting to put paint on them and what you end up with?

MH: In these pieces that we’re talking about now – all of them that we see in the room here – the geometrical concept is there, and that won’t change. The motifs that have been around for a while, like the web on the two green paintings is something that I’ve been using for twenty years, or versions of it.

FS: And it comes back in your ceramics?

MH: Yeah, thinking about breaking up ceramics.

CA: That was another question: when do you go and make ceramics? How do you negotiate between the two?

MH: That’s hard. The basement is the ceramics studio. I envision a show and I imagine … One thing that’s going on is making a “spot” painting like this and then making the circles out of clay and having them flying off onto the wall. Different colors. It could even end up going out into the garden, becoming a garden sculpture. And then you see my chairs are sitting around here. They are part of the installation I have in my mind.

CA: Do you always organize it around shows?

MH: Order it around the room I’m in. You could read it almost like a book or something.

CA: (laughs) Ok. And when you add a new work it’s almost like it’s friends, kind of.

MH: Yeah, or something just gets up there and then a new kind of narrative starts. It is done in a very narrative-type of way.

FS: Where it’s almost cinematic in the way that the layers move. The red is never on top, it’s on top of the painting only once.

MH: In the “pour-y” ones, the “drippy” ones?

FS: Yeah, if you look at the four of them.

MH: I try to manipulate the “over-and-under” idea. It’s supposed to look spontaneous, but it’s made very carefully to look spontaneous – fake spontaneous.

CA: Have you ever made something that’s genuinely spontaneous?

MH: Seldom, hardly ever. Everything’s pretty much figured out.

FS: Because in art it’s hard to get anything that spontaneous.

CA: Yeah that’s a really interesting way to think about it, which is really true I think. What is spontaneity, really? Oh, this was another question! How do you organize your visual archive? Of inspiration and things.

MH: I take a lot of pictures with my little digital. I put them on here and I usually have them flying all over the desktop so it’s a mess. I get together and put them in folders and I put them in this (referring to the computer) I’m waiting for this to open so I can show you this so I won’t open that other thing until this opens. I have categories like “ideas,” “wood,” “neon” like that. I put these folders in there so that, pretty much, I can find them.

CA: How often do you consult this visual database?

MH: All the time, constantly. Part of this is an official inventory but then there’s all these other little folders in there. This is a cool one because it’s got just everything that pops into my head…that inspires me.

FS: Whoa!…

MH: (all looking at computer) …tons of this kind of stuff.

CA: Oh wow.

MH: I have made some digital prints that use this kind of informal photography. In fact that’s why I’m so into John Miller right now because he has this piece called “Middle of the Day.”

FS: Yes. The photographs that are just so random that he takes at a certain time?

MH: Right. I’ve been reading about it and one of the things that came up in the philosophy of photography that he talks about, or his people talk about is that a photograph isn’t really a picture of something – it is what it makes you think about when you look at it. (pauses) Here’s something that I get inspiration from. This is this guy that lives next door… And I always say I’m going to take his picture when I see him because, everyday he’s got a different outfit like that.

FS: Oh my god!…

CA: That’s amazing. (laughs)

MH: He’s great. He’s my neighbor.

CA: You consult this (pointing to the laptop) while you work?

MH: This is mostly for just the free-form thinking. This isn’t usually to get actual information. Although (editors note: referring a picture of a neon sign in Chinatown on the computer) this is a little picture I took a long time ago but it’s really important now in the work. So Yeah, this is a big deal, being able to have all of this stuff on the computer. You know, to get at it so fast and so easy. I love the way these people in Chinatown, the way they come up with a sign, I mean, what is that? The way they put stuff together is just amazing. That relates to what John is doing with his photographs too, I think.

CA: Yeah. How do you pick your colors?

MH: I guess cultural influence, fashion, Chinese signs, regular American signs. This is one of my big heroes … Wonder Bread (editors note: referring to an image on the computer of a Winder Bread Logo).

CA: Ooohhh!

FS: (laughs)

MH: Yeah, see how hot that is? It’s gotta be almost a hundred years old now. Awesome graphics. And it’s so familiar that you just, you don’t even know … It is beautiful. I love spots. Why would that be? I’ve been doing spots forever.

CA: (laughs) So that spot painting that we’re seeing there, is it unconscious or conscious of something like a Wonder Bread?

MH: I guess I like them sort of independently. You couldn’t say that this was inspired by Wonder Bread, but for some reason … and you know, a lot of people have done spots Polka, Hirst, Heilmann.

FS: Kusama.

MH: Genius psychedelic artist.

CA: Maybe the arc of this could be your day, so what happens after lunch?

MH: After lunch, which is more like breakfast, maybe go a yoga class, or maybe go swimming, until the middle of the afternoon and then maybe take care of business, make phone calls, hang out with friends, go shopping, clean the house. The morning is the work time pretty much and then also, later on in the evening around sunset time especially here because the sunset is so great here in the studio.

FS: How has it changed your work to work outside of New York City?

MH: One thing that happened is the interest in this perspective happened a lot from looking out this window. This field is a farm field and so there were rows that went off into the distance like in Renaissance perspective. I think it also made me do a lot of green stuff in the past fifteen years I’ve been here, I’ve started doing more and more green. Another thing in the last fifteen years I have become much more social than I ever was. So a lot of my time is taken up socializing or even with business, thinking up enterprises where you have to make phone calls to make stuff happen. Like one thing that’s going on here is to make this (referring to the land) into a two-acre farm.

CA: That’s one of your projects?

MH: Yes, and that’s philanthropic, business, tremendous inspiration for the visual work, and also very cool public relations. Public relations I think is a really significant part of the art practice now.

CA: Can you talk about that?

MH: How the artist, like an old school type of artist who came right out of the New York school of sculpture, which came right at the same time as abstract expressionists, is a very old fashioned, intuitive, pure, non-commercial kind of art inspiration. Now the way that making art interfaces with the social aspect of the world is very significant for someone like me and for all of us, I think, because visuals are zooming around so much an awful lot of people know about objects of art. And the high art and the popular art are really merged an awful lot of the time. So, you have a farm and then people come over to Mary Heilmann’s studio and they look at the farm and they look at the art and the conversation starts. And then the artists gets to be some kind of a rock star because everybody likes art now and this lady has been making art for forty years and that’s interesting, that’s good. Let’s see what she has to say about this or that (pauses) It’s probably going to be true!

CA: That is definitely maybe the end, don’t you think?! That was a wonderful way to end don’t you think?

MH: That’s right, that the artist has a kind of good standing in society, a valuable place in society, which I as a kid chose – and you can mix this up and re-edit it – to be an artist almost as an outlaw type of move. It was a bad thing to do. To be an artist because it meant you weren’t just going to go out and make a living – you were not going to make a living!