Mary Heilmann at Whitechapel Gallery

Looking at Pictures

'Every piece of abstract art I make has a backstory.' Heilmann is in her mid-seventies and this statement refers back to a catalogue of work spanning a good two thirds of that time. The counter culture of the 1960s is a good starting point to some of her personalisations of this output - a picture is half titled with a Beach Boys' song and half in acknowledgement to a friend or lover or past unknown (Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering Richard, 2012). She shares these intimacies with only the most light of touches. The ease of abstraction allows for it, enables the viewer to inhabit the work in their own way.

Above: Green Weave (2013), Little 9 x 9 (1973), Green Queen (1977), The Big Black Mirror (1975)

Much of what is on display here are very human variants of very mathematical forms. The squares and grids are created free form and the painterly touch is present in a way most unlike that of previous tutor Joseph Albers. Something she did agree with, in relation to his teachings, was his colour theory and there are pieces across this retrospective that compound and demonstrate ideas he explored through his variations of Homage to the Square

Renny's Right Geometry of a Wave, 2011

Renny's Right Geometry of a Wave, 2011

There is a lot of happiness in these works - a Californian spectrum of colour, arrangement of shape, size and texture; she uses huge thick borders or none at all, painting over the edge of the canvases colouring other planes. It is also a large show, many of the paintings are domestic in size and it allows for a vast walk through five plus decades of her output. At first I was attracted to the colour and exploration of form, then within the galleries I was largely uninspired by the sum of the parts, instead settling on some of her smaller pieces but a couple of days have passed since I saw the show and now more of the images sit happily in my mind. 

It is the little interludes made by the curator Lydia Lee that are so welcome. The temporal L shaped walls allow for a closer inspection of her wall-mounted glazed ceramics and the vitrines upstairs display for the first time pages from her sketchbooks, showing abstracts studies but landscapes as well. 

Untitled landscape, a page from a sketchbook 

Untitled landscape, a page from a sketchbook 

The connections and stories imbibed in these paintings are through more than just the titles. A baby pink in one work echoed the walls of her grandmother's apartment in the Castro area of San Francisco; a detail it would be easy to dismiss or pass by - the notes accompanying this exhibition round some of these connections out. They make for a better understanding and empathy to the paintings and the artist. The video on display Her Life (2006) takes this a step further, slides of her output are displayed in pairs, work is interspersed with snapshots and music plays as random as an iPod on shuffle - though of course all are unique to Heilmann. It's a great portrait; candid and revealing.  

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/mary-heilmann-looking-at-pictures/ until 21st August