Mary Heilmann – sense of space

(c) 2018, StefanJSchaffeld 'Imagining Mary Heilmann'

Mary Heilmann (b. 1940) described her work through expressing a viewer’s perspective:

“I am obsessed with the space in Asian painting….how there can be several kinds of space at once. I play with this idea as I look, my eye and my mind flicking back and forth from one sense of space to another.

This is the front. That’s behind. No that’s the front and this is the background. That’s an edge. No it’s a line. That’s a space. No, it’s a thing. Round and round, and over and over.” – Heilmann, 2011:132

She describes the sensation as a viewer and ‘player’ looking at a picture that gives some indications, some hints of shape that one possibly could allocate to a form (based on learned patterns), But the next moment on sees something else and brings this into a new relationship or context. By that, one moves with the eye around the picture plane, never be sure what one sees or just imagines. It is the act of looking and seeing itself as the subject matter. Whatever inspired the artist in making a work (‘memories of the distinctive colors and lines of the West Coast’s landscape and surf culture’, Hauser & Wirth), it is not important, not even relevant perhaps. As making new connections and building relationships between visual cues is at the core of the work. And eventually, her works are closer to poetry similar to Gertrude Stein’s expression of her personal encounter with objects in ‘Tender Buttons’. Interestingly, Heilman stated that her work titles are ‘related to some kind of narrative that was going on with me. So the titles are often like a three-word poem that is part of the piece.’ A portrait or a diary?

Her works (painting, design, furniture) remind me strongly of Piet Mondrian and De Stijl, a minimalist, geometric abstract art that made its way into design, furniture and even fashion. A play with primary colors and relationships of shapes and colors with at times quite balanced compositions. Influenced as well by Pop Art, and cartoons like the Simpsons. But one could see her works also as a medley or pastiche of various art movements, crossing boundaries of those, as crossing edges on the picture plane. But with a closer view, the geometric shapes are not so geometric, edges are soft or hard. The overall impression is playful, enjoying life through colors and paint. I can relate her work to Frank Stella (e.g. Haran II, 1962) or Daniel Buren (e.g. Photo-souvenir: Enamel paint on cotton canvas, [September-October],1965) or Richard Tuttle or Donald Judd (e.g. Untitled, 1985)

“I play with composition being in balance and out of balance.” – Mary Heilmann (Laster, 2017)

In the following interview Heilman talks about her post-modernism abstract painting (Heaven) and partly making a joke of American Abstract Painting. e.g De Kooning.kind of avoiding to come across as expressionistic abstract painter. She found her breakthrough in the combination of Albers (hard edge geometric abstraction) and De Kooning (gestural painting)

In the interview with Paul Laster she describes her work Home Arts, inspired by domestic experiences in her childhood:

“Growing up, there was always a lot of conversation about the dinnerware, the tables—all of this home-stuff. My mom was constantly re-arranging the furniture and art on the walls, which was a big influence. And when studying Japanese art and ceramics I learned that things can be as high as art sometimes.” – Mary Heilman (Laster, 2017)

Key aspects of her work:

  • Use of bright, often primary or secondary colors
  • Often simple geometric shapes put in relationship to each other
  • At time hard edges, another time soft, blurred or disappearing edges
  • Combination of hard edges and gestural strokes
  • The background color activates in a uniques sense each of her work
  • The furniture could be considered as a spatial extension of her paintings
  • The eye follows edges, and shapes like wandering through a landscape, discovering disruptive edges like a river crossing
  • Composition is arrangement, placing and moving, organising and revisiting

Some of Mara Heilmann’s works collected on my Pinterest board:


  • Featured Image:  Schaffeld, S.J. (2018) Imagining Mary Heilmann‘ [painting]

=> with this quick sketch, I felt more relaxed after previous cut out collages and responded more viscerally to the edges, shapes and relationship. Hard edges alongside overlapping shapes conveying more a sense of spatial depth through sudden disruption, soft edges a more gentle transition. Overpainted shapes receding them and disrupting the illusion of spatial depth. Colors (hues, tone, saturation) contributing to a sense of atmosphere as well as sense of space.


  • Art21 (2010) Mary Heilmann: Abstract Painting | Art21 “Exclusive”, [online], At: on 04 Aug 2018).
  • Heilmann, M. (2011) ‘Looking at Pictures (1999)’, in: Myers, T. R. (ed.) Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press, p. 132.
  • Laster, P. (2017) ‘The painter’s painter theory of solid space’, in: [online].At: on 06 Aug 2018).
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