Mary Heilmann

Painting a line across canvas with a brush is similar to the motion of a wave breaking.

Mary Heilmann is an abstract artist who paints using an active style and distinctive, bright colors. Her art is rooted in memory and the titles of her works at times allude to those origins. Her extensive and prolific oeuvre encompasses a range of mediums including painting, ceramics, drawings, and furniture.

Heilmann was born in San Francisco in 1940 and grew up in Southern California. She has a BA in literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an MA in ceramics and sculpture from the University of California, Berkeley. She moved to New York in 1968, where she was friendly with Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, both of whom she had known in San Francisco. She was included in the Whitney Annual in 1972, and in 1975 joined the Holly Solomon Gallery, where she showed regularly through 1981. She joined the Pat Hearn Gallery in New York in 1986, and until Hearn died in 2000, Heilmann was part of an unusually close group of artists and friends associated with the gallery.

In 2007 a Mary Heilmann retrospective opened at the Orange County Museum, Newport Beach, California, before traveling to other venues, including the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in 2009. In the catalog essay, Dave Hickey speaks of sharing with Heilmann “a tiny arc, a traverse through the historical world. We rode the same waves on adjacent beaches in Southern California. Alive with terror, we launched ourselves off the same diving platforms… First and foremost (and as quaint as this may sound), we thought of ourselves as American. We are members, in fact, of the last generation for whom being an American seemed an intriguing and exciting proposition.”

Hickey speaks of Heilmann’s “resolutely high-style American painting,” of her “cavalier informality,” and of how “the canvas support on which she paints somehow manages to remain, in the minimalist tradition, a literal object—a literal object, however, that has been impudently decorated with painted marks.” He says that “she has never trafficked in the ‘new nostalgia’ of current European painting,” and at the end of his essay goes back to the metaphor of surfing. “Anything that goes well,” he explains, “feels like dropping perfectly into the wave, like giving yourself up at the exact instant. . . For me, the confidence, anxiety, and relaxed intensity in Mary Heilmann’s work speaks this physical/intellectual language.” Dodie Kazanjian, writing in the August 2007 issue of Vogue, voices a similar feeling: “My eyes kept going back to the blue-and-white canvas. It was minimal but raw, an empty, sensuously brushed, somewhat sloppy blue square on an even emptier white ground, yet it contained a world of associations: water, sky, summer, youth, infinity. If I could look at this painting every day, I thought, I’d never need the simple beach house of my dreams.”

Mary Heilmann has made prints at Crown Point Press in 1998, 2006, and 2017. She has had solo exhibitions at the Dan Flavin Art Institute (2017); the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2016); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2008); the Camden Arts Centre, London (2001); and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (1990), among others. Her work is held in many public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; the Secession, Vienna; and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. She is represented by 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth Gallery, worldwide. She lives and works in New York.


  • Mary Heilmann at Crown Point Press, September 2017 (3 minutes)

    Watch Mary Heilmann working in the Crown Point studio.

  • Mary Heilmann at Crown Point Press (2 minutes)

    Artist Mary Heilmann discusses printmaking at Crown Point Press in San Francisco.

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