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ART | ART REVIEW

Life of the abstractionist party

A retrospective shows how Mary Heilmann co-opted establishment form.

June 03, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

WATERGATE, "All in the Family," the energy crisis, Patty Hearst, streaking, the American Bicentennial -- the 1970s are remembered for many things, but painting is not one of them. In fact, just the opposite. In the '70s, painting was art's whipping boy.

Odd as it might seem today, when robust painting is everywhere you look, colored pigment smeared on cloth stretched taut between strips of wood was then being caustically regarded as an establishment badge. Painting, especially abstract painting, was claimed to be a grandiloquent symbol representing the old guard, the system and the Man.

The man even had a name -- Clement Greenberg, the art critic who championed Color Field painting and its offspring, Lyrical Abstraction. On avant-garde issues, Greenberg was the foremost dismissive voice of establishment culture. Young artists were offering Conceptual and Post-Minimal art in opposition to his narrow doctrines, busily squashing the restrictive status quo, and painting got caught in the squeeze.

Enter Mary Heilmann, beatnik-surfer-hippie-chick and California transplant to New York, who launched her career as a painter there in 1970. Despite what appears to be a case of truly terrible timing, Heilmann's decision to paint turns out to have been ideal.

One could even go so far as to say that her considerable importance as an artist today derives precisely from her contrarian choice to paint in the 1970s. "Extending tradition" was not on her mind, as it was on Greenberg's. Instead, Heilmann saw the artist's job as being unruly, whatever the chosen medium. She successfully appropriated abstract painting -- the high art language of establishment power -- for rebellious ends.

Heilmann's paintings from the last 36 years are now the subject of an eagerly anticipated, delightfully absorbing retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art. The Museum of Modern Art should be so smart. The show is an indulgence for the eye and a pleasure for the brain.

It is also a convincing education in how the best artists are not limited by prevailing trends -- establishment or progressive. They don't dismiss either side of any argument out of hand, as those who simply claimed that painting was dead were foolishly wont to do. On the contrary, the best artists thrive on a recalcitrant mix of establishment resistance and progressive challenge.

'Grape Vent'

IN Heilmann's case, abstract painting, claimed as the purest and highest form of Modern art, collides with popular culture, even today readily dismissed by many as low and vulgar. Heilmann seems to be of a very different, very admirable mind. Art is art, high or low, and the question for a democratic culture is not where it ranks on some aristocratic scale but how rich, provocative and compelling it is.

Her work injects vernacular juice into abstract art, which after half a century of astounding diversity and refinement had become mandarin, esoteric and dull. In the 1960s Pop artists had done something similar with figurative painting, which had been declared all but a criminal artistic enterprise. Heilmann's abstract painterly contradictions, like crossed electrical wires, emit an illuminating jolt.

The show's first bracing work comes right inside the entry -- the eccentrically titled "Grape Vent (The 4th Jalousie, Purple)," made in 1975. It's an easel painting. A vast acreage of mural-size canvas was then deemed essential to serious art, so the modest size -- a bit over 4 1/2 feet high and 3 feet wide -- already sets a contradictory tone.

Heilmann's entire output, judging from the 58 paintings selected by curator Elizabeth Armstrong for the retrospective, is noteworthy for embracing a domestic scale. The fact that men dominated the art world surely has something to do with this distinctive difference, a notion implied by the savvy inclusion of a few Heilmann paintings in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's current landmark '70s survey, "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution." This is art meant to be lived with, rather than works painted at an institutional scale.

At the Orange County Museum, where institutional reality is inescapable, the canvases are displayed in galleries scattered with brightly painted chairs designed by the artist. Cubes of plywood feature seats and backs woven from multicolored plastic webbing.

The design crosses the classic form of austere Minimalist sculpture -- think Donald Judd -- with the Pop element of an inexpensive, mass-produced patio chair. Each one is fitted with casters, so a visitor can wheel himself in front of any painting with which he'd like to spend some time. Sociability prevails, in a manner not often associated with abstract art.

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