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Mary Heilmann is first and foremost a painter – though she never intended to be. Growing up amongst surfers and beatniks in California, she moved to New York in 1968 and found the city full of minimalists proclaiming the medium dead. She made a go of it as a sculptor, but after struggling in a bloke-dominated scene, contrarily moved to painting, nurturing her bright, breezy brand of abstraction.
Although she uses minimalist devices like grids and squares, Heilmann has always kept one eye fixed on the world around her. ‘311 Castro Street’ (2001) is named after her gran’s house – it’s the same colour as the wallpaper. ‘Bush of Ghosts’ (1980) is a tribute to the Brian Eno and David Byrne album. ‘Good Vibrations’ (2012), with its multicoloured dots freckling the wall, is her take on an acid trip. Her delicate, domestic-scale ceramics, meanwhile, feel like a riposte to her male peers and their fondness for heavy-duty industrial materials.
Heilman has no problem taking the odd leap into figuration now and again. A painting of an empty chair is a veiled elegy to friends lost during the Aids epidemic. And best of all, there’s the recent pictures of highways and ocean waves – so hopelessly cool you half-expect to hear the ‘Drive’ soundtrack playing in the background.