Known for brightly hued, light-filled abstractions that speak to her Left Coast origins, Mary Heilmann moved to New York in 1968 and quickly established herself as a feisty presence in the downtown scene. In the past several decades, she’s earned an international reputation with lively canvases, furnishings and ceramics. With two upcoming shows this summer—one in the Hamptons, the other uptown at Craig F. Starr Gallery—the 77-year-old artist discusses her love of geometry and pop culture and her experience studying with David Hockney in the 1960s.
You’ve been called a painter’s painter. What does that mean to you?
I suppose it means that I think a lot about the craft of painting and the theory behind it—how to do it, what it entails. I actually came to painting through sculpture and ceramics, not from any background with the medium itself.
I hear that originally, you despised painting.
Well, yeah, I guess that was natural for an ornery beatnik hippie like me. Maybe it’s because I had studied sculpture at [UC] Berkeley, which had a very conservative department. Also, when I moved to New York, I couldn’t get into any interesting conversations at Max’s Kansas City as a sculptor. So I called my practice painting. I remember getting into a fight with Robert Smithson over it, but that’s what artists did back then: argue.
Still, you studied with David Hockney. What was that like?
It was cool. He brought all kinds of culture into the context of his work, including super-gay culture, in a friendly, smiley—but very aggressive—way. I learned a lot from him.
His work has been tied to Pop Art. Have you ever been inspired by popular culture?
Totally. In high school, I was into fashion and thought about going into it. Music has always been important to me, films too. I’ve said that looking at a painting for a long time is like watching a movie.
So why did you choose to do abstraction?
I just naturally loved geometry as a kid. My father was an engineer and was constantly doing geometry and drawing. We would drive around, and he would talk about building bridges, dams and roads. I was interested in architecture growing up. Picture making wasn’t my thing. I wasn’t very good at drawing realistically.
Though your paintings are geometric, there’s an ever-evolving quality to them. How important is change to your work?
I often do new things, but I always come back and do something I’ve done before. The way I look at it, time isn’t linear; it’s more like a solid thing happening all at once.
“RYB: Mary Heilmann Paintings, 1975-78” is at Craig F. Starr Gallery Mon 10–Oct 28 (craigstarr.com).