When I first discovered Mary Heilman’s work sometime in the early nineties, I right away felt that she was a major figure. I responded immediately to her sensibility, and she struck me as an artist of very sophisticated and knowing sensibility. I showed her work to my students at every opportunity and put her in my personal canon. The work that struck me at that point was like the illustrated piece, although this is not a painting but a print.
The game with Mondrian, the way that things that look like they should line up don’t, the wobble in the lines and edges—it was all so obviously both intelligent and free. Those who describe her work as a joke really don’t do it justice, not because they are discounting her but because they evidently don’t understand the humor of modern art. Humor and warmth are very important elements in art, and Heilman has them both in quantity, but to call her work a joke is to miss something. It’s as if it has been understood but not felt, as if the “joke” has been identified but not got. Important to realize is that the joke is not at the expense of art, of any art, but with it. The painting doesn’t make fun of Mondrian or diminish abstraction in any way, it’s gently and in a friendly way moving along with him, and moving him along. The best word, for me, is sensibility, and that could stand in place of any amount of knowledge and intelligence (although it presupposes exactly those). Sensibility is productive, sensibility is attunement to the present, sensibility is competence in art, period. How disappointing then, to me, is that I no longer have such a high opinion of her work, although I’m not entirely sure of the cause. It may be the fault of her critics.