Let’s talk: Mary Heilmann & Jessica Loudis
on the New York Art Scene

“Sunset” is the title of the installation painter Mary Heilmann developed expressly for the giant terrace of the reopened Whitney Museum, the building’s largest outdoor gallery. Deutsche Bank sponsored the project. A conversation about pink, pop music, spirituality, and the New York art scene.
Tell me about how you became interested in art, and how you ended up in New York.

Art was always big in my imagination, even as a kid. I was a writing major in college and I started doing ceramics as a hobby when I was in school in Santa Barbara. I had a natural talent for that. It was a sort of late-beatnik, early-hippie scene, and I was kind of a loner, so that’s a big part of what drew me to art in the first place.
When I moved to New York in 1968 I didn’t really want to come here, I wanted to go to Los Angeles, but it was just too hard to make a go of it in Los Angeles as an artist. The whole art scene in the sixties there was kind of glamorous and Hollywoodish and there were a lot of cute guys—no girls—and that was a smart reason for me not to go, because it would have been impossible to get any attention.
I had been to New York to visit a few times before moving here and the art scene was a real thing. It was small, though—you could almost know everybody, you could walk everywhere. I didn’t see the social part of my life as very important when I was in the middle of it, but showing up in New York and going to Max’s Kansas City was really big. It was provocative and sarcastic and playful, seductive. I came here because of that and because people like Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd were making the kind of art that I was thinking about.

Mary Heilmann is one of the most influential abstract painters working today and an icon of the New York art scene. Her painting is characterized by minimalism, the ideas of fellow artists such as Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd, as well as popular culture. She has promoted many younger artists and even cooperated with some. The West Coast surfer feeling still reverberates in the paintings of the California-born artist, who has been inspired by personal experiences, historical events, films, and music.

Jessica Loudis grew up in Mozambique, Honduras, and Jamaica and works as a freelance author and art editor in New York. In 2014, Bloomsburg published a collection of essays she edited titled Should I Go to Grad School.

You mentioned earlier that you studied poetry in college, and you’ve continued to write throughout your career. How does narrative figure into your paintings?

My paintings are almost like ideograms. You can look at a piece of art and see it as a word. There are also icons, which I grew up with—you look at them and see a backstory. I’ve always been interested in mathematics, even as a kid. Geometry I was good at, and philosophy and non-verbal logic I loved, so I think of artworks that way. If you sit and look at a work, or even talk about it, and think about how abstract forms fit together, an artwork becomes not abstract any more, it becomes literal.

Did minimalism exert an influence on your practice?

I was and still am influenced by the kind of thought that goes into the making of that kind of work. It’s almost non-verbal logic, mathematics without numbers, or philosophy without words. It’s about putting a big thing next to a little thing, or making works like Richard Serra’s, which lean against walls. I was doing pieces that lean against walls, too. Bruce Nauman was also a huge influence, and he was in school in California when I was. All that is significant for what’s going on now at the Whitney, it relates to architecture in a way that a painting hanging on a wall doesn’t, or hasn't, until recently. Usually you just go to a museum and stand in front of painting or a sculpture and stare at it. Now you look at a work in relation to the whole place and to the culture in general. And you probably talk to someone about it.

Do you see your work becoming more architectural?

I’ve always thought that way; I like thinking about how a thing looks in a room. The Whitney project has been a wonderful experience because it really is about talking to the architecture, looking at that big wall and seeing how to place an element, how far away or how close together the two parts should be, then putting forty-five chairs down which are very tiny in comparison to the space. That scale gives the person who comes in and sits down an emotional feeling, which is an architectural idea that I like. I grew up super Catholic and the architecture of churches got into my psyche before I could even talk. There’s something about how it feels to be in a place like that; especially if God’s right there with you, and you’re good and he still likes you.

Could you walk me through the process of designing the Whitney work?

We started talking about it three months ago, so it came together very fast. One of the things that really got me was that I had just finished this little pink painting with the steps motif, and when I saw the Renzo Piano wall, which has this stepped architecture, the two just came together in an intuitive, natural way. We played with the images and the scale, and the two pieces of the pink figure, to make it connect to the architecture of the wall and the space in a sympathetic way.
Also, the value of the pink is close to the gray concrete color. And since the work is on the Hudson River, the sunset is a big part of that site. It all reminds me of Luis Barragán, the Mexican architect who used a lot of pink and a lot of geometry in his architecture. That was in the back of my mind.

Your use of color is so interesting, because it seems very specific to particular historical moments. How did you decide on the pink for the installation?

The pink has been big in my work for a long time, since the seventies, when I made some big pink and black paintings. Pink and black was a popular color connection at the end of the fifties, and we lived in Los Angeles in the early fifties. Guys started wearing pink shirts and pink socks around that time; that was coming out of Latin culture, pachucos, they called them. Then we moved from L.A. to San Francisco when I was in high school, and all the WASP kids were wearing pink and black clothes. That’s when I first started dancing and flirting with boys… When punk music happened in the seventies, pink and black was fashionable, so that was what my paintings were about. One of them was called Save the Last Dance for Me after the Drifters song from the early pink-and-black era, the sixties I think. Pop music and the way it feels influences my work a lot. That painting was about falling in love with somebody, too. It was a huge piece, about the size of a wall, so it was a major piece in scale with a down-market attitude in the colors and the title, and I got really bad reviews for it. It looked pretentious to be making a major piece using down-market colors. It was a hard-edged, very minimal painting.

Another element of the work is a video you originally shot nearly three decades ago—what made you decide to include it?

That video was shot in 1982 to remember the tearing down of the West Side Highway. It was again a wonderful coincidence because some of that video is right where the Whitney is now. Chelsea was rough and dark and a little bit scary back then; we would walk on the West Side Highway when cars weren’t on it anymore just before it got torn down. It was big in the gay scene in the seventies—guys would go and have anonymous sex in the piers. That was provocative and exciting and we heard about it because a lot of those guys were our friends.
Gordon Matta-Clark was also there working on the cut in the pier. Right there. That beautiful piece where the light shone in at sunset was right across from where the Whitney is now. He was an ex-boyfriend of mine and I was really close to him. Remembering that piece and remembering Gordon—how wonderful he was, that he died young and was very provocative and probably got a big kick out of bumping into those guys and having them flirt with him when he went out to cut his hole in the pier—that’s a great memory. He wasn’t gay, but whatever.

What do you think about how artists interact with the profession now?

Way back when I was starting out you didn’t become an artist because you wanted to make money. But then I probably wanted to get famous, and getting famous is a childlike way of thinking that people will like you. Now the new art world has all these young, smart, sometimes really good artists—and making a lot of money is part of it. Playing with economics is also part of it, and that to me isn’t necessarily negative. It’s an abstract thing, and it fits in with being famous and accepted and valued in society. But of course you could afford to have no money back then, and you can’t anymore, which is significant. Art is so much a part of what I call the new feudalism—the divide between privileged people and those who aren’t is getting wider and wider. The art culture is part of the way wealth is expressed. Again, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad: I think that interest in art could ultimately help the world because it does generate wealth and once you get it you can spread it around a little bit. Also, looking at something beautiful and being able to sit and stare at it and be interested for a long time is really powerful. It is a spiritual idea—it was when I started out and it still is today.