Mary Heilmann - New Now New York Wednesday, March 3, 2021 | Phillips
  • "I like that you can take [space] apart and put [it] together like puzzles. It makes it living and alive." —Mary Heilmann

     Executed in 1989, Mary Heilmann’s Deco marks a departure from the austerity of geometric abstraction as the artist’s loose brushwork evokes a distinctly painterly feel. The translucent white squares that hover eerily over the black background are lightly rendered, imbuing the work with an intuitive and organic quality. 

    "I wanted to be on the edge. Original. And that meant going against the status quo." —Mary Heilmann

    As an artist who emigrated from California to New York in 1968, Heilmann struggled to find her place in the hyper-masculine worlds of abstraction and minimalism. Her oeuvre is often viewed as a revolt against the rigid discourse of modernist painting that was prevalent during the 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, Clement Greenberg argued that “to achieve autonomy, painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture… to exclude the representational or literary, that painting has made itself abstract.”i Greatly influenced by her formal training in ceramics and sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley, Heilmann openly subverts Greenberg’s notion of artistic separation using Deco to the canvas as a three-dimensional object, painting its often forgotten sides.ii By adding a sheer coat of white pigment over the lighter half of the composition, Heilmann pays homage to her background in ceramics for which she typically overlays her work with an additional layer of paint by emulating techniques taught by her mentor, American sculptor Peter Voulkos.

    "The way I paint is informed by my clay practice… I use the paint in a physical and sculptural way. The sides of the canvases are painted and are part of the work, so that a painting is an object as much as it is a picture." —Mary Heilmann

    Deco reveals itself as a deceivingly understated painting that goes beyond mere subversion, inviting viewers to contemplate its profound conceptual undertakings of light and space, revealing the carefully considered complexity of Heilmann’s practice. The appearance of a ground illuminated by a harsh light is reminiscent of the masterful approaches seen in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico or Edward Hopper. At the same time, the splitting of the compositional space evokes opposing sides of light and dark that converge at the diagonal running across the painting.


    Noting the deconstructing and recomposing of space as an important part of her oeuvre, Heilmann elucidates, “The imagination is involved when you think about space or a weird cut-off triangle, or a pair of cut-off four-sided figures. You can have a kind of narrative — it’s like mathematics without numbers, or symbolic logic.”iii For Heilmann, process becomes the very act of storytelling. A beautiful example of Heilmann’s spatial puzzles, Deco unfolds before the viewer piece by piece, ultimately revealing a cohesive formation.


    i Mary Heilmann, Lydia Yee and Briony Fer, “Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures”, London, 2016, p.7

    ii Mary Heilmann, “Painting Pictures,” statement by the artist, The Dan Flavin Art Institute, April 19, 2017

    iii Mary Heilmann, quoted in Jennifer Samet, “Wild, Punk and Slightly Off-Kilter: An Interview with Mary Heilmann”, Hyperallergic, January 12, 2013, online

    • Provenance

      Pat Hearn Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1989

Property of an Important New York Estate



signed with the artist's initials and dated "MH 89" on the reverse
oil on canvas
54 1/8 x 30 in. (137.5 x 76.2 cm)
Painted in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

$80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for $88,200

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig
Associate Specialist, Head of New Now Sale
20th Century & Contemporary Art

New Now

New York Auction 3 March 2021