Mary Heilmann - New Now New York Wednesday, March 9, 2022 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • "What I am always doing is playing with metaphoric. So that as you look at it, the subject matter reveals itself and this is sometimes helped by the titles. If you have any interest in it and you are seduced by the painting because of colour, lines, scale—formal stuff—you might spend some time trying to figure out what the story is."
    —Mary Heilmann

    Painted in 1989, The Secret by Mary Heilmann is a luminous example of the artist’s subversive approach to geometric abstraction. Departing from the more clinical austerity of Minimalism, Heilmann welcomes the infusion of subjective meaning into her painterly process. The enormous scale of The Secret arrests the viewer, its glazy red field bisected by a wavering diagonal that gives way to overpainted white with subtle hints of the red acrylic in the artist’s distinct painterly aesthetic.


    Based in California until the mid-1960s, Heilmann studied poetry and sculpture before moving to New York City in 1968. Struggling to break into the male-dominated scene of Minimalist and abstract sculpture, the artist deliberately shifted to painting. Often conceiving three-dimensional objects with painted, dripping edges, Heilmann’s paintings retain a notable sculptural quality. Replete with the marks of her creation, The Secret showcases her liberated brushwork and layering of paint that recalls the process of ceramic glazing, making a lush reference to her training as a potter.


    Although Heilmann employs abstract geometry, her paintings resist the total formalist objectivity of Clement Greenberg, reveling in line, color and space. The same instinct can be seen in Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings that translate objects of reality through the language of abstraction. Kelly’s Red Curve VII, 1982, bears a startling resemblance to Heilmann’s The Secret—the same stark areas of red and white, the same planar division of the large canvas into two. Yet, whilst Kelly’s Red Curve VII appears precisely sharp without the suggestion of the artist’s hand, the present work manifests the sculptural, human signs that mark the artist’s painterly presence.


    Heilmann’s painting does not immediately reveal its subject. Unlike works by her contemporaries in geometric abstraction, The Secret is not a direct representation of reality in color and form.

    Instead, the painting reflects a deeper subject; it is a memory, an emotion that Heilmann is able to express in red and white acrylic. Commenting on the obscure nature of her paintings, Heilmann states, “I was still working in a bright-colored, geometrical, non image way, but as I gazed at the work I began to see new meaning in it. Looking at the paintings became like reading tea leaves.”i  As suggested by the work’s mysterious title, The Secret offers a teasing glimpse of the story that Heilmann is telling. “While many artists either don’t name their works at all or if they do, do so as an after-thought,” as Cathy Breslaw observed, “Heilmann’s titles are carefully created and intimately tied to the works—and are as poetic, musical and evocative as the works themselves.”ii 

    i Mary Heilmann, The All Night Movie, Zurich, 1999, p. 56.
    ii Cathy Breslaw, “Good Vibrations Meet Geometry – Mary Heilmann: Memory Remix, Vanguard Culture, June 7, 2018, online.

    • Provenance

      Pat Hearn Gallery, New York
      Robbin Lockett Gallery, Chicago (acquired from the above)
      William J. Hokin, Chicago (acquired from the above in April 1990)
      Sotheby's, New York, February 25, 1994, lot 166
      Marc Jancou, New York
      Private Collection, United States
      Zwirner & Wirth, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in October 2008

    • Exhibited

      New York, Pat Hearn Gallery, Mary Heilmann, October 14–November 4, 1989
      Chicago, Robbin Lockett Gallery, Mary Heilmann, April 6–May 2, 1990
      New York, Zwirner & Wirth, Mary Heilmann: Some Pretty Colors, September 17–October 25, 2008

    • Literature

      Alfred Mac Adam, "Mary Heilmann," ARTnews, November 2008, p. 160 (erroneously titled Untitled, The Secret (Red and White))

Property of an Important East Coast Collection


The Secret

oil on canvas
60 x 42 in. (152.4 x 106.7 cm)
Painted in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

$100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for $113,400

Contact Specialist

Avery Semjen

Head of Sale, New Now

212 940 1207

New Now

New York Auction 9 March 2022