While I made (organic) chicken soup for Chad’s brother when he was sick, and then again when Chad got the same thing, when I finally caught the head cold, I didn’t make soup. Instead, I dragged myself out of bed to drive up to Newport Beach to see Mary Heilmann’s show at OCMA this weekend and it made me feel better.

This image is impossibly small, but it provides a tiny thumbtack for me to pin up a few ideas about Heilmann’s work. First of all, the paintings, and they really did seem to be all paintings, even when they were sometimes actually painted chairs hung on the wall, were frequently large, as large as two doors. And each painting had presence – which my prof Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe used to say was the point of art: to approach a state of being. In this case, walking through Heilmann’s exhibition was like 75 chance meetings with quiet, striving, and generally happy people.

Most of the time, the bright washes of color underneath, were truly underneath, not just taped into squares – and just barely showing through the layers of color on top, and this seemed to generate a enormous amount of play. By play, I mean light, joyful experimentation and teasing, but I also mean tension, as in, how much you are willing to give? Heilmann goes all the way (Dave Hickey jokes about her surfer slut stage in his catalog essay), but remains in control. While Heilmann’s grids might bring Mondrian to mind, his use of abstract geometry is far removed from the human-like interaction between the squares of color in Heilmann’s paintings. In fact, her awareness, but ultimate refusal to paint in reaction to male greats, like Rothko and Stella, I think has made work by artists like Kim Fisher and Liz Larner possible (both of whom had work in the museum foyer).

Heilmann is uncannily able to transmute painting traditions: stripes, grids, oddly shaped canvasses, color fields, and even joined paintings, to her own means. And even if her paintings were not all happy, especially in the series done in matte black (and eraser pink) after several of her close friends died, she accomplishes that thing that art does so well; you know, talking without words.

I’m not saying that the show is full of perfect paintings – it’s a survey and hits different points in her career to date, and I’ve only posted images I’ve culled from a google image search. It’s a strong body of work, though, and I think that the curator, Elizabeth Armstrong, is right when she says that Mary Heilmann (b. 1940) is one of the most important yet least recognized artists in the United States today. It certainly is an exhibition worth taking the time and money ($10) to see.

The show is up until August 26, 2007. I bought a membership, so if you want to see it, I’ll take you for free.