Mary Heilmann

Mary Heilmann was born in 1940 in San Francisco, California. She earned a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1962), and an MA from the University of California, Berkeley (1967). For every piece of Heilmann’s work—abstract paintings, ceramics, and furniture—there is a backstory. Imbued with recollections, stories spun from her imagination, and references to music, aesthetic influences, and dreams, her paintings are like meditations or icons. Her expert and sometimes surprising treatment of paint—alternately diaphanous and goopy—complements a keen sense of color that glories in the hues and light that emanate from her laptop, and finds inspiration in the saturated colors of TV cartoons such as The Simpsons.

Her compositions are often hybrid spatial environments that juxtapose two- and three-dimensional renderings in a single frame, join several canvases into new works, or create diptychs of paintings and photographs in the form of prints, slideshows, and videos. Heilmann sometimes installs her paintings alongside chairs and benches that she builds by hand—an open invitation for viewers to socialize and contemplate her work communally.

Mary Heilmann has received the Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation Award (2006) and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has had major exhibitions at Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York (2009); New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2008); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2008); and Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California (2007), among others. Her work has appeared in three Whitney Biennial exhibitions (1972, 1989, 2008) and is in many collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Orange County Museum of Art. Mary Heilmann lives and works in New York.

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Conversation Starter

Can abstract imagery tell a story?

Bold color and whimsical brush strokes can evoke a visceral reaction, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at.

Teaching with Contemporary Art

Who Am I, in Color?

Educator-in-Residence Jocelyn Salaz lays out the elements of her unit on color, in which students make their own paints, study color theory, and investigate the implications of skin tone.


Every Piece has a Backstory

This interview consists of excerpts from a 2008 interview with Mary Heilmann, in which she discusses her formative years in California; evolution from literature to ceramics to painting; and many inspirations, including video games and roadways.