Lesson: Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • "Capistrano," 1994."Capistrano," 1994.
  • "Starry Night (Night Sky)," 1967."Starry Night (Night Sky)," 1967.
  • "Interval," 2002."Interval," 2002.
  • "Malibu," 1970."Malibu," 1970.
  • "Sculpture of Night," 2007."Sculpture of Night," 2007.
  • "Woody's Truck Stop," 1992-1997."Woody's Truck Stop," 1992-1997.
  • "The Big Dipper," 1969"The Big Dipper," 1969
  • "Fresno (Ernie Palomino)," 2004."Fresno (Ernie Palomino)," 2004.
  • "The End of the All Night Movie," 1978."The End of the All Night Movie," 1978.
  • "Little 9 x 9," 1973."Little 9 x 9," 1973.
  • "Miramar," 1994."Miramar," 1994.
  • "Clubchair 35," 2007."Clubchair 35," 2007.


Written by Cathleen Lewis, Manager of High School Programs

Mary Heilmann is a painter who began her artistic career working in ceramics and sculpture. Self-described as a philosopher, Heilmann creates paintings that are infused with content of the self, social, private, and public, as well as allusions to the domestic everyday. In the ‘70s, when Heilmann began painting, her audacious primary colors were unique and bold for the time. Heilmann’s paintings received criticism at a time when pure abstraction and Greenbergian formalism reigned, when art for art’s sake was the manifesto of the time.
Richard Flood, Chief Curator of the New Museum, says of Heilman, “It is impossible to think of Heilmann’s art as coming from anywhere other than the U.S. of A. Its boldness and challenging abstraction are unique. No one else sets up the same rousing conversation between forms and colors. Pods, webs, tiles, waves, blood tides, and dangling nerve ends are the vocabulary. The glorious off-ness of her color rattles shapes like shards in a kaleidoscope”. [1]


  • Students will develop an understanding of abstraction, modernism and postmodernism
  • Students will explore and discuss the position of women artists during the ‘70s.
  • Students will discuss how artists during the ‘70s were challenging traditional art practices.


Abstraction is an artistic language that frees itself from subject matter to concentrate instead on content; that content is an essential expression of an idea or feeling, rather than a representation of an object from the real world.
Greenbergian Formalism – Clement Greenberg (1909-94), art critic and cultural megastar whose presence defined the 1950s and 1960s art world. In post-War America, if a work didn’t fit in the “Greenbergian universe,” it was not considered by many art. The Greenbergian regime was all male. [2]
Lexicon is a workbook or dictionary, inventory or record
Minimalism, a chiefly American style in painting and sculpture, developed in the 1960s largely in reaction against Abstract Expressionism, shunning illusion, decorativeness, and emotional subjectivity in favor of impersonality, simplification of form, and the use of often massive, industrially produced materials for sculpture. Minimalism extended its influence to architecture, design, dance, theater, and music.
Process is a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner.
Signification, significance is meaning, the act of signifying; indication.
Visual pleasure refers to the emotions, reactions, and desires people have when someone is presented with something that can be seen or looked at.


Mary Heilmann’s images from Digital Archives
Watercolors and/or watercolor pencils
Watercolor paper
Rulers and/or protractors

Lesson Strategy

Open discussion:
Have students view the links below. Have an open discussion on vocabulary terms like Greenbergian formalism, deconstruction, minimalism, modernism, and postmodernism.


  • Why did Heilmann change from sculpture to painting?
  • Heilmann claims she constructs paintings the way she constructs sculpture. Explain this statement by looking at the work.
  • Why was the illusion of space not embraced by the modernists?
  • Why did Heilmann say she liked to use shocking colors? Why is this important?

Look at the following oil on canvas paintings by Heilmann, Malibu 1970, Lupe 1987, Capistrano, and Miramar.

  • What process is the artist using in this work?
  • What does the oozing paint in between the folds of the canvas connote? What does the staining of the canvas suggest?
  • What overall reference does the painting make?
  • How does the title of this piece add more meaning?
  • Do you think the other paintings’ titles may have signification?
  • What feeling or emotions are associated with the color blue?

Upon relocating to New York, Heilmann met other artists that were more interested in discarding modernist traditions, choosing to make art out of untraditional materials, letting process and concepts take precedence over the subject.

  • What traditional modernist practices were artists like Heilmann challenging at the time?
  • How was the use of unstretched canvas and staining the canvas different from traditional modernist painting?
  • How is Malibu different from Miramar and Capistrano? What are the similarities?
  • How is Malibu more like an object and less like a painting?
  • How would you describe the process in Malibu?

Malibu marks Heilmann’s transition into painting. Although she disliked contemporary painting at the time, by her own admission, it was an antagonistic move. During a time, when it seemed as if painting was dead, the challenge facing Heilmann was finding a way to paint while rejecting the history of painting. In the 1980s Heilmann worked on a series of paintings that evoke her childhood in California, these paintings are dominated by the color blue. [4]

Have students look at Heilmann’s painting, Little 9×9 1973.

  • What do we notice about this painting?
  • What iconic formal quality associated with modernism is being used in this painting?
  • Is it a controlled grid? Why? Why not?
  • What tool might the artist have used to make lines in the grid?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe this painting?

In search of her own style during this period of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, Heilmann utilizes what will become part of her lexicon of painting, using a restrictive palette, scraping out the paint with her fingers or paintbrush, and pushing the painting beyond the limits of the picture’s surface to include the edges of the canvas.

Have students look at the following two paintings.

Tehachapi #1 1979 and The End of the All Night Movie 1978

  • What do we notice about these paintings?
  • What has changed?
  • How are the colors different?
  • What mood does the colors connote?
  • What suggestions or referentials does the color pink make?
  • How does the color pink signify meaning in this work?
  • How does the drip activate the space? What would happen if it weren’t there? [Use the accident to set the aesthetic exercise.]
  • How does the artist use chance?
  • How does the artist utilize the language of both the Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism?

A change in Heilmann’s work began in 1978, deeply affected by the deaths of three close friends in New York. Personal associations and memories began to permeate Heilmann’s work. The Pop optimism of her earlier work and primary colors are replaced with more somber hues and darker sentiments. While using the formal iconic elements of geometric abstraction and Minimalism, such as the cube, Heilmann also employs irony, wit, and evidence of the artist hand, rather than using machine-like precision or reducing the elements down to their essential qualities.

Look at Lola 1996.

  • Describe the composition of this painting.
  • How does the color change from top to bottom?
  • How does the background and foreground vacillate back and forth?
  • Describe the colors’ temperature?
  • How is Heilmann challenging pure Minimalist tradition?
  • How does the work show movement or rhythm?
  • Do you think that Heillmann is mixing metaphors in this work? Why or why not?
  • What effect do the drips have in this work?
  • Does the title add significance to this work?

Lola recalls the lyrics of the Kinks’ 1970 song “Lola,” which was also redone by the Raincoats in the 1990s. Heilmann’s work is often inspired by music; she titles her painting after songs or makes references to music. The song’s lyrics include, “it’s a mixed up, muddled up world, except for Lola.”

  • What do you think the painting has to do with the song’s lyrics?

“My whole practice is very much about deconstructing the practice of painting” Mary Heilmann

  • What did Heilman mean by this statement?
  • How is Heilman’s work about self-referencing concepts?

Look at Fresno (Ernie Palomino) 2004 and WOODY’S Truck Stop 1992-1997.

  • How is this work constructed?
  • What references does at least part of the painting have?
  • Where do we see this type of faux-wood grain in culture?
  • While one part seems to allude to a particular moment or place in time, the other half is very different. How is it different?
  • Do the titles add significance to the paintings? How?
  • How does the transparency of color in the upper attached canvas reflect Heilmann’s experience with ceramic techniques?

Starry Night (Night Sky) 1967
The Big Dipper 1969
Sculpture of Night 2007

Taking a look at the three sculptures above, consider the following:

  • What materials is Heilmann using in these works?
  • How are the materials different from her other materials?
  • The artist is using a more restrictive color here. Why?

Heilmann was experimenting with new possibilities and may have been influenced by Richard Sierra’s prop works as suggested in Sculpture of Night. Sculpture of Night was remade for the exhibition; the artist says the inspiration for it came while she was working in a children’s nursery. What stories and lessons were the children probably learning while Heilmann worked there?

Look at Interval 2002.

  • What do you notice in this work?
  • What is Heilmann’s mark or signature style?
  • Why do you think Richard Flood stated that Heilmann’s paintings “could only be made in the U.S. of A.”?
  • Why do you think he refers to her as “a painter’s painter”?
  • How did Heilmann’s work challenge the status quote during the ‘70s?

Heilmann’s paintings have been described as generous in pleasure, which contradicts postmodernist tendencies that often insist on a more antagonistic approach. Heilmann states that her work isn’t “just pretty pictures.” They are not cynical or sarcastic, but sincere and funny.

Look at the installation shots and Clubchair 35.

In 1994, during a residence at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, Heilmann made fabric designs for napkins, lamps, and aprons. For a one-person show in Vienna and another exhibition in London, Heilmann designed a series of wooden chairs with colorful woven seats. Reminded of “Henri Matisse’s remark that he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman.” [5]

  • How do you think the chairs changed the space of the Museum?
  • How do you think they changed the viewer’s experience with the other artworks?

Heilmann made the chairs as part of the installation in Vienna and London, turning the gallery into a more personal space, encouraging audiences to sit and relax while looking at her work, reinforcing the gallery as a social space, much like the nineteenth century construct.

  • What was the catalyst for Heilmann to create the chairs? What other motives might have contributed to her creating them?
  • What are the similarities do Heilmann’s chairs and paintings have?

Mary Heilmann uses grids, rolling waves, shaped canvases, the stacking of colors, dots, drips and webs in her work. Heilmann is drawn to color’s emotional qualities and drawn to similar properties in music. Heilmann’s work makes allusions to the domestic everyday world. Using an audacious color palette, she is an ultimate colorist. She is one of the women painters attributed with opening up abstraction.

Activity I
Have students visit the following Web sites.


I realize I should’ve stuck to my guns.
They shit me out just like a bastard son,
And I lost myself.
And I know that it was wrong,
But it cost me a lot

“To Be Someone”
Written by Pual Weller
From the tribute album Fire and Skill: The Songs of the Jam

  • Ask students to consider the meaning of the lyrics of “To Be Someone,” also the title of Mary Heilmann’s exhibition.
  • Ask students why they think Heilmann choose these lyrics for the title of her exhibition.
  • What type of things does a famous person have to give up after becoming famous?

Ask students to consider what music, poetry, or narrative inspires them in popular culture. How would they channel this inspiration in a body of work?
Have students choose a song that speaks to them and make a painting or drawing based on its lyrics, memories, and rhythm.

Activity II
Describing the time of Heilmann’s arrival in New York in the late ‘60s, Elizabeth Armstrong states, “As a recent import from California, however, and as a woman in a crowd dominated by strong men, Heilmann was at a distinct disadvantage in this new environment”. [6]
Ask students to research what was happening in the art world at the time, the impact of modernism and its male dominance. Have a discussion on how it might have been for women artists during that time. Ask students to write an essay considering how Heilmann’s work was viewed during the time? Ask students to consider how things may have changed today.

Using the link below, show and discuss the poster by the Guerrilla Girls “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”


Extending the Lesson

Have students compare the work of Mary Heilmann and the work of Elizabeth Peyton, have students list similarities and differences in the work.

Have students research the work of Jessica Stockholder and ask them to write an essay on why and how Mary Heilmann has been an inspiration to younger postmodern artists.

Other artists to consider:
Elizabeth Peyton
Jessica Stockholder

Additional Resources

[1] Richard Flood, brochure for Mary Heilmann:To Be Someone
[2] Sarah, Wright, Abstract artist’s work contains elements of rebellion, historian
[3] Christopher L. C. E. Witcombefont
[4] Elizabeth Armstrong, catalogue essay, Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone.
[5] Mary Heilmann, Biography in Mary Heilmann: A Survey (Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, 1990)
[6] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

Suggestions Web sites:

Lesson Plan: Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone

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