Few things fill me with genuine contentment more than strolling down a street towards an art gallery on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with a strong black coffee in hand! And that is exactly the position I found myself in last weekend… heading towards Whitechapel Gallery to catch the Mary Heilmann ‘Looking at Pictures’ exhibition on its final day. This retrospective explores the American abstract artists’ past five decades of work, from her early geometric paintings of the 1970’s through to modernday shaped canvases in day-glo colours. It opens with the honest statement that Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics and sculpture in California but failed to make it as a female sculptor, before taking up painting when she moved to New York in 1968 – her background in sculpture and ceramics is immediately apparent as she clearly views canvases as three-dimensional objects often painting their sides, as well as using her fingers to manipulate paints and create textured surfaces. As you move to the upstairs gallery you are greeted by a projected slideshow entitled ‘Her Life’ which shows photographs Heilmann has taken alongside the abstract images she has created in response to them; not only does this help give context to the exhibition but it is also interesting to witness her interpretation of everyday scenes. The final gallery displays more personal works, and also contains examples of Heilmann’s chairs in a variety of pastel colours enabling visitors to sit down and view and discuss her works at a leisurely pace. Some pieces are intensely biographical including ‘311 Castro Street’ which was the artists’ childhood address and ‘Maricopa Highway’ which was a road-trip she regularly took, and one final piece depicting a crashing wave in bold, lush greens and blues offers visitors a final reminder of Heilmann’s distinctly Californian background.
I must confess my ignorance as I knew very little about Alexander Calder until visiting Tate Modern’s current ‘Performing Sculpture’ exhibition, and came away feeling not only educated but physically lighter as it’s such a playful show! It focusses on the American artists’ work between 1930 and 1940 and spans eleven galleries, displaying a range of delicate wire sculptures, hanging mobiles, large scale pieces and even a sculptural musical instrument (consisting of a sphere at the end of a string, which knocks against bottles, a box, a can and a gong on the floor which originally could be re-arranged by viewers to produce different sounds). Creativity was certainly in Calder’s blood as his father and grandfather were both sculptors and his mother was a painter, so it should come as no surprise that he wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and break away from sculpting a solid mass and experiment with unconventional materials such as wire, cork and buttons in contrast to more traditional stone and wood. His interest in the performing arts is also evident throughout; explicit in his wire creations of acrobats and circus performers, and implicit in his desire to produce pieces which literally dance in the air. Calder’s mobiles are created from different materials of varying weights enabling them to move independently of each other – and this in turn allowed each sculpture to create its own shadow against the clean gallery walls, spinning slowly as visitors walked past or a breeze moved through the space. Likewise each piece caught the light in a different way which really added to the exhibition, and was something that could only be appreciated by viewing the sculptures in person and failed to be replicated by the exhibition catalogue or still photographs. So make sure you see it for yourself before it closes on 3rd April.