THEMATIC: Narrative and Abstraction


"Ground Control to Major Tom," 1994. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. © Mary Heilmann. Courtesy the artist, 303 Gallery, New York and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich London.

Abstract imagery can often tell a story, through clues like shape, line, color, or juxtapositions of visual elements. Mary Heilmann utilizes abstract imagery that borders on the recognizable to create narratives. In Heilmann's segment, the artist discusses how every piece of art she makes has "a back story." View the segment, and discuss how the juxtaposition of abstract and representational elements, as well as the use of color and form, can become a means of communication.

Compare the use of abstract imagery and narrative in Heilmann's work to that of other artists, including: Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg, Robert Ryman, Jessica Stockholder, and Shazia Sikander.


SEGMENT: Mary Heilmann in "Fantasy"

Before Viewing
How can colors and shapes convey a narrative? Can abstract imagery tell a story? How?

While Viewing
Heilmann says that color can be thought of in an iconographic way. List the colors that could be considered iconographic in Heilmann's work, and the associations they bring to mind.

What kinds of juxtapositions does Heilmann make in her slideshows? In what ways are her images both representational and abstract?

After Viewing
Heilmann says that she wanted viewers to have an antagonistic response to her early work. What do you think that comment means? Describe other artists or art movements that have "caused trouble" and challenged the status quo.

Heilmann says that, as she matured, she realized that the most important thing about doing art was communicating and having a conversation through the work. What does Heilmann communicate through her work?

Create
Assemble a collection of works that juxtapose abstract and representational images—found, drawn, painted, or created digitally. Narrate a story based on the sequence of the images.