Charline von Heyl: In the Abstract

Filled with shapes that seem to shift before your eyes, the artist’s beguiling paintings are impossible to pin down.


It’s been raining for days, but on this balmy June evening, the sun has just broken through, turning the clouds pink. Charline von Heyl interrupts our discussion of her latest painting, now dripping on the canvas, to direct my gaze out the windows of her expansive studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. “It’s funny how objectlike they are,” she says of the clouds, seeing form where I see a color-streaked sky over the Williamsburg Bridge. “I like the way they just sit there.”

Known for her bold, enigmatic, unapologetically abstract paintings, von Heyl has long made a distinction between looking and seeing. Her works are not abstractions of real things in the world; they are a riot of images that she discovers while improvising on the canvas, a process that involves adding, obliterating, and reassembling. “I love combining things that don’t want to go together until they make a new image,” says the artist, who was born in Mainz, Germany. “My question is always, ‘How do I build a painting that I haven’t ever made before?’ ”

Jakealoo, 2012

We’re sitting on child-size chairs in her studio, where von Heyl has just set up shop after Google took over the building in Chelsea where she spent the past 15 years. Earlier in the week she had worried that the Brooklyn space wouldn’t have the stuff she feeds off—“the fingerprints on the walls, thousands of little things pinned everywhere, the whole paraphernalia building into this staged universe that you want as a painter”—but now that she has begun working here, she has become excited by its potential. Perched on her tiny chair, one of several she uses to paint at different heights, the 53-year-old von Heyl looks like a grad student in her brown glasses, black tank top, and rolled-up white cotton pants. Yet her glamour is hard to conceal. Her blonde hair accentuates alabaster skin and blue eyes, and a glance at her feet reveals a coral pedicure peeking through paint-splotched Birkenstocks.

Her work is harder to pin down: You think you can see a face, for example, or a mustache, and then suddenly you can’t. Rather than developing a signature style, von Heyl prefers to keep things dynamic by using every source and method at her disposal, triggering endless possibilities in the mind of the viewer. “The sheer lack of repetition in her work is just dazzling,” says Jacqueline Humphries, one of several leading female painters in her close circle of friends, which also includes Cecily Brown, Laura Owens, Jutta Koether, Amy Sillman, and Emily Sundblad. “There are things in her paintings that are completely disarming to me. I don’t know how she did it. And she doesn’t know either. She takes deeply personal risks.” It’s those risks and the fact that she’s one of a handful of women painters working in a gutsy, cerebral, abstract manner that have earned her both the admiration of her peers and growing critical acclaim. Last year, Tate Liverpool gave her an exhibition, and Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) held the first U.S. museum survey of her work. “Every painting tells a different story,” von Heyl explains in German-inflected English, lacing her remarks with unsparing self-scrutiny and easy laughter. “They’re static, but at the same time they move in an almost stop-motion way, where the different images you see start to make a movie in your head.”

Anything that comes to von Heyl easily is rejected. She loves to throw herself off-stride and disrupt her natural rhythms. This, she believes, forces her to invent unlikely solutions. Take, for example, Carlotta, one of several new works hanging nearby that will go on view in von Heyl’s solo show at the Petzel Gallery in New York in September. Like most of her paintings, it’s a layered composition of clashing forms and colors—black dots, a citrus lemon and black panel, an eye, a mouth—and a far cry from its first incarnation. “This whole painting was covered in green gestures that were brought out with charcoal, and I thought, This looks so fuckin’ good,” she recalls. “I mean, I could have sold it in a nanosecond. But it was like a premature ejaculation: It was already ready. It felt frustrating. So I destroyed it by imposing a shape on it—the shape of a face. I wanted it to have the power of a face without becoming a face. Because in the end, it’s all about shapes.”

Parlor, 2013, Carlotta, 2013, and Domestic Mythology, 2013, on the wall of von Heyl’s studio

As it happens, von Heyl lacks the ability to recognize faces, even those of loved ones. Ask her to summon in her mind’s eye her mother or her husband of 16 years, the painter Christopher Wool, and she’ll draw a blank. “The picture of someone falls apart the moment I turn away,” she says. For most of her life, she chalked up her trouble to a lousy attention span, without realizing her condition had a name—prosopagnosia—until she read Oliver Sacks’s 2010 essay “Face-Blind” in The New Yorker and learned that she had company (the artist Chuck Close, the primatologist Jane Goodall, and Sacks, among others). “I felt very liberated—because my whole life has been shaped by it. You can’t imagine the damage I did at art fairs, walking straight past people I’d met at dinner the evening before.”

Of course, there has been the occasional upside. She and Wool met in the late ’80s in Cologne, Germany, where they were showing in the same gallery and had other partners. When they met again in New York in 1994, von Heyl says, “I knew I was supposed to know who he was, so I went with my bad habit of counteracting the absolute non-knowledge of who somebody might be with a superfriendly ‘Oh! So nice to see you!’ And that’s how it started.”

These days, they divide their time between New York and Marfa, the sleepy West Texas town made famous by the artist Donald Judd. Wool and von Heyl both had residencies there in 2006 and 2008, respectively, and now they share a studio building with separate entrances. Each also spends time in Marfa alone: Von Heyl has just returned from a four-month sojourn, and Wool is heading there to prepare for his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in October. They rarely talk about work, she says.

Pancalist, 2012

Using a wide range of imagery, from found photographs and drawings to comic books, von Heyl alternates between collage-based works on paper and painting on canvas. To make her collages, she rips images into shapes, drops them onto pages she’s photocopied, spray-painted, and marked with ink, and then manipulates them by hand until they offer up something new to her. Only when her head is teeming with abstract forms does she begin to paint. “The works on paper are a filling station, and when she’s painting, she’s emptying,” explains the curator Jenelle Porter, who organized von Heyl’s ICA survey. “That muddle in her head comes onto the canvas in this way that looks nothing like the works on paper. She jams things together that shouldn’t go together, but somehow her brain can put them together in a way that our eye accepts them.”

Though she was 30 before she had her first solo show, in Cologne, von Heyl insists that she knew from the age of 5 that she was going to be a painter. She grew up in Bonn, where her father was a lawyer. Her French-born mother, a psychologist, was a voracious reader whose books von Heyl prized for their illustrations. Her fraternal grandmother, von Heyl recalls, was a hoarder with a knack for “translating objects into something that they were not supposed to be. She’d buy a broken Buddha and display it next to a chocolate-box insert. She had this strange, anarchic, playful mind.”

The word “anarchic” crops up frequently in von Heyl’s recollections of her early days. She studied with the late German painter Jörg Immendorff in Hamburg and with Fritz Schwegler at the famed Düsseldorf Art Academy, where Thomas Ruff, Katharina ­Fritsch, and Andreas Gursky were also students in the ’80s. There and in Cologne, she saw up close a vibrant painting scene, particularly through the work of Immendorff, Albert Oehlen, and the late Martin Kippenberger, whose “anarchistic approaches to painting,” she recalls, “really rocked my understanding of what painting can do—this idea that it’s not just a nicey-nice thing but that it could actually be aggressive.”

Immendorff later invited her to work for him as his assistant in Düsseldorf. She didn’t much like the way his paintings looked, but she was drawn to his “weird invented symbolic universe,” which informed her own. Her intellectual curiosity led her to Diedrich Diederichsen, a renowned cultural critic who introduced her to the American musician Mayo Thompson, a member of the avant-garde bands Red Krayola and Pere Ubu, who moved to Düsseldorf to live with her. He was 40, and von Heyl was 23. “He was intense, supersmart, and funny,” she recalls of their seven-year relationship.

The art scene they inhabited, however, was dominated by men, and though Thompson was protective of her, she says, and she never had to deal with sexist behavior, von Heyl came to believe—as she still does—that “women in Germany have no chance as painters.” So in the mid-’90s she moved to New York, where video and installation art ruled the moment. “She was the first woman I met who shared my high ambition for painting,” says Humphries of that time. In fact, as von Heyl tells it, she was never insecure about painting, even when her career was on slow burn. “I’ve always felt powerful. It was just a question of ‘How do I translate my drive into a painting?’ ”

For the moment, there is the business of the dripping canvas on her wall. We’ve been talking for hours, and she’s clearly keen to get back to it. Given her habit of destroying paintings, I ask how she knows when they are ready. “When I can neither add nor subtract anything,” she answers. “But it can take a long time to get there, sometimes years. And a painting being finished doesn’t mean that it is not open. It is, in fact, only finished when it is a different painting to different people—when it changes every time you look at it.”

Portraits by Gus Powell. Photography Assistant: Andrew Musson. Artwork: Jason Mandella/courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.