“The drawings.... They’ve become my life. Each night for hours into 3-4 am I draw and think and draw and wander... ”
–Susanna Heller (email to a friend, 2021)
One day in May 2021, two weeks after the Brooklyn-based painter Susanna Heller died, three friends of long-standing met at her apartment in Greenpoint. Heller had recently had to move out of her truest home, her studio of two decades at 51-55 Nassau Avenue (Dobbin Street) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a space that was an engine of creativity and which looked the way a painter’s studio looks in the popular imagination—work from floor to ceiling, paint everywhere, on everything. Now on the clean walls of her living room were drawings from floor to ceiling, searing, vivid, gory, angry, yet often exhilarating, even lyrical—mostly self-portraits done through long sleepless nights of physical pain endured in solitude.
When an artist dies before they have fully achieved the critical place their work calls for, a necessary task begins, of sharing their work and creating critical and historical context. Susanna Heller: Beyond Pain, The Last Drawings, compiled, edited, and published by two of Heller’s oldest and dearest friends, artist Marlene Dumas and art historian Suzanne Styhler, is the first step in that task of celebrating and contextualizing Heller’s work. Dumas’s husband and Heller’s decades-long friend the painter Jan Andriesse was central to the project, though sadly he himself did not live to see it completed. This book is an introduction to a remarkable artist, and it is a celebration of the power of drawing as a medium of intimate communication.
Heller was born in New York City and raised and educated in Canada, including a BFA from NSCAD. An artist resident of Greenpoint since 1981, she was best known for her visceral and visionary cityscapes, including a remarkable series of 234-inch high drawings of the World Trade Center Towers, done in 1998 when she had a fifteen-month residency on the 91st floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center as part of the World Views Program, organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Heller exhibited her work in New York and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Painting in 1988; she was primarily represented by the Toronto-based Olga Korper Gallery which currently represents her estate. It was a frustrating contradiction that she was considered a National Treasure in Canada but relatively obscure to the New York art market, if not to the many artists and art students who revered her and her work.
The most notable previous exploration of figuration in Heller’s work had been a searing group of paintings of her husband the noted sociologist William DiFazio during dramatic treatments to save his life from necrotizing fasciitis. While selflessly devoting herself to his care, Heller had scrutinized the unthinkable, memorizing everything she saw, planning what oil painting could do to depict the desperate contingency of flesh.
Now Heller’s characteristic active, nervous, driven use of line was applied to a new subject, her own body enduring the failure of dramatic surgeries to save her digestive system. She drew herself with her guts slipping out from her body, her body and the cityscape melding into one throbbing living entity. The rectangle is only a notional space for many of the drawings. Heller always loved scraps, of paper, of oil paint—in her later paintings thick moments of paint would be turned into objects, fragments which she would move around, observing and obsessing for hours in the studio to find the right place for a richly encrusted scrap to sit. In the drawings her body and the city are joined as the city swirls around her. Her vision is pitiless, stark, yet ecstatic.
The writings in Beyond Pain, most written specifically for this book, range from the personal and autobiographical to the art historical and critical. It begins with Heller’s sister the Canadian poet Liane Heller’s intimate and touching depiction of the life of the sisters in childhood, navigating their culturally rich yet emotionally cold home, a situation also mentioned in Styhler’s titular text which provides a linear yet vivid biography, illustrated by personal photos and useful documentation of key paintings and major drawings. Art historical and critical perspective is offered by essays by Dutch museum director Jetteke Bolten-Rempt and Heller’s long-time friend and champion the art historian Matthew Teitelbaum, for many years Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, currently Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They contextualize Heller’s work and focus on Heller’s capacity to bring into painting intense exterior and interior sensations and appearances.
Marlene Dumas’s essay focuses on the decades-long friendship between Heller and Dutch artist Jan Andriesse, Dumas’s husband. Over five decades Heller and Andriesse exchanged letters and later emails. In their last months, emails flew back and forth through night and dawn. Dumas reproduces and transcribes moments from this remarkable correspondence. Both were incredibly well read in art history, poetry, politics, political theory, with what Dumas describes as “ethical urgency,” a term which highlights the intensity with which Heller felt and understood everything. This correspondence is beautifully presented in face-to-face spreads that should be an inspiration to all who have forgotten the excitement of a real piece of paper with text and drawings handwritten or eccentrically typed arriving in your mailbox.
This beautiful and moving book accomplishes the valuable and essential task of beginning the next life of Susanna Heller’s work.
Some of Heller’s last drawings will be on view in Eyes on the City: Drawings by Susanna Heller and Karlis Rekevics, curated by Karen Wilkin, at the New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street , NY, NY, 10011, June 8-July 16, 2023