Charline von Heyl, Untitled (Wall at WAM), 2010, acrylic and latex paint, 17 x 67'.


Charline von Heyl is known for her abstract paintings and works on paper. In November 2010, she created a seventy-foot-long mural for the Worcester Art Museum, as the ninth artist’s project for the museum’s “Wall at WAM” series. She will speak about her work at the museum on May 19.

AFTER I WAS ASKED TO DO THE MURAL, I completely put it out of my mind. I went to Marfa and made a very strange body of work––a series of drawings of animals. They were weird and funny but also clearly representational: stark, black wax crayon outlines filled in with radiant simple colors. I loved them but didn’t want to show them, which I thought was interesting. Freedom has always been the name of my game, so what was I afraid of?

I began to think about the mural. I started by flipping through the museum’s catalogues of the permanent collection that Susan Stoops, who had initiated the project, had sent me. She had mentioned that she’d love it if my mural could be inspired by a work within the museum’s collection. I spotted this little image of a 1961 Ellsworth Kelly painting, three stacked orange lozenges, elements that I immediately knew would be the perfect background if I altered them. Similar lozenges, doubled and sideways, would reflect the surrounding arches and the orange, my favorite color anyway, would highlight the color of the stone. In the end it was more an homage to the architecture than to Ellsworth Kelly––to tell you the truth, I didn’t really think about Kelly at all.

I made exactly one drawing onto this background, using the rough crayon technique that I had worked with over the summer. I wasn’t sure about it, because it was quite figurative. You can see eyes, a fish tail, even a body. I stared at it for a year. But every time I tried to create another option I got paralyzed and thought: no.

I want my paintings to be ambivalent, with paradoxical space and speeds, each one a kind of self-satisfied silent universe. The function of a mural is different: The mural should be part of its physical surroundings, be shamelessly decorative, and possess an immediacy of relation. I absolutely love the look of modernist murals, especially Picasso’s concrete works with line drawings. I was also fascinated by this idea of having a small, fast, spontaneous gesture blown up beyond proportion. The mural allowed me to indulge in ideas I had always thought about but dismissed as design.

Creating the Worcester mural turned out to be a huge celebration of the joy of letting things happen. I got inspired by a tiny or small print of painting and made it my own without thinking twice. What’s more, I let a representational image appear without judging or destroying it, and I loved the result. This really raised some questions about the way I am accustomed to making my work and the restrictions I constantly apply.

These were real questions of crisis for me, but a productive crisis. The mural is at once an emblem of this crisis and an absolute affirmation of possibilities. All my preconceptions about art versus design or abstraction versus figuration got totally mixed up, which I think is good—if nothing else, it certainly does make me want to paint more murals.

— As told to Allese Thomson Baker