By Michelle Trauring
William “Sandsy” Heppenheimer is not one to conform—in neither his art, his personality, nor his Sag Harbor studio.
What could be an average, gloomy basement is nearly exploding with color. On a typical day, the floor is littered with pieces of dried acrylic paint, his walls covered by his vibrant signature canvases—outright protests against the rigidity of minimalism and formalism, and currently on view at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
For a man as invested in color as Mr. Heppenheimer, who won the museum’s Artists Members Exhibition in 2014, his studio is not necessarily unexpected. The same cannot be said of his Pyrex dish collection.
“When I say I’ve got a ton, I’ve got a ton,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his home in East Hampton. “There’s no big story behind it. They’re what I use to do what I do. I just make what looks good to me—and I’ve always liked patterns.”
Born in Manhattan in 1954, a young Sandsy spent his formative years growing up in Paris and London before moving back to New York at age 13. While abroad, he would often visit the Tate, where he first crossed paths with artist Bridget Riley. He wasn’t particularly drawn to modern art, he said, but when he saw her op-art work, he stopped in his tracks.
It wasn’t the pattern that attracted him, he said. It was what the pattern did to his eyes.
“I immediately started doing Hard-edge paintings. I got a piece of graph paper, divided it all up with masking tape and chose what color I wanted. I was never specifically taught how to do that, it was just something I thought I could do,” he said. “I figured out how to keep the paint from going underneath the tape and it was pretty much paint-by-numbers, actually. At that time, I didn’t even mix my paints. It just came right out of the tube.”
Art suited him—“I’ve always pretty much been a loner, an outsider,” he said. “I was always shy, let’s put it that way”—and he found hard-edge therapeutic. He attended Colorado College straight out of high school, but took too many art classes too fast, he said. That left him with a more academic course load, and he lost his way.
“Basically, you get to college, you tend to party too much. I was living in the moment and decided, ‘Well, I’ve gotta do art,’” he said. “I’d never really checked out Pratt beforehand. I just walked in, showed ’em my stuff and they said, ‘Okay, you can come.’ It was at a time they were really into minimalism and formalism and that very austere stuff, and I’m basically the opposite end of that spectrum.”
For two years, he was miserable, he said. When his friend told him to come down to the University of Florida, he jumped at the chance.
“I wasn’t gonna get any decent feedback at Pratt because I was looked down on,” he said. “I think the arts were a lot more regimented then. You had to be in the movement of the moment. It wasn’t as freewheeling as it is now, where anything goes. When I got to Florida State, I actually had studio space. It was basically x-amount of square feet and a cement floor in a warehouse—but that was your space and you could do what you wanted with it, with a bunch of other artists.”
One detour to the next led him to where he belonged, not to mention his diploma—“I like to finish what I start,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Still partying too hard, but somehow made it through”—and he moved to the South Fork in 1980. He fondly remembered his childhood summers here, and never left.
Immersed in the artistic fabric of the East End, his phases came in waves—from Hard-edge to collages to weaving ribbons through wire to mastering the art of patina—and it was through one of his transitions that he found the art he creates now.
Early into his career, and as many artists do, he made the switch from working with pure color to combinations, which he would mix in ice cube trays. When he was finished, he would pop out the acrylic paint and reuse the tray.
It was when he took a knife to one of these cubes of old paint that things got interesting.
“I looked at the cross-section and I said to myself, ‘Well, how could I improve upon this?’” he said. “I decided to take a Pyrex dish, toss the old paint in there and mix in new paint, wait about three months until the thing was dry, and pull it out as one piece, as a block. And then I would cut it like a loaf of bread, like slices. It’s kind of like a Rorschach test.”
With dozens of slices laid out before him, he got to work, placing them next to each other in different formations until he was satisfied. It was a technique he shelved until 2010, and revisited it in a big way. With a new body of work, his Pyrex inventory turned into an assembly line, with new blocks cooking at all times. Still, some pieces could take months on end—such as “Cryptoglyphs, Panel L,” which is 6 feet long.
“It’s pretty random. I never really know what I’m gonna get, and that’s what I like about it,” he said. “I like the immediacy of it. Then, they go out into the world and they’re their own thing. You like it, you don’t like it. But they’re there and they basically can’t be ignored. People can go wild with it that’s what I find more interesting than what I bring to it.”
“The one thing I learned from art school is that I don’t like to think too much about what I do because then I become frozen and I feel like I can’t do that because it means this and that and … I can’t go there,” he added. “It’s a discovery for me and I arrange them in pleasing patterns. It sounds rather shallow, but I really like to emphasize the visual. I like to give people something to work with visually, something that’s complicated that you maybe don’t see everything at once. Maybe you just look at one corner for a change, inch by inch.”
Sometimes, in his studio, Mr. Heppenheimer catches himself doing just that with his work on the walls—and stumbling across a figure, or face, he hadn’t seen before.
“Every wall has something on it. I’m running out of room, actually. And then the floor …” he trailed off, laughing. “It’s not so bad now. Every once in a while, I pick up the pieces, but you walk in there and talk about overload.
“It doesn’t really bother me. I don’t understand it,” he continued. “In a way, I understand less is more. But in a way, it’s like you left something out, so let’s put it in. More is more, as far as I’m concerned.”
Work by William S. Heppenheimer, winner of the 2014 Guild Hall Artists Members Exhibition, will remain on view through December 31. A gallery talk with Mr. Heppenheimer and Stephanie deTroy Miller will be held on Saturday, October 29, at 2 p.m. For more information, visit guildhall.org.