Amy Sillman? All I can say is pentimenti. The artist’s working process provides so many transitory parts that the brain has to protect itself by combining them into a whole. The work comes to a rest, but hiding under the surface are two interpretive horizons: The complete painting and the individual paint strokes. The whole work is inseparable from each stroke, and yet the individual stroke is unrelated to the whole.
Her more recent abstract paintings (she’d say drawings), now on view at the ICA Boston, are certainly framed this way. Each is built up by forming an impulse, trying a layer, reversing it, repainting something new, rotating the painting, reacting to what is there, being surprised, drawing the thing again, and finally ending up with a ream of ideas painted in layers. The resultant painting is like seeing an entire novel or movie as one thing, at one time. They are born of inclusivity. They are filled with cellular veins of information; crowded swills of moments that incorporate their neighbors instead of disregard them.
It’s so easy to see de Kooning, Guston, or other painters informing Sillman’s work, but that’s just not fair to her. Her work may resemble their works, but it does not rely on them. It’s the wrong question to ask of her. What we are seeing on the canvas is a result of formal uncertainties she confronted in the moment, even as she required her “body to lead her mind.” It is not a circumstance of her having one foot in an art history text. Sillman has struggled with the Abstract Expressionists’ legacy, and she has definitely appropriated parts of their practice. Instead, the similarities of her paintings to mid-century work make me want to redefine the AbEx painters. Were their paintings the results of similar visual doubts and playful discovery? Yes. To focus on their work as more of a result then a spiritual circumstance, redefines them. I find myself thinking they were really Abstract Compositionists under all the art historical spin.
Sillman’s style is not formulaic. If anything, it is consciously inventive. She works very hard to encode these romans à clef. Hidden in her drawings are things that are not what they were when they inspired her, having been transformed. The abstractions that emerged from having two people sit together are a key example. I had no idea what inspired these paintings at first. They are concealed in physical twists of the canvas, camouflage, and overlays. Their referent is slurred and the resulting paintings are first-rate examples of painters being inspired by the mundane and being able to conceal it well.
I’m not sure that Sillman’s compositions should be seen as finished or unfinished. They certainly reject the idea of being provisional. The various marks and layers are related to each other. The more recent paintings are the best evidence. The conscious layers of contrasting colors (blue/orange under yellow/purple) and the resultant subtle shifts of the resulting grays and browns cannot be anything less than deliberately alert work. What constitutes “finished” is, of course, subjective and reveals our expectations for painting, but the work should not be seen as accidents from an inexperienced hand.
Sillman insists that her paintings are drawings and I can sympathize with her. There are plenty of other artists—painters, printmakers, sculptors—that were trained in their chosen medium but kept faithful to their true love, drawing. Where I want to quarrel with her though, is that this denies her painting chops. She’s a painter. She paints really well. Though her heart is devoted to drawing, now that curator Helen Molesworth has deliberated on her career via a retrospective, she should reconsider how much she says that she’s primarily a drafter. It’s pretty obvious that she has some serious painterly skills.
The assertion that these works are drawings is itself a political action, which creates a metaphysical tension. If painting is art’s apex predator, then drawing on an ipad is one of the ingredients for chum bait. Sillman has inverted the economic terms in this food pyramid by continuing to draw no matter her materials. These paintings do not fit in my tiny apartment and are not going to be found in a flatfile like works on paper. They do look good on the floor of an art fair. They look fantastic in a white walled museum with guards standing next to them. Her claim that she’s not an apex predator (a painter) and the comedy she uses to diffuse the authority found in her large and commanding paintings belie this show’s reality.
Amy Sillman: one lump or two, curated by Helen Molesworth, is on view at the ICA Boston through January 5, 2014. It will travel to the Aspen Art Museum from February 13 to May 11, 2014, and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College (CCS Bard) from June 28 to September 21, 2014.