In a zine reproduced in the appendix of the catalogue for “Amy Sillman: one lump or two,” the artist has scrawled in shaky cursive the words of composer Arnold Schoenberg: “I have no objection at all to being lumped together with all the rest.” It’s difficult to lump Sillman with anyone else. While she has helped renew the relevance of painting in recent decades, she does not limit herself to works on canvas, but also creates cartoons, drawings, prints, animations and self-published zines like the one reprinted in the catalogue. Echoes of Abstract Expressionism may be found in her use of scale, intuitive sense of color and composition, and brashness of line. But Sillman also undercuts the serious, tortured tone of postwar art by incorporating cartoonlike motifs into otherwise abstract compositions.
The first two-and-a-half galleries of this loosely chronological 20-year retrospective are primarily dedicated to pastel-hued paintings and works on paper, dating from 1997 to 2003, in which playfully rendered figures inhabit shadowy landscapes. These works give way to large-scale canvases of the mid-2000s that approach pure abstraction without ever completely abandoning representational elements. The Elephant in the Room (2006) is a study in horizontals, verticals and ethereal planes that evokes Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings. A dense orange band dominates the bottom of the piece; on the right, vertical black stripes alternate with murky, dripping patches of color; and a fading yellow wash occupies the upper right quadrant of the canvas. A green streak, swooping down from the far left and curving upward into the yellow glow, interrupts the canvas’s geometric order. As in many of Sillman’s works, language hovers around this painting. In light of the titular pachyderm, the green form appears trunklike; a figure of speech designates the figurative imagery latent in the abstract composition.
If Abstract Expressionism centered on an unbridled outpouring of the (male) painter’s true, genius self, then Sillman’s process is more self-conscious about worldly concerns. In satirical line drawings and text-based paintings, she assumes the role of a witty, self-effacing observer who skewers the manners and mores of New York’s contemporary art scene. An untitled cartoon from 2006 depicts a lineup of four stereotypical creative types, the last of whom, a turtle-neck-clad man with arms crossed, asks, “Are you going to Basel?” While at times Sillman’s paintings appear as heartfelt and expressive as anything de Kooning could make, her cartoons reveal a keen awareness of a social landscape defined by art fairs, professional rivalries and naked careerism.
The last two galleries are dominated by paintings of what curator Helen Molesworth calls the “diagrammatic line.” Instead of impulsive swaths of paint, Sillman’s large canvases from the past five years seem to indicate vectors and motion. “Diagrams are a kind of model for what it’s like to make a painting,” Sillman said recently at a panel discussion. “I’m always trying to find a visual form for what it’s like to think.” A suite of paintings from 2007-08 are derived from reducing the negative spaces in portraits of couples into prismatic webs of lines. While the notion of the diagram seems tenuous in these free-form works, the term draws attention to how thinking and painting are inextricable in Sillman’s practice. The compositional finesse and virtuosic use of color of her earlier paintings are evident in her diagrammatic works, and so, too, are traces of questions raised, pondered and left unanswered. Turning to the last page of her zine, we find ourselves left with the words of Gertrude Stein: “Sometime all this will have meaning.”
By 2006, Amy Sillman had entirely banished from her colorful paintings the whimsical beings that had once populated them. An exhibition that year coorganized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Tang Museum at Skidmore included “portraits” of couples, though the works were entirely abstract. One felt her earlier figuration persisting as imminence or remnant in all the abstractions, sometimes to the detriment of paintings in which fussy, unresolved passages seemed at pains to compensate for the loss.
In “Transformer (or, how many lightbulbs does it take to change a painting?),” her latest exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins, Sillman seemed to have reconciled her past and present vocabularies. Growing the body large and fragmenting it in interesting ways, she gives the figural both a greater and a lesser role than in her past work. The tone was struck at the entrance in an impressive grid of 27 works on paper in gouache and charcoal, each 22½ by 15 inches (2009-10). Scrambled body parts, a few per drawing, are firmly locked into the vertical compositions by aggressive outlines; the drawing style is gawky and bold, reminiscent at once of Guston and Lam. To some, Sillman added color, washes of Kool-Aid pink, orange or yellow. Pentimenti impart a lushness to the surface.
These gouaches, along with a series of smaller drawings and a zine, riff on some of the multipurpose motifs developed in the large paintings-a lightbulb and flashlight in particular, along with a nose, a breast, a hand that gropes its way around and, most notably, a long armlike form with a little fist, which seems to operate as a surrogate gaze (something like a beam of light, only more solid). Establishing her artistic ties quite forthrightly, she reproduces as illustrations in the zine the famous outstretched arm with lantern from Guernica, along with lightbulbs by Guston, Picabia and Johns, and (less familiarly) by Palmer Hayden and R.H. Quaytman.
Such motifs cycle through a group of big paintings from 2010 each measuring around 90 by 84 inches. The compositions are divided up by Picabia-like devices-cum-bodies, which double as both images and lines. The big schnoz that anchors Nose is a flattened, open lopsided triangle with two circles humorously slid into one of its rounded corners. Radiating around the nose are delicately delineated sectors, some bright yellow, others subtle greens, with shadowy forms in the layered paint, so that the work has both a nice lateral spread and a melting into depth. At the top center of Drawer a silhouetted form, something like a downward pointing finger, seems to secrete a white, illuminating triangle within the nocturnal grays and greens. On either side, overlapping body-machines busily crank and churn. There could be no better emblem than this for the energy and wit that animated the show as a whole.
Photo: Amy Sillman: Drawer, 2010, oil on canvas, 84 by 90 inches; at Sikkema Jenkins.