Amy Sillman’s Narration versus Abstraction

The current Amy Sillman exhibition at Gladstone 64 gallery in New York has my head spinning. Titled Amy Sillman: Mostly Drawing, it features a new series of works on paper, which, as the title suggests, toy with their own identification. They contain acrylic paint, so they are paintings, right? But they are done on paper, not canvas, so they are drawings, right? Then again, they are partially silkscreened. So does that mean they are prints? If you are familiar with Sillman, you know she intends for this title to seem as mocking as it is sincere. On the sincere side, she is simply being straightforward—these images really are, mostly, drawings. On the mocking side, she is drawing attention to the absurdity of caring what they are called. In her recent essay, On Color, Sillman references Pop Art pioneer Peter Saul, who once said, “[The] main thing I think about is getting the idea, or the literary content, or whatever you call it, out in front of the art supplies.” In other words, if all we have to talk about when looking at a work of art is what is is made from, or whether it should be called a painting or a drawing, why we are talking about it at all? In that spirit, I considered the works in this exhibition purely on the strength of the images themselves. That is what has my head spinning. I am moved by their power, their presence, and the energy they infuse into the debate about the mystery of abstraction versus the value of narration and spelling everything out.

Amy Sillman’s Narration versus Abstraction

What One Eye Sees

What I first noticed about these new works by Sillman is their immediacy. Each image is like a slap in the face—bold, striking, and lucid. Any of these pictures could have graced the hand-made cassette cover of a garage band in 1979. But at the same time, they look like they were sent back from the future—like rubbings of demolished cityscapes, documenting the scars of battles they are warning us to avoid. I next had a visceral reaction to the textures these pictures convey, reminiscent of so many alleyways and urban walls. Their markings tell me to think fast and get to the point. Their layers speak of time, whispering that nothing is new—and that sometimes it is impossible to tell what happened first. Finally, I noticed the palette. I say palette and not color because I agree with what Sillman has said about color: “The unassailable final fact of color is that you can’t really know what another eye is seeing, ever.”


amy sillman untitled work on paper gallery and museum 2013Amy Sillman - Mostly Drawing, solo show at Gladstone 64, installation view, Jan 26 - Mar 3, 2018, photo courtesy Gladstone 64


For this body of work, Sillman has employed a color range based on lightness and darkness. The palette gives the show its attitude, which is one of undeniable confidence. I first looked at the show as a whole, from afar; then I looked at the works up close; then I looked from mid-point, at groupings of images. Each perspective was guided by the conversation betweenshade and tone—blacks and whites. The other colors assert their individuality only in context with darkness and lightness. They become more than color; more than shape and more than line. They become part of the story of the pictures. That is not to say that these images are figurative. That is the last thing they are. They are unquestionably abstract. But each image feels—or almost at times sounds—like a story: a breathless story told by someone who is excited, in trouble, frantic, or laughing out loud. SK20 sounds to me like, “I ran to get here—I was being chased.” SK28 feels angry, but on second glance feels afraid. SK30 demands my attention, like it is screaming, “Forget that! Never mind! Look here! Listen to me!”


untitled work by amy sillman on display at museum and galleryAmy Sillman - Mostly Drawing, solo show at Gladstone 64, installation view, Jan 26 - Mar 3, 2018, photo courtesy Gladstone 64


Make Peace with War

The overall visual language of these images draws me to them, and makes me want to possess some part of them for myself. I do not necessarily mean I want to own them, as in buying one of the works, although I would if I could. But rather what I mean is that I want to claim kinship with their spirit. That desire only partially has to do with the pictures themselves. Yes,they are my favorite images Sillman has ever made. But that is such a personal statement. This desire has more to do with universalities. It has to do with what I sense is the larger story that this body of work tells. Each of these images is oddly narrative, but in the most undecipherable way. Their narrative has to be garnered intuitively, but once it perceived it cannot be forgotten.


amy sillman untitled work on paper at museum 2013Amy Sillman - Mostly Drawing, solo show at Gladstone 64, installation view, Jan 26 - Mar 3, 2018, photo courtesy Gladstone 64


As a group these works speak to a larger theme—a communion between what you could call the wilderness of the imagination and the steel cage of culture. Forgive this pop reference, but do you recall that scene in A Clockwork Orange, when the protagonist Alex and his droogs break into an upscale home and start trashing the Modernist space, and having their way with the art? That moment speaks so graphically to the chasm between the imp and the snob that simultaneously exist within contemporary humans. And there is something equally punkish about these new works by Sillman. The townhouse in which they are shown was designed by a Modernist icon—Edward Durell Stone, who also designed the Museum of Modern Art and Radio City Music Hall. These works are like new droogs inserted into this cultured, alien world. But instead of smashing the place, they somehow co-exist with it. They are a sort of pictorial acknowledgement that in some ways reality today is even stranger than the dystopian future presaged in our collective past. But they are also empowering statements of the victory of creativity over order—of the will of the artist over the authority of the world.


amy sillman untitled work on display at museumAmy Sillman - Mostly Drawing, solo show at Gladstone 64, installation view, Jan 26 - Mar 3, 2018, photo courtesy Gladstone 64



Featured image: Amy Sillman - Mostly Drawing, solo show at Gladstone 64, installation view, Jan 26 - Mar 3, 2018, photo courtesy Gladstone 64

All images used for illustrative purposes only

By Phillip Barcio