“My whole impetus in making art, making work, writing, drawing,” painter Amy Sillman recounted in a 2020 interview, “is to function as a kind of combination bricoleur, flaneur, voyeur, radish farmer, auto mechanic, and take parts, and with my labor, remake a strange new language.”
Sillman’s “strange new language” comes from her lifelong interest in undoing art-historical notions of mastery, power, and genius, instead favoring doubt, unknowability, and intimacy as integral to art making. She is best known for process-based oil paintings that are both abstract and representational, but Sillman often pushes the medium into unconventional and experimental territory, including zines, installations, and iPad animations. She draws from a diverse array of references, from Surrealist literature to Internet memes, and her paintings blur distinctions between color and line, figure and ground, all the while remaining sensitive to the body, emotion, and humor. Psychology Today (2006), a profile rendered in bright, unusual colors covered in scratchy diagram-like strokes, is an example of the way her paintings mine humor—employing cartoons, visual jokes, and puns—but also don’t shy away from darker subject matter. Behind the painting’s bright colors, we see a transparent view of the nameless head’s inner turmoil.
Born in Detroit, Sillman worked at cannery in Alaska and a feminist silkscreen factory in Chicago, and trained at NYU to be a Japanese interpreter for the United Nations, before landing at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, from which she graduated in 1979. She found herself deeply enmeshed in the feminist and countercultural movements of downtown New York, becoming a member of the lesbian feminist journal Heresies, while also engaging with the area’s burgeoning community of artists. She cites Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston as influences, but also foils: “I wanted to learn about both Abstract Expressionism and the critique of easel painting—not because I wanted to emulate them, but because I didn’t like them.”
In Split 2 (2020), Sillman presents a kind of portrait of the artist in quarantine, turning the language of abstraction into a personal exploration of life and death, of bodies capsizing and careening, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sillman often writes about the work of other artists and finds contemporaries in an intergenerational cohort of artists such as Charline von Heyl and R. H. Quaytman, as well as more figurative painters such as Nicole Eisenman and Jutta Koether.
“I wonder if, in fact, shape got left behind when modern art turned to systems, series, grids, and all things calculable in the 20th century,” Sillman ponders in the introductory text to The Shape of Shape, her 2019 Artist’s Choice exhibition at MoMA. Looking through the selection of “oddballs” and “ragtags” in the Museum’s collection, she leveraged her encyclopedic knowledge of art history to explore the political and emotional aspects of shape—as a way of relating to others, and as a detour through our understanding of modern art.
Simon Wu, Administrative Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021