Fragments of Imagination

A self-described nerd with a contrarian streak, painter Amy Sillman hits her stride on the hard road to abstraction.

As a figurative painter who embraces abstraction and an abstractionist who loves plain language, Amy Sillman is the soul of contradiction. Known for her seamless blend of the comic and the cryptic, she’s cantankerous and proud of it. Perhaps that is why the densely layered blocks of color, primitive draftsmanship, and fluid figures that distinguish her work seduce the eye without ever giving it a comfortable place to settle.

Indeed nothing with Sillman is ever quite certain, except that her star has been rising since her inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. About time, too. Although popular with other artists, she flew below the radar for at least a decade, partly, some say, because of art world sexism; others point to an obsession with youth. No more. Sillman’s last two shows at her New York gallery, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., brought brisk sales—her prices now run to $85,000—and wide critical praise. “Gutsy,” one reviewer called her. “A painter of voluptuous intelligence,” said another.

This spring the artist gets her first solo exhibition in a major museum, when the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., presents 13 recent paintings and a dozen drawings in “Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular,” opening on March 13. With their tropical palette (palm greens, dusty pinks, butter yellows, coconut browns), most of the works are based on portraits, even if the arresting, densely layered planes of color suggest skewed architectural fragments. The slashing canvas P&H could be a Picassoesque car wreck. C appears to look across urban rooftops in swipes of color typical of Howard Hodgkin, the British painter whom Sillman calls her current favorite. W suggests a window looking onto a sun-splashed garden worthy of Matisse. The images in these works are based on people, places, and things, but Sillman isn’t saying which ones.

The show accurately portrays the artist Sillman is today: a mature, painstaking, outspoken painter in her early fifties who has weighed the options and given herself over to abstraction. “I like the difficulty of abstract painting,” Sillman says when we meet at her Brooklyn studio in December. “Most people don’t know how to respond if there’s no laughing face to say ‘happy,’ no crying face to mean ‘sad.’ Abstraction is hard. And I like that.”

After a short stint at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the Chicago native traveled to Japan and, in 1975, enrolled at New York University to study Japanese. But Sillman was encouraged to pursue a career in commercial art and transferred to the School of Visual Arts, where she took up painting. Alas, for much of the art world then, painting was pretty much dead.

Sillman spent time in the art departments of Vogue, Rolling Stone, and other magazines before returning to academia in the nineties for a graduate fine-art degree at Bard College, where she now teaches painting every summer. “I’m a nerd,” Sillman says. “I enjoy school. I love educational TV. I love lectures on tape about Heidegger. I’d like to start my own night school, even, where we could talk about critical practice.”

What Sillman defines as critical practice is an approach to making art that doesn’t follow fashion or play to the market. “These days you can sell anything, so you have to look for resistances, surprises,” she says. “All any artist is really looking for is surprise.”

Sillman has her own methods for surprising herself. At first her quirky, seminarrative paintings included handwritten phrases that intruded on landscapes peopled with misshapen, quizzical figures. (Good Grief, from 1998, is a vortex of comic protestations such as “For crying out loud” and “Pardon me for living.”) “I love language more than anything,” Sillman says, adding that ideally she’d make paintings using only words and color.

Yet even as Sillman moves deeper into abstraction, her work remains grounded in the figure. Most of the paintings at the Hirshhorn derive from portraits of seated or reclining couples that Sillman sketched from life and repeatedly “redrew” from memory until arriving at the bold, even fanciful fragments that fly off the edges of the paper, revealing only traces of arms, legs, and faces.

“I did my time in cartoonland,” Sillman says, alluding to Philip Guston, who gave up Abstract Expressionism for the haunting pink stumblebums that made him famous. “Maybe,” she says, “I’m working backward.” To her, of course, that’s a big advance.

“Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular” is at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (202-633-4674; hirshhorn.si.edu), March 13 to July 6 and travels to the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York (518-580-8080; tang.skidmore.edu), July 19 to January 4, 2009. The artist is represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York (212-929-2262; sikkemajenkinsco.com), where she will have a show in the fall.