Lame review of the week: O’Sullivan reviews Sillman at the Hirshhorn

Arts generalist Michael O’Sullivan ‘s clueless Washington Post review of Amy Sillman’s show proves why more painters and artists must start writing. “There’s something underneath all that paint in Amy Sillman’s new solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, one of the museum’s ‘Directions’ shows devoted to up-and-comers. The artist, a rising star in the contemporary art scene, calls it ‘conceptualism.’ I say it’s a gimmick.” O’Sullivan continues by describing Sillman’s process, which involves having friends sit for portraits. She redraws the portraits numerous times from memory, and these distanced drawings become the basis for her paintings. For O’Sullivan, the fact that the paintings are abstract is a problem.

“The paintings look, for the most part, like inanimate objects,” he complains. ” Sillman describes one, aptly enough, as resembling a mattress strapped to the roof of a car. At least the drawings look like people, however cartoonish (or ‘cartoonal,’ an artspeak neologism the artist seems to prefer). That’s by design. These aren’t portraits, after all. Rather, the artist says, they’re ‘investigations’ of the space between figuration and abstraction. More artspeak? Yup. And nothing especially new, either. Don’t worry. Sillman knows it, calling the process by which she boils down drawings of recognizable subjects to unidentifiable abstractions ‘a short-term version of what it took Mondrian a decade to do.’ (That’s Piet Mondrian, who was reducing natural objects to black-and-white grids accented by rectangles of primary color almost a century ago.) All of which gives rise to questions. For starters, if all this has been done before, what exactly is the point? As curator Anne Ellegood writes in her catalogue essay, Sillman’s paintings don’t represent things, but ‘ feelings in all their nebulous and difficult-to-identify ugliness.’ But if that’s the case, why are they so bloodless?

“And that’s the problem with conceptual art,” O’Sullivan finally declares. “As much as the underlying idea may be worth contemplating, it isn’t often that it inspires much — I don’t know — passion. Sillman may have put it best. In describing the shifting of her attention — away from her friends and their complex, sometimes even fraught interrelationships to a focus on the canvas and its formal issues — this is what she says: ‘It’s basically just moving from being in a relationship with those people to being in a relationship with an oil painting.'” Clearly O’Sullivan is unable to apprehend or appreciate Sillman’s meaning, either in words or paint. Perhaps he would be more comfortable writing for the sports section. Read more.

Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular,” curated by Anne Ellegood and Ian Berry. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. Through July 6. Traveling to the Tang Museum, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, July 19- January 4
Related posts:
Amy Sillman’s “Suitors & Strangers” in Houston

Saltz: Old is gold

March museum openings


  1. Sharon, I agree this is a lame review. O’Sullivan clearly lacks the vocabulary as well as the sensitivity to appreciate and discuss abstract painting, but then, he is not alone in this regard. Amy’s work is excellent and an exciting example of contemporary abstract painting. It shows an appreciation for the tradition of painting, beyond the simple quoting of history as carried out by many “post-modern” artists. She herself states that during the 80s and 90s she spent her time focusing on learning how to put a painting together rather than relentlessly exhibiting her work – it clearly shows. She has a mastery of the stuff of painting � shapes and forms, mark making, overlapping plans that develop a dynamic space, geometry of structure and composition, and lastly color. While I haven’t seen the show or experienced her paintings first hand, in photographs the work displays a range of sophisticated color palettes and color relations, layerings of transparent color, that match the work of some of the best colorists including mitchell, frankenthaler, matisse and deibenkorn.

    Gordon Fraser

  2. Sharon. Great piece. This is a stupid review. The parts of her premises that he understands he disrepects, and what he doesn’t understand he denys is there at all. Hope your blog shakes some sense into him. It’s never too late to wake up. Regina Hackett

  3. Hi Sharon, we’re a great pair: you outing the “under-thinkers” and me outing the “over-thinkers.” Together we will make the art world come to its senses. Onward!

  4. Hello. I just read all the negative reviews of O’Sullivan’s article, and have to go the other way. Perhaps it’s an era (age) thing, but I find her work to be nothing more than the “illustration of gestural abstraction”. Personally, as a painter who’s been making sculpture as a way back to painting, if that ever occurs, few painters today seem to add anything new to painting unless they admit to themselves, as I finally did, that painting is nothing more, and nothing less, than flattened sculpture, which in turn is a subset of drawing. It has been running away from it’s long history of being illustration, and in the past hundred plus years moved toward tactile confrontation with the viewer. Even when it’s a thin coat employing optic tricks. Why do you think we have such a rich panorama of precedence from Duchamp, who brilliantly summarized nearly every avenue of the visual arts in “Etant donne:…”, which merged painting, sculpture, installation, viewer participation, perspective, voyeur, high craftsmanship, shoddy behind the scenes facade construction, performance… it goes on. So, I find it difficult to see how her painting is more than well-executed, already seen before abstraction. I admire all painters who keep trying to make “pictures” however that is defined, but I suspect that if her work had originated somewhere else, like DC, she’d be just as unknown as myself. Marketing one’s persona has outstripped the actual production of art as the blue-chip credential of today’s art market. How else would an artist still in college rate serious gallery attention? Rarely does the under-25 artist’s life experiences display a visceral underpinning to the art made. That leaves illustration. You want to see an artist whose work looks more contemporary than Sillman’s, yet it was made in the 30s? Check out Wallace Putnam. He’s unknown because he stuck to figuration without going fully “abstract” (whatever that means, I don’t believe in the difference anymore) during the reign of Abstract Expressionism. His paintings are breathtaking in precedence, but too far ahead of their time (Wallace Putnam-Paintings, by Francis M. Naumann, published by Abrams, 2002). They’d look at home next to a number of neo-expressionists of the 70s and 80s, even prefiguring Johns and Rauschenberg. Perhaps I lost faith in painting when they handed me my degree, but I took it seriously enough that just having my work resemble another artist’s was sickening, and that resulted in a long, career-killing period of abstention from exhibition, competition and self-promotion while making a slow transition to sculpture. Of course, nobody’s work can completely avoid influences, and I freely admit to the ones I admire, but Sillman’s work doesn’t seem to stand out as a beacon to anything. It’s competent, possibly well-painted, but in this artist’s opinion, too much of what’s been done before.
    –R. L. Croft (www.rlcroft.com)

  5. I’m glad that you highlighted this article on Sillman. I have written on it as well, this was the worst review I have read in a long time and betrays the writers fundamental lack of knowledge about art. Grammar.police says your response was “strong” but it’s one I agree with, the author clearly has no grasp of arts writing and should be working for another department.

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