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
Amy Sillman’s “Suitors & Strangers” in Houston
Saltz: Old is gold
March museum openings