For over two decades, American artist, writer, arts educator, and animator Amy Sillman has developed her critical take on abstract expressionism. Sitting halfway between abstraction and figuration, Amy Sillman's art presents bodies and characters in a state of flux.Read More
Born in Detroit, Sillman first worked at an Alaska cannery and a Chicago-based feminist silkscreen factory. Silkscreen printing would play a prominent role in her later works.
After graduating from Beloit College, Wisconsin in 1973, Sillman moved to New York to train as a Japanese translator at New York University. Turning to art, she enrolled at New York's School of Visual Arts, graduating with a BFA in 1979. Sillman was later awarded the Elaine de Kooning Memorial Fellowship to study at Bard College, where she completed her MFA in 1995.
Shown at Amy Sillman's ICA Boston retrospective one lump or two (2013), her early 'Williamsburg Portraits' (1991–1992) present a sense of the downtown arts community she emerged from. The series also presents the cartoonish, figurative underpinnings of her seminal semi-abstract works.
As Amy Sillman's artistic career has developed, she has taken an active role in teaching at various art schools and faculties, including Bard College.
Amy Sillman's paintings and drawings, the heart of her practice, are highly process-based and created in a manner the artist describes as 'intensely physical'. Her artworks, produced off the cuff, often follow trains of thought carried over from previous works.
In her paintings and drawings, Sillman deploys a vibrant visual language of bright colours, applied in a flurry of gestural movements—scraping, erasing, and over-painting. Boundaries of colour and line are blurred, as too are distinctions between figure and ground.
Me & Ugly Mountain (2003), an early work, typifies the lyrical beginnings of Sillman's subversion of male-dominated 20th-century abstraction. Employing a bright 'feminine' palette of vivid and pastel hues, the artist decoratively renders a lone female figure dragging a massive sack of abstract forms across a white mountainside. With humour and pathos, the painting alludes to the Greek myth of Sisyphus and universal sensations of human isolation.
From the mid-2000s, Sillman began to make paintings that hint at figurative forms buried beneath an abstract surface of colourful forms and lines. Among some of the key works highlighted in Sillman's book One Lump or Two (2013)—which accompanied her first major museum retrospective—is The Elephant in the Room (2006).
Comprised of planes of colour and horizontal and vertical lines, the pachyderm-evoking painting is a study in shapes and abstraction. Set against an ethereal yellow background underlined by a vivid orange band, green vertical lines and curves contrast with horizontal bands of orange, lavender, and blue. Titular allusion determines the meaning of this abstract arrangement of forms, as it does with many of her later abstract works, giving figurative meaning to the trunk-like form. Sillman states unequivocally to ArtForum that the elephant in the room is sex.
Often Sillman's work is made in layers as she returns to works she began earlier to alter their form, seeking out new visual possibilities. Amy Sillman's Camden Arts Centre show Landline (2019) presents a clothesline of recent paintings that tangibly serialises that process.
Suspended from a high ceiling in a line across the middle of the room, each work in her 'Dubstamp' (2018) series relates to one next to it. Sharing basic formal elements such as the abstracted figure on its back, variations appear in aspects of shape, colour, form, and ground.
Amy Sillman's Chicago silkscreening days also seep back into her practice in this series and other recent works, where the artist incorporates the techniques and method in place of a traditional canvas for painting or drawing.
Pushing beyond the boundaries of conventional painting, Sillman also produces zines, drawings, and animations made on iPads and iPhones. Since the late-2000s, Sillman has made several works that highlight digital devices as a viable medium.
In one such work titled Thirteen Possible Futures: Cartoon for a Painting (2012), Sillman presents a series of scenes—from a searchlight in the dark to a rabbit talking on a therapist's couch—rendered with thousands of frames hand-drawn on an iPad. Originally paired with the painting Duel (2011), the animation explores the various directions the painting might have taken had she continued to work on it.
Sillman's accolades include the Berlin Prize in Arts and Letters from the American Academy in Berlin, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, as well as Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Joan Mitchell Foundation fellowships.
Sillman has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions.
Solo exhibitions include Twice Removed, Gladstone Gallery, New York (2020); The Nervous System, Arts Club of Chicago, Chicago (2019); After Metamorphoses, The Drawing Center, New York (2017); one lump or two, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2013); and Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. (2008).
Group exhibitions include Affinities for Abstraction: Women Artists on Eastern Long Island, 1950–2020, Parrish Art Museum, New York (2021); I'm a Believer: Pop Art and Contemporary Art from the Lenbachhaus and KiCo Foundation, Lenbachhaus, Munich (2018); America Is Hard to See, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); Blues for Smoke, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2012); Oranges and Sardines, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2008); and Current Undercurrents: Working in Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York (1997).
She has also guest-curated exhibitions such as Artist's Choice: Amy Sillman: The Shape of Shape, Museum Of Modern Art, New York (2019) and Score!, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (2014).
A large body of Sillman's art, particularly works from the late 1990s and early 2000s, has found its way to auction. As Ocula Advisory noted Sillman's auction record stands at an incredible $855,000, placing her amongst the most expensive living female painters, such as Laura Owens, Julie Mehretu, and Martha Jungwirth. The large scale work U (2008) was sold by Phillips in New York for over double its high estimate in 2018.
Amy Sillman's website can be found here.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021