Last chance to see works of painter Sillman in Aspen |

Last chance to see works of painter Sillman in Aspen

Amy Sillman's "C," from the collection of Gary and Deborah Lucidon, on view through Sunday at the Aspen Art Museum.
John Berens |

If you go …

What: Amy Sillman: one lump or two

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through Sunday

This weekend is your last opportunity to see acclaimed New York-based painter Amy Sillman’s survey at the Aspen Art Museum.

Titled “one lump or two,” the show includes drawings, cartoons and animated film along with the large oil-on-canvas paintings that have won Sillman the acclaim of the art world over the past decade. Her sometimes-perplexing, often-funny and many-layered compositions blur the line between figurative and abstract art, with implications that expand and change the more time you spend with them.

Anne Ellegood, senior curator of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, recently visited the museum and spoke about Sillman’s career as part of the Questrom Lecture Series. In 2008, she worked with Sillman to put together a show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

Ellegood called Sillman’s work “an ongoing investigation of the medium of painting” and offered a primer on Sillman’s career, covering how she’s worked across media and explored the relationship between drawing and painting and how some of the work at the Aspen Art Museum show evolved.

“She would reject this idea that she’s anything new in paining, because she feels that history is very established,” Ellegood said. “But what she’s done is she’s made painting fresh. She’s taken things that were always considered to be at odds with one another within the medium itself, and she’s managed to not only put them together but to make us ask ourselves why can we not, for example, have abstraction with representations. Why can we not have a figure but also a geometric space? Why can’t you have drawing on the surface of a painting?”

The work in “one lump or two” displays those contradictory impulses, filling the museum’s gallery space with works that are at once confident and neurotic, serious and silly, spontaneous and exquisitely composed. If they’re unified by anything, it’s by their unorthodoxy.

“She’s a painter who is always approaching a problem to find another problem, not necessarily to solve a problem,” Ellegood said.

Many of her paintings and drawings are focused on couples. The Aspen show includes a wall of mostly black-and-white pencil drawings on paper that portray couples in various states — seated on couches, arm in arm, etc.

As Ellegood explained, Sillman began her couples project by asking partners she knew if she could draw them together, with a single ground rule: that they had to be touching in some way.

“She wanted to see how couples interact with each other when they’re just kind of hanging around the house,” Ellegood said.

Over time, her couples work became less and less representative. The forms of people merged and became abstract shapes in layered oil paint, sometimes no longer resembling humans, sometimes leaving a decipherable limb or belly button or nose somewhere in the composition.

Two large-scale paintings in the Aspen show, both named “Shade,” from 1997 and 2010, explore couples in very different ways. The first shows three silhouettes of couples, with one walking away from the others. The later rendition is abstract but hints at an arm reaching into a second person’s body.

For all the abstraction in her paintings, Sillman resists categorization as an abstract artist. She playfully began an essay on abstract art in Bomb magazine in 2011, “I guess you didn’t know this but me and Abstraction broke up!!!!! Last summer!!!”

Her self-deprecating sense of humor also comes through in the Aspen show in a series of mordant cartoons and seating charts. One seating chart has “Dread of Death” sitting next to “Craven Need for Approval.”

The huge canvases in “one lump or two” invite long periods of study. “Psychology Today,” for instance, shows an abstract jumble of shapes, with what appear to be three legs behind it — whether they’re from a three-legged figure or a couple with one leg hidden from view is up to the viewer, as are the implications of the painting’s cheeky title (taken from a bimonthly psychology magazine but also maybe a comment on modern ways of thinking).

“A Bird in the Hand” appears at first to be a straightforward take on the familiar idiom “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” But keep your eyes on the canvas for a while, and you’ll see crude bird shapes throughout the painting, suggesting something more.

“For me, Amy’s paintings are extraordinarily human — they’re very much about humanity,” Ellegood said. “They’re very much about the conversations that we’re in.”

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