ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, New York — Walking into the Hessel Art Museum at Bard College, an unremarkable contemporary building on a quiet Hudson Valley college campus in Upstate New York, I was unprepared for the dynamite lurking within. The Hessel is the local stop for a massive mid-career retrospective of the work of Amy Sillman. First things first: This is an important show and one that should have been booked in New York City, not 100 miles north where its viewership will be limited by geography.
Sillman became well known in the early 2000s for her deadpanned skewering of the New York art world in the form of little, droll ink and wash drawings, anxiety-ridden lists of attendees at dinner parties and spot-on one-liners exposing the bullshit of the art business. The show travels from these early, arguably light, observational drawings into a deep, exquisite and emotionally naked exploration of painting and drawing. It showcases an artist with a brilliant and restless mind as well as a killer sense of humor. Sillman is both a savvy student of art history and one who breaks ground in a variety of media. Her retrospective moves seamlessly and in full command through drawing, painting, iPhone composed animation, zines, and the artist’s own curatorial work — all with a lightness of touch I found deeply moving and tremendously impressive.
I especially admire the way in which Sillman has embraced the late 20th century struggle between figuration and abstraction and come out the other side with work that is both unique and refreshingly new. Borrowing colors and brushstrokes from Abstract Expressionist painters like Willem De Kooning and Hans Hoffman, she is a master at depicting a world where things are both “something” and “not something.” From the early more lyrical paintings like “Me & Ugly Mountain” (2003), a seemingly straightforward narrative work that carries its seeds of subversion in the large sack/mountain of abstract images dragged behind a sole melancholy female figure. Sillman then jumps with both feet into works like “Elephant” (2005) and “A Bird in the Hand” (2006). In these pieces the narrative is still there, peeking out at us from behind a joyful and passionate love affair with abstract paint and vibrant color. Teasing the viewer with hints of a story — a hand, a bird, a shape we know — that might be something … or something else.
Titles and word play always serve an important role in Sillman’s work, and they toy with the viewer’s expectations and response to the works. Plays on words, and hints about what the painter has in mind are distilled to their essence. A painting entitled “Plumbing” works on many levels simultaneously — The plumbing of a home, the plum-bob of a surveyor, or plumbing the depths of a psyche? All of these course through my mind as I look at this richly painted canvas, and each meaning works in its own way. The biggest hint is one lonely arm, holding a hobo’s sack that flows out of the middle of the image. The psychological possibilities here are boundless and fascinating. This dance between possible meanings happens over and over again in Sillman’s work, and it’s provocative in the best sense of the word. The show’s very title, One Lump or Two, works on several levels as it could refer to the art world school of hard knocks, the sweetener in one’s coffee, or simply a form or shape.
The Hessel exhibition includes several extensive collections of earlier small drawing/paintings, the stepping-stones to the big issues expressed in later paintings. Lined up on long shelves across the galleries, they form a Jungian narrative, cartoon strips of the psyche. Both dreamily symbolic and expressly concrete, they show a multi-tiered narrative of humor, and ambiguity that is beginning to morph into shape and gesture. The drawing is delicate, reminiscent of Mughal painting and natural history drawings of the 19th Century. And as always, color is the co-conspirator in these works. Nothing is ever neutral in a work by Amy Sillman. Everything in this show is charged with urgency, commitment, and an intellectual curiosity that walks hand-in-hand with a sensualist’s abandonment of intellect for feeling. It is this constant tightrope walk, between myriad artistic pushes and pulls, that makes Sillman’s work so consistently interesting.
In its scope and ambition there are pieces in this show that spoke to me more than others. That’s to be expected in an exhibition of this size. The early art world cartoons I find amusing, but a little light, like one liners — they bring a knowing smile but are quickly forgotten. They do act as an interesting bridge to the work that comes later. But the depth and breadth of Stillman’s mid-career retrospective displays a tremendously self-confident artistic voice tempered by a deep respect for the artistic traditions. on which she has built. I see echoes of 19th Century German landscape painting, a great love and understanding of Abstract Expressionism, a nod to German Neo-Expressionism, and reference to Bay Area Figuration. As artists we all look to the past to understand what might resonate into our artistic present. It is the rare artist who is able to both synthesize and transcend tradition and to create work that is at once deeply rooted and profoundly fresh.
Amy Sillman: One Lump or Two continues until September 21 at the Hessel Museum of Art (Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College-Center for Curatorial Studies, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York)