Critical Questions: Amy Sillman
Ab Ex, (figuratively speaking)
Artist Amy Sillman is way too smart to sacrifice charm for intellect. In fact, she’s like the love child of Fanny Brice and Susan Sontag. Her practice darts back and forth between Franz Kafka and Donald Barthelme, Gregg Bordowitz and Thomas Edison, and from Dada to Borscht Belt. She’s incisive enough to be asked to contribute to ArtForum, but funny enough to pull off a zine. Shortly after being honored at The Brooklyn Museum’s Artist’s Ball, Sillman sat down with Critical Mob.
CM: When I heard you were being honored at the Brooklyn Museum Artist’s Ball, I couldn’t help imagining one of your table seating charts applied to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. How did it go?
AS: Ha, ha. It was good! I got a big chunky plaque and I got to meet Martha Rosler, whom I've never met, and a really cool New York City Councilwoman, Letitia James, who was amazing. I had fun.
Some people have observed that if artists were good with words they wouldn’t make art. You’re an artist who loves words as much as images, possibly even more. Are there times when images just come up short?
I don't think images come up short, but my mind works in narratives somehow, even if it's just a fragment or a very unfollowable story. Even if I paint a blob, I’ll still think, oh, it's a crook of an elbow, or it's a table. I’ll assign some kind of shape/language/meaning to these forms. Even if it's about how some thingamajig leans to the left, or droops down, or whatever it's doing, I think about what things are and what things are doing. The narration of what's going on with the abstract forms or colors is always linked to some kind of language or narrative.
Sikkema Jenkins just showed your animated collaboration with language poet Charles Bernstein, made on your iPhone. Hearing you weave his words reminded me of Edith Sitwell’s work with William Walton. What can you tell us about your work with Bernstein?
Well, first of all to give credit where credit is due, I made the thing with Charles on the invitation of the Bowery Poetry Club. Bruce Pearson approached us and asked if we'd do a collaborative piece for their Elizabeth Murray Memorial Poetry Wall. So we said sure, and started writing and drawing back and forth all last summer, making a thing that was neither a drawing TO a poem, nor a poem TO a drawing, but made in between us by a process of going back and forth again and again, and adding to it and changing it. It basically kept me sane all summer because otherwise I had a fucking horrible summer. I loved working with Charles, especially at the end when we started talking about how much we both love awkwardness as an aesthetic quality.
What made you choose the iPhone as a tool?
I really just chose it because I like to draw with my finger on a free app that you can get on that thing, and it's so portable.
Your zines are an eggheads delight. O-G v.3 is a meditation on the tension between art and scientific innovation, and the ecstasies and foibles of artificial lighting. Are you an incandescent hoarder?
AS: Oh gosh, I probably should start hoarding light bulbs, right? They'll be gone in a year or so. They carry them out of the stores in Berlin in armloads!! But somehow I also figure that at some point they'll invent a new kind of light bulb and we'll all have that? With better color? God, I hope so!
Thanks for fingering the underlying “revulsion of subjectivity” in your piece about identity politics for Texte Zur Kunst. Thrilled you did, but what made you decide to take that on?
Well, I know this is a really thorny issue and it's really complicated. I understand the historic critique of authorship, and the reason why there is a longstanding critique of art that is just me, me, me, all about someone's marvelous subjective interior world. I get why a certain kind of art could be conservative. But on the other hand, I also think that the assault (which can easily become the revulsion toward) the idea of the speaker or the writer or the author, just further marginalizes people who are already marginalized. Basically I'm for people speaking up, in their own languages, however weird, uncool, embarrassing, strident, idiosyncratic, localized, personal (or whatever) those languages might be. I'm always concerned with how traditional politics of whatever kind can silence people by making them too embarrassed to say the wrong thing. I've encountered recently a real hatred of the concept of "identity politics" on the part of SOME young people (mostly men) on the Left, in the Occupy movement and in critical theory. It's distressing because they clearly know NOTHING of a history that made identity politics necessarily arise.
The diagram is a recurring theme in your writing. But improvisation seems like an essential part of your painting. Can you give us the CliffsNotes on that?
Well, in a short form, I'm interested in the idea of a diagram as a format for the expression of more than one thing at once. More than one vector at one time. And a form that shows the passage between things. I'm totally interested in improvisation as a form of both structure and freedom to make it up as you go along. Like spoken language, which you kind of make up as you go along, but which is somehow also based upon a grammar and syntax that you know internally. So a diagram is a format that could express both of those vectors: the structured and the unstructured, at once. That's how I think about a diagram, not as a graphic form but as a model of complex operation.
It seems like you’ve been cast as a poster child for abstract expressionism, and often asked to write about it. Is abstract expressionism like the Haggadah, a story that needs regular rereading?
Hahah-- I like the Jewishness of your reference. Not the Haggadah because we shouldn't have to recite the damn thing annually! But actually, speaking of "reading," as a person who is more a draw-er than a painter, Ab Ex is great because it's a form of painting which is actually built like drawing. It's all about the stroke, the gesture, the mark, the line, the brush, the pencil, the swipe, the eraser. And that's why I love it. It's a lot like writing.
Do you think Pollock had a sense of humor?
I would say no.