“You take a picture, but you make a drawing.”
I’ve tried for decades to explain why a picture made by hand is closer to lived experience than one made via machine eye without much success. Photographers get defensive and the ubiquity of their medium makes arguing against it a quixotic delusion, but the painter Amy Sillman nails the distinction in a simple, no-nonsense way. Faux Pas (After 8 Books), the first collection of her writing, is full of offhand insight, humor, and honest grappling with problems that face creative people in the early 21st century. It’s a serious book that doesn’t take itself so seriously.
Sillman is one of the most important, inventive painters working today. The irony that painting has survived and thrived after multiple obits over the past 100-plus years is not lost on her. Her work is nominally abstract but never strays far from conveying the sensation of inhabiting a human body. Her essays return often to reckoning with the awkwardness and strangeness of being trapped in a lumpy edifice with a guard tower up top surveilling and being unhappily surprised by the shape of its own form below. She also acknowledges the long history of her art form without being crippled or beholden to it.
As a queer woman coming up in 70s New York, turning to a mode of expression dominated by men doesn’t look like the logical move, but Sillman realizes that condemning painting for the limitations and faults of its practitioners is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. She finds her way into its hidebound tradition in part by taking the piss out of it. “AbEx was like a big old straight guy who had gone gay,” she says of the most celebrated style of American 20th century art, a mode which casts a long shadow over her own studio efforts.
Visual artists are rarely gifted verbally. There’s a good reason why they gravitate toward modes of expression that don’t necessitate explanation. So Sillman is a rare bird. I’d put her writing on the same shelf as Fairfield Porter’s and Manny Farber’s—painters who were legitimate writers. There aren’t many. Nor should there be. If someone’s gifted in one field it seems greedy and unfair that they should excel in another. More often than not a respected artist’s hobby is overpraised solely because of market value. Trust me, Bob Dylan’s paintings wouldn’t be displayed in a village art fair much less a blue chip gallery if he wasn’t Bob Dylan. That’s not the case with Sillman’s writing. You don’t have to know her paintings to enjoy this book.
One of her greatest gifts is distilling monumental concepts into digestible bites. Her piece on color reeks of an oil painter’s hands-on experience. When she takes on a nebulous idea such as shape, she’s able to bring a reader viscerally into contact with it: “Shapes are things whose outlines hit you in the eye.” The book is filled with similar sentences which come off as aphorisms without being either precious or inscrutable.
It’s probably a homer’s pride, but I think it’s no coincidence that Sillman spent some of her youth in Chicago. She’s dead-serious about art while still being able to joke about it. Comics, sketches, and satiric diagrams fill the pages between her essays. In an interview with the poet Eileen Myles she says she wouldn’t be an artist without Saul Steinberg as an example. Steinberg’s uncanny balancing act between humor and profundity is a telling goal to aspire to. Sillman wants art that can accommodate both everyday experience and the loftiest dreams. Her writing is a way to make a rarefied field approachable.
Whether tackling the work of contemporaries, predecessors, or hard-to-define ideas, Sillman brings a refreshing, lived engagement to every subject. It’s clear on every page that what she writes about is of palpable, often daily interest to her. This is a unique window into the mind of one of the best painters going. It might even inspire you to pick up a paintbrush or pencil, no matter how absurd a thing that is to do at this late date. v