Amy Sillman: Between Abstraction and Figuration

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Amy Sillman is amongst contemporary painters whose feminist practice combines the abstract and figurative into large-scale oil gestural paintings.

Working in New York at the height of Abstract Expressionism, Sillman was influenced by the artist Willem De Kooning and gradually discovered her artistic maturity between abstraction and figuration. Inspired by the process art of the 1970s, Sillman understands her practice to be one of digging, re-arranging, and ever-changing development. In the artist’s own words, “By making, unmaking, remaking, scraping off, destroying, and rebuilding – you’re learning the outcome while you’re questioning it.”

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Amy Silman’s decade-long career can be seen as an examination into the underpinning of the categories of drawing and painting. Silman’s work are often categorized as abstract, although her abstractions repeatedly allow forms and figures to be recognized. In every work, the artist employs formal dualities from art historical canon – namely, narration versus abstraction, colour versus line, flat versus recessive space, and painting versus drawing – not means to a conceptual end, but rather as a method to push these traditionally painterly concerns to their extremes. When asked in 2013 by the New York Times about her preference for figuration or abstraction, Sillman replied, “I think of myself as liking two things that are friends and antagonists.”

The present work that belongs to Couple project, is a quintessential example of the artist’s oeuvre. Created between 2006-2008, the Couple Project comes out of her life, with Sillman’s recurring motifs, exuberant array of colours, instilling her archetypal expression and vitality. After having her first sketches from the subject pose, Sillman moved to another state of memory drawing, then she worked and reworked by adding and subtracting numerous layers, creating generations of drawings. The quality of figure becomes more abstract re-arranged with the gestural stroke and geometric plane that responses to the original elements from life. In the artist’s own words, ‘Painting is a physical thinking process to continue an interior dialogue,” “A way to engage in a kind of internal discourse, or sub-linguistic mumbling.” The subversion of tradition, repetition and figuration is present on the canvas as a way of incoherence and evolvement in artmaking.

Purple Thing, partly composed with earthy pastel hues, partly with luminous pink and green, is characterized by overlapping techniques. Dynamic spatial perspectives, a balanced orchestration of colours propel the viewers to a sense of vivid realm. Sillman drew her inspiration from the traditions of post-war painting, employing chiaroscuro to communicate greater abstraction of tone. While associating with a theme, she captures the immediate reaction, infusing critical self-reflexivity, feminism and humor in her own language to achieve a modern sensibility.

Over the last three decades, the artist generates works that encourage an interrogation of art production that is both ethical in nature and engaging in situ. The spontaneous and expressive composition infused with humor and conceptual exploration, employs vibrant colours and drawings. According to art historian and curator Helen Molesworth, ‘Sillman’s oeuvre is marked by radical shifts–in palette, brushwork, scale, and the degree to which a work is structured by the logic of either drawing or painting.’ Molesworth, Helen (2013). Amy Sillman: one lump or two. DelMonico Books. pp. 45–82.

Prominently featured in MoMA’s 2015 exhibition, “The forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” Sillman’s work can be seen as representing a very contemporary view of painting as a-temporal, or timeless. MoMA Curator Laura Hoptman has written, “she is committed to formal questions, and thus aligned with very traditional concern of modernist painting, but she also challenges action painting’s historical associations with maleness… While interlaced with levity and wit, Sillman’s work is a deeply serious argument for the ongoing relevance and urgency of painting and its potential as a vehicle for the expression of both private and communal experience.”

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Amy Sillman: Between Abstraction and Figuration. (2022, May 16). Retrieved from

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