Amy Sillman, Bo, 2007, courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Exploring the Tension in Amy Sillman's Abstract Figure Observations

Amy Sillman, L, 2007, courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Amy Sillman, P, 2007, courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.


Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue
at Seventh Street SW
Directions: Amy Sillman,
Third Person Singular

March 13-July 6, 2008

Brooklyn-based painter Amy Sillman introduces an entirely new body of work as part of the Hirshhorn’s ongoing “Directions” series. Inspired by first-person observation of the human figure and the emotional aspects of being part of a couple, these new paintings and drawings explore the tension between figuration and abstraction.

Since August 2006, Sillman has been drawing couples from life. Sessions with 17 different couples, many of them close friends, resulted in simple black-ink drawings that have become the starting point for the works presented in Third Person Singular. After the life-drawing sessions, Sillman makes more drawings of the couples from memory — 12 of which have been selected for the show. Simultaneously, the life and memory drawings serve as inspiration for the related paintings on view.

During the process of creating these new works, both the drawings and paintings become gradually more abstract as the details of the figures are shrouded behind bold strokes and geometric forms. Notably sculptural, the finished paintings are the result of numerous layers and a continuous reworking, erasing and covering over of sections. Sillman embraces abstraction without abandoning representation, resisting any prescribed categories in painting. This creates a sense of tension between areas of levity and weight and between barely visible outlines of body parts and planes of color, sometimes suggestive of domestic architecture.

Sillman is known for paintings that are intimate, psychological and full of humor and pathos. The new paintings included in Third Person Singular use shapes to explore what Sillman calls “pessimistic optimism” or a sense of anxiety within what seems to be an otherwise cheerful image. Beginning with first-person observation, these new paintings ultimately present feelings and anxieties in a formal, abstract language. Sillman deliberately places herself as the third person in a triangle, allowing for a distanced, analytic view while acknowledging her profound connection to her subjects. Sillman maps the space between the first and third persons in order to provoke and seduce the second person: the viewer.

This year, the “Directions” series marks its 20th year at the Hirshhorn. Conceived as a way to address the vitality, diversity and inventiveness that characterizes contemporary art, the series brings new work of emerging and established artists to Washington, D.C. Amy Sillman, Third Person Singular was co-organized by the Hirshhorn and the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. The exhibition is on view at the Tang Museum from July 19 to January 4, 2009.


Amy Sillman, B, 2007, courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.