Amy Sillman

Dub Stamp 5a, Amy Sillman, 2018, ink, gouache, silkscreen


To celebrate the publication of Valerie Smith’s new book Amy Sillman, we have decided to share an extract from the book. With astonishment and joy, Smith recounts a lecture-cum-painting session given by the US artist in 2009. 


‘In February 2009, addressing a room full of eager faces, Amy Sillman with characteristic aplomb launched a lecture on her work at the American Academy in Berlin. ‘I am a process freak,’ she confessed at the outset while flashing a sequence of stills from 47 stages in the birth of a painting. Every picture on the screen represented a moment in the development of a final work. By the fourth picture we were in awe of how completely she had transformed one train of painterly thought into another on a single canvas. Some transitions seemed clear. I could follow the growth and disintegration of an image idea, or what I imagined was an image idea. At any given stage, it was difficult to determine with real certainty whether the image we were all looking at was coming or going.


Ultimately, it didn’t seem to matter. The fact was that the painting moved in a direction and we followed it. At one point there was a phase where the surface made a fantastic leap. The resemblances to previous stages had vanished. The painting had become something else altogether than what we momentarily, at least, had faith would deliver results. After about three or four major breaks, with several explorations in between, the painting became what it is now, a bird perched on the bow of a ship. The journey to that point had been epic. The bird was Odysseus at the helm, ruminating on his many exploits. It was a long, non-stop, five-minute sequence of images to reach this shore. At the end everyone was silent. Then a great gust of applause, whistles, and bravas rose up and out from our seats, like the grand finale of a brilliant performance.


We had witnessed something that lay between documentation of a concrete performance and a short fiction film. Sillman’s studio snaps were stop-action abstractions to a narrative painting. This rudimentary way of showing her artistic process (a presentation that brought this viewer to rave about her work) became the hallmark of future lectures and foreshadowed not only Sillman’s discovery of digital applications (2011) to facilitate real animations via the intimacy of her iPhone, but the notion of fiction and abstraction as synonymous.


In roughly nine shifts, Sillman’s canvas suggested a stepped cityscape, a dominant glaring circular object, a landscape and back again with increased concentrations of abstracted fields where the overall image was jettisoned in order to re-emerge, if only partially. During this time, she never completely lost the human figure. At times her canvases were vaguely populated, like the image from a rearview mirror of a car in the rain. Later, these distant figurative flicks of paint were obliterated, wrapped into a gigantic ball of entwined lines. When this knot of a storm loosened, the canvas gave way to a sunrise with a Don Quixote-like character clopping along through peaceful lands. Quixote did not survive the second wave of procedural painterly attacks, but his horse made a brief appearance and several storms later he had metamorphosed into a bird.


What made this trajectory so riveting? Sillman’s procedure is not unusual, as she herself is wont to say. There are many painters who work over their canvases to the brink and back, and more who begin and end with the same idea. Sillman’s process, however, is not fixated on beginnings and endings, because she knows there will always be another canvas and another and another. While she is absorbed, the outcome is not on her mind, just on the moment that keeps her there. In other words, the painting is never finished. It just comes to a place where it can rest, like the bird on the ship’s bow. It could have been another ship, but it happened to be this one.’


Taken from Valerie Smith’s monograph Amy Sillman.


Amy Sillman

Hardback • 144 Pages • Size: 280 × 240 mm

100 colour illustrations

ISBN: 9781848222977

UK Publication: April 10, 2019  • US Publication July 26, 2019

Series: Contemporary Painters Series

£35.00• $49.99


UK customers can order the book here

North American customers can order the book here