Sidney Tillim’s Dilemma

On the painter/critic Sidney Tillim

Image: Count Zinzendorf Spared By the Indians by Sidney Tillim, 1972

I post this preliminary essay for my artist and non artist friends so they might offer feedback. A work in progress.

   In the late ‘90’s the painter Sidney Tillim was giving an Artist Lecture at the Vermont Studio Center, which is near where I live. I asked him afterwards if had he ever written the book he had years ago  spoken to me of wishing to write, and which I knew he had spoken about to at least one publisher who was definitely interested, on the history of the figurative-representational art movement that seemed so vital in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s?  No, he said, and added ‘and I was the only one who could have done it’.  Whether that last statement was a truth or just near truth I will not say but I do know there is much to be understood about this movement and period.

   So, when I saw that Tillim’s papers had been given to the New York Public Library I went there and looked, hoping I might find a draft of said book. No luck there but I did see in his papers a window to that time.

Sidney Tillim, 1925-2001

   Sidney Tillim was a painter and art critic with divided allegiances. He started painting (abstractly) when he was about age 18. In 1953, responding to an ad in Art Digest (Later to be named Arts Magazine) Tillim got a job writing reviews. In those years many more art reviews were written for the newspapers and magazines than today, both as a percentage of shows covered and in numbers published. Reviews were usually short and sometimes blunt in their assessment. An artist-reviewer could earn a large proportion (perhaps even all) the income needed to live then in NYC working two weeks a month. Tillim would sometimes write up to 50 reviews a month.
   Tillim painted ‘geometric abstractions’ for about 15 years, then in the late ‘50’s became a representational painter, first doing still lives, often of banal parts of a room (part of a radio and a sofa for instance). When in 1960 he had a show at the Cober Gallery in NYC he exhibited 14 abstract paintings from the mid ‘50’s and 16 figurative paintings from the late ‘50’s.  Reviewing the show in Arts Magazine the artist-critic Donald Judd called the geometric work strong and the representational ones “a serious mistake” and that “previously he could advance” but now was in a “historical cu-de-sac”. Less than a decade after his switch to representational work he began painting multi-figure narrative paintings. These tight apparently ‘primitive’ paintings are the ones most associated with his name today. He painted this way for a little over 10 years, then his style became looser and more fragmented. Then in the ‘90’s he started doing coloristic non-objective abstractions for some years. Then for the last few years he returned to narrative paintings in an expressionist style.

   In 1961, a few years after he switched to painting still lives and four or five years before he started painting figures he wrote a major article on emerging representational artists, titled “Present Outlook on Figurative Painting” which appeared in Perspectives on the Arts, Arts Yearbook 5.  This is the first comprehensive essay I know of on the emerging post-war, post Social Realism figurative painters. Tillim begins by treating the Bay Area figurative artists: Diebencorn and Park, among others. Tillim feels their physical distance from Paris and Modernism helped them to be original, to break away.  Discarding allegiance to recent art was often considered a prerequisite to doing good work in those times. The Abstract Expressionists had done so, and Tillim, and others, thought it was important.  He then considers three artists who were were slightly outside the new movement he is seeking to define. Jan Muller is praised but as he died young (in 1958) he remains outside the development. Tillim notes “a few sputtering starts long before the current uprising”, which fizzled “because the influence of Action Painting was at its peak” then, citing Larry Rivers who had moved to a more fragmented style at that point and Wolf Kahn whose surface was now “a mimicry of abstraction”.  He then goes on to cite Pearlstein, Laderman, Katz, Bell, Georges, Beck, Blaine, Lester Johnson, Jane Wilson, Freilicher, Porter and Robert Barnes as part of the new trend.  Tillim’s ability to identify so many of the important new representational painters is remarkable: in 1960 Pearlstein was still painting rocks, Katz had not fully developed his signature style and Laderman had just begun painting landscapes out of windows. And even as he identified these artists as important he held reservations and critiques.
  Tillim identifies two directions in the representational work he is reporting on, “for a dividing line can be drawn between those painters who lean heavily on a sensibility polarized by Corot and Cezanne or who are otherwise modern French in inspiration and those who might show trace materials of Gallic sensibility but are attempting a more imaginative revisionism”.  Tillim is thinking of Pearlstein, Laderman and himself as on the less French, “more imaginative revisionism” side.  “The extent to which Porter and Bell have availed themselves of abstract brushwork underscores the ambivalence before a true realism in those artists in New York whose sensibility has been shaped by the American avant-garde. They all bow down before the autonomy of the picture plane.”

  French gesture was too indefinite and vague for Tillim. ‘If not all than much of what is imprecise and finally pointless in contemporary painting can be laid at the doorstep of Cezanne. For Cezanne could not find the limits of things, and (here considering Cezanne’s watercolors) what is more saw to it that such edges as he could admit would at least be several so that he might not be pinned down.’  Tillim is well aware how little this view would be accepted.

  Nor does Tillim want the bland or decorative. In an Arts article in 1964 titled Dehumanization Reconsidered,  Tilim writes about  Edgar Wind’s book Art and Anarchy, and paraphrases Wind addressing “Hegel’s thesis that art would eventually cease to draw on the central energies of man, that it would move to the margin, that its place would be taken over by science and the spirit of rational inquiry and that, indeed it would end up as (in Hegel’s words) an ‘innocent frolic.’ “  At the time of writing this all of Tillim’s paintings were still lives; Tillim’s thoughts are preceding a change in style.

  A year or so later, in March 29, 1965 he wrote “(my) show came down Saturday and the blues have set in. I spent perhaps five hours in the studio during the course of it and made sketches for the Assassination of Malcolm X. I have no idea if I shall pursue it. At the moment it may be no more than an indication of my boredom with jackets and blankets.  Most of the paintings in the show depressed me after a while – (  ) weaknesses began to emerge: of scale, of content.  There simply must be more in a painting”.  Some time after this statement Tillim did start painting figure compositions, which he at times referred to as History Painting. He later stated that there was a ‘Hegelian necessity’ that painters will  return to History Painting.  

Tillim considered himself the champion of the new direction in representational art.  In 1978 in a letter to American Art Review he noted: “in my time I was only critic committed to representation as such” and he considers himself an important part of this direction. In May 22, 1967 he notes:” The Pearlsteins threw a lovely party for me last night. A ‘goodly throng’ attended and I had a lovely time.  I was just lying on the couch thinking about the future of my kind of painting and I remember telling someone last night that the bulk of the artists present were figurative. I did not say that only Philip, myself and possibly Al Leslie represented what I regard as the viable direction in representational art”.
  Yet, at the same time he is still fond of non objective abstraction. On December 16, 1968 he noted in his journal: “Next I went to the Whitney to see the Judd show a second time.  It was different in daylight the color seem less sweet than it had at the Whitney opening. And it is really something new in art. You can believe he is opposed to what he calls ‘European Art’”.


I could extend this essay, as I hope to, and there is much more of interest that I have copied, including observations on artists he meets and knows personally, but I will wait on that.