PRINT September 2003


Sidney Tillim began his career as an art critic by answering a “Help Wanted” ad in the back of Arts Digest. It was 1953, and at the time, he was an occasional sports reporter and a struggling painter who had recently attended Syracuse University (alma mater also to Hilton Kramer, Clement Greenberg, and college friend Sol LeWitt) on the GI Bill. Tillim started writing about art for the money, such as it was: four dollars per review. After he was fired in the mid-’50s for doing the galleries in tennis shoes, Kramer invited him back to the retitled Arts Magazine, and in 1959 he became a full-time writer, producing articles and reviews at the breakneck pace of up to fifty an issue—steady employment that still left him two weeks a month to concentrate on painting. The striving son of working-class, Orthodox Jewish parents in Virginia, Tillim (1925–2001) saw his magazine work as a way to earn a living in New York while devoting himself further to writing about and making art. Although he had a college degree, it was in painting, and Syracuse was, as he put it, a “yeshiva” compared with schools like Harvard and Oxford. His knowledge was mostly self-earned and won at a psychological cost.

Proudly the first abstract painter at Syracuse, Tillim’s bent toward geometric abstraction—the somewhat conservative purview of the American Abstract Artists and followers of Mondrian such as Burgoyne Diller—was, if not in direct opposition, then oblique to the more fashionable gestural style of Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning. One of his first major essays for Arts Magazine, “What Happened to Geometry?,” from 1959, bemoans the style’s decline and the pressure to—as Sidney Geist put it—“jump into the water where the rest of us are,” although he did see signs of hope in younger artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Myron Stout. In the sort of caustic phrase that would remain characteristic of his criticism throughout his career, Tillim decried AbEx as, “if not entirely dominated by the profit motive,” then at best a “sentimental Bohemianism.” For thirty-odd years, he relentlessly pointed out the posturings and ironies of the avant-garde, seeming to take personally the pretense of superiority to the great unwashed.

In his own art, placing himself in even starker contrast with the historical moment, he had begun to turn more and more to figurative painting. In a 1960 one-man exhibition at Cober Gallery in New York, he showed fourteen geometric paintings from the mid-1950s and sixteen figurative paintings from the late 1950s. Donald Judd, reviewing the show in Arts, found the abstractions “strong” but saw the switch to realism as a “serious mistake” that landed the artist in a “historical cul de sac” (Tillim later returned the favor in his skeptical review of a Judd show). Tillim himself was conflicted: The fact that high culture was something foreign, urban, upper class, left him aspiring to tough-minded abstraction but feeling guilty about wanting something alien to his own family and class background; he also had a real feeling for the realism and decoration most people enjoy.

Tillim’s articles from the early ’60s, written mostly for Arts, continued to inveigh against the lingering orthodoxies of Art News and Abstract Expressionism (according to Tillim, his particularly harsh criticism of Franz Kline in 1964 cost him a job at Parsons School of Design). At the time, Arts was a haven of diverse opinion, publishing a range of voices including Kramer, Annette Michelson, Michael Fried, Vivien Raynor, Leo Steinberg, and Judd. Most notably, Tillim was the first critic on record supporting Pop art. His February 1962 rave about Claes Oldenburg’s The Store, 1961, issued from a complex and personal set of interests: America seen through immigrant’s eyes, “mass man and his artifacts,” representation, and social change. In contrast to negative responses from many critics his age, Tillim saw Pop as the new American Dream, accompanied by new patrons who felt vindicated by the avant-garde’s adoption of the traditional kitsch that was their proper culture, rather than the “difficult” constructions of European abstraction. He wrote, “It was the very simulacrum of the ultimate in American variety store, a combination of neighborhood free enterprise and Sears and Roebuck. . . . It also is something of an answer to Coolidge’s simplistic notion that ‘the business of America is business,’ but in its crazy mixed-up way doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.” Later in life, he realized that his strong response to Oldenburg was propelled by childhood memories of the “Jew store” in his hometown.

Tillim’s enthusiasm for Pop, as well as a broader realism, began to define his identity as a critic. In 1965, Max Kozloff approached Tillim to write regularly for Artforum, which would move from Los Angeles to New York a couple of years later. According to Tillim, editor Philip Leider saw the magazine as existing between two poles: Tillim himself and Michael Fried (that is, between eclectic, figurative interests and a rigorous Greenbergian abstract formalism). Whether or not this was true, Tillim’s writing for Artforum often addressed not only Pop, but realist painters like Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz; although he made his judgments artist by artist, painting by painting, by no means uniformly praising the work (even the artists he championed often ended up not speaking to him), he became known as “the figurative guy.”

This role was cemented in a symposium, “Art Criticism in the Sixties,” at Brandeis University in 1966 that featured Tillim, Fried, and Barbara Rose, all of whom were contributing editors at Artforum, as well as Kozloff, who was associate editor. Although organizer William Seitz specifically framed the symposium as a statement against and beyond Abstract Expressionism, Tillim still felt the odd man out, railing against the “insidious ‘fascism’ of taste” prevalent in the criticism of the ’60s. He spoke scathingly about critics of the “Pepsi Generation” and their embrace of new art as a way to declare their independence from an earlier generation, whomever their individual pet artists might be. Characteristically abrasive, he castigated his three Artforum colleagues on the panel for refusing, along with everyone else, to consider realist painting as part of the larger picture. In setting a precedent for toeing a strict critical “line,” he said that the AbEx champions Harold Rosenberg and Greenberg “are as much critics of the sixties as they were of the forties and fifties.”

Tillim continued to make this point in the pages of Artforum, advocating for figurative art but also putting together historical and contemporary art of all kinds. In “Gothic Parallels,” which appeared in Artforum in 1967, he linked Helen Frankenthaler and the Color Field painters to early American watercolorists; “Earthworks and the New Picturesque” connected Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer to an Anglo-American landscape tradition. Beyond superficial visual comparisons to Earth art, he found a parallel between this tradition and contemporary artistic conditions:

But the picturesque was more than just a theory of landscape in nature and art. It was a crucial episode in the history of taste. Less than sublime, yet seeking a surrogate for the ideal, it signalled, by virtue of its resultant sentimentality, the end of the ideals of high art. It substituted the sentimental for nobility of feeling and developed the cult of nature as an antidote to the excessive sophistication of cultivated society. At the same time it was an affectation of cultivated taste at its most refined.

He saw the same sophisticated primitivism in Dennis Oppenheim, Smithson, et al., underlying their artistic ironies and critical perspectives on modernism.

Despite his engagement with contemporary art, increasingly Tillim felt disconnected from and unacknowledged by the art world—believing that the “core” crowd of people like Lucy Lippard and Robert Morris disdained his eclectic historical perspective and that his writing was hurting his career as an artist. Although he was ensconced as “the figurative critic,” he refused to align himself socially with any one group and systematically avoided hanging out in an almost naive ethical reluctance to befriend potential reviewees (though this reluctance was also a product of his personal prickliness). While everyone knew who Tillim was, he remained such a marginal presence on the art scene that when Steinberg met him, he exclaimed, “Oh, you really do exist.” In 1966 he withdrew further when he began teaching full-time at Bennington College (where he remained until his retirement in 1993), and in 1969 he gave up writing to paint and teach exclusively.

But by the early ’80s, Tillim felt the urge to return to writing, in part simply to remind the world he existed and also because he was energized by the changes in an art world that finally embraced representation and mass culture but, he felt, misunderstood the issues at stake.

It was not easy to start up again: Many of the young editors guarding the gates at Art in America and Artforum didn’t know who Tillim was, and his early editor Kramer, long a knee-jerk critic of new or imaginative thinking, rejected his solicitations of the New Criterion. But once he broke back into publishing, his very marginality, his stance on the wrong end of the generation gap, freed him to write some of the best work of his career. In a 1984 Artforum piece titled “The View from Past 50,” Tillim movingly and wickedly described the plight of the artist not yet a grand success at midlife, past the point of probability—the pressure of status on friendships, generational conflict, the rush of the crowd to every new avant-garde. These social conditions are couched in personal, often funny language: “All of the preparations for a gross Oedipal assassination appear to have been made. Every celebrity is an assassin because his name appears where yours could have been.”

The subject that pressed Tillim back into print was the newly fashionable one of photography and mechanical reproduction. During the 1970s, Tillim had taken up collecting examples of photomechanical and other reproductive technologies found in print from the nineteenth century forward, amassing several amazing collections that ranged from children’s books to cookbooks to early editions of Darwin to copies of works by well-known artists like Cameron and Giorgione. Tillim’s investment in the photomechanical was equal parts aesthetic appreciation, historical scholarship, and affection for the pathetic quality of many of the not-quite-art popular reproductions, which he linked to his own humble artistic beginnings entering a “Draw Me” contest in the back of a magazine. His obsession gave him a special perspective on the increasing presence of both art that used reproduction and art criticism that relied on Walter Benjamin’s famous essay—what his friend and Artforum editor Joseph Masheck called “the art world dynamic whereby quite flatfooted interpretations of Benjamin paraded as more-rad-than-thou, even as the talk-as-such underwrote the luxury commodification of once unfetishized photography.”

In 1983, Tillim sent an essay on Benjamin—cold—to Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy, who published it in a special issue on mechanization and the future in May of that year. As Sischy remembers, “The thing that clicked for me about him was that he was a real original thinker, extremely phobic about being one of the sheep. He had these extremely well-formed idiosyncratic positions, the kind that happen when a critic is also an artist.” Tillim’s essay displayed his extensive knowledge about the histories, forms, and uses of various processes, such as photolithography, woodburytype, heliotype, albertype, photogravure, and the photoengraved halftone process, highlighting his complaint that Benjamin generalized “photography” and “reproduction” beyond usefulness, failing to attend to their specific social and formal realities. In a deep critique of Benjamin’s polarity between the high and auratic and the modern and mechanical, Tillim argued for the presence, pleasure, and even aura of common photomechanical pictures. As he wrote of At the Farm, a 1930 children’s book illustrated with staged photos reproduced in halftone with color overlay, “Again the images have been transformed into magical icons, slightly kitschy perhaps, but their inadvertent beauty is enhanced rather than diminished by the fact that they are mechanical reproductions.”

Other equally original essays on the subject tended to be less polemical in tone, intertwining photography, photomechanical reproductive processes, postmodernism, and nineteenth-century academic painting. One of the most revealing pieces, a 1985 essay that remains unpublished, examines the print collection exhibited as a senior thesis by a precocious student of his at Bennington—Matthew Marks. When he praises the wide range of Marks’s taste, from the pastoral to the geometric, he could be describing himself, his own “very special enterprise” of détente between the abstract and the figurative, his equal love for the academic, the low, and the overlooked. But he also backs up to describe the relationship between collecting and history:

Marks is a connoisseur, not a critic or a historian . . . and whereas for the historian quality is a given, for the collector quality is a discovery, a perpetual exercise in an informed perception that is as educated as it is, so to speak, ravished by the excellence it appropriates and, not incidentally, by the history that it sometimes rediscovers and preserves.

Not only does Tillim identify with the view of historical objects judged freshly from the contemporary moment rather than taken as givens, but (as a collector himself ) he appreciates an argument made through attention to objects rather than words, an implicit criticism of the intellectual disengaged from things in the world.

Unimpressed with poststructuralist writing, Tillim nonetheless found a freedom in the postmodernist art world, which validated not only his omnivorous taste but his lifelong predilection for unusual juxtapositions. The most striking of these was “Ideology and Difference: Reflections on Olitski and Koons,” published in Arts in 1989, which makes common cause between these two poster boys for, respectively, modernism and postmodernism (a linkage that Olitski, Tillim’s longtime friend, didn’t particularly appreciate). He finds both artists luxuriating in vulgarity and iridescent decoration, as well as displaying an intensely personal taste that disrupts the blandness of art under pressure from decades of bourgeois appropriateness. Tillim typically caps a serious critical observation with a funny and Freudian aside: “In America at least, one is generally exposed to ‘bad’ art, to bad commercial art, to kitsch, first, to the allegedly better kind of art later. . . . Hell, I once owned a Baby Brownie [camera] and used to cruise department stores because commodities, which I could not afford, were safer to contemplate than cleavage.”

Clement Greenberg, a sometime friend who represented both authoritarian disapproval and independence of mind, chastised Tillim for his “perversity” in rejecting the mainstream, whether of history, fashion, or taste. This perversity cost him the art-world power that comes with an easily summarized critical program in tune with the times. But even more than his role as a supporter of figurative art (an ideological position he came to regret and reject), it was his denial of the very notion of a mainstream that set him apart from other critics. From Greenberg he got the idea of continuity with the past; unlike Greenberg and his successors, Tillim couldn’t, wouldn’t believe that only one thing—modernist art—continued the great art of the past. As he put it, “[E]xaggeration of belief in one aspect of art” had produced a situation where “extremism had become a form of sentimentality.” Sketching the historical continuities of art issuing from the collapse of academic painting in the nineteenth century, he located those histories in many places: photography, figuration, illustration, abstraction, Earth art, ceramics, and design.

And in all these things Tillim looked for quality, another Greenbergian ideal burst open, located not in the difference between Jackson Pollock and Bette Davis but in the difference between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (he preferred Bette). As a critic, he believed, like Baudelaire, that he should engage contemporary life in all its variety, and his ’62 Oldenburg review lovingly detailed the “air-mail letter I craved as I might crave a bit of eighteenth-century porcelain.” Not a Marxist, but someone with “the politics of a tenant” and the heart of a collector, Tillim never forgot about the social life of objects, artistic and otherwise—their symbolic importance, their desirability, and their costs.

Katy Siegel is a contributing editor of Artforum.