New York

Sidney Tillim

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

Sidney Tillim’s exhibition of paintings this past spring at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery raises, as it is meant to, questions about the current viability of realist art, the meaning of the term “realist” nowadays, the formal integrity of any sort of realist painting, and, of course, the visual interest of Tillim’s painting in and of itself.

Since Tillim is a critic as well as a painter, it seems best here to put his criticism aside, for the moment at least, as no more than oblique to his own painting since criticism, if it is not diffuse, presents evidence of the operation of esthetic principles rather than statements of them. And then, “realism” of whatever stripe or definition is certainly a phenomenon, perhaps the phenomenon of contemporary art and criticism of the past decade: it is clear that the realism-versus-abstraction debates of thirty and even fifteen years ago were ghostly bouts with phantom weapons. The irrelevancies that motivated such discussions have been effectively dissipated since the inception of Cubism anyway, as the invention of the collage showed once if not for all.

Since all painting is real, one may as well get down to just what reality Tillim’s painting deals with, and how interesting it is or isn’t. In this show, Tillim’s selection of works has been thoughtful indeed. He has presented a good sized group of pictures whose degree of resolution and good-natured suavity leave no doubts about the seriousness of his undertakings or the reflective assurance with which he can bring them off. As critical and painterly challenges, the artist has included two sternly ambitious works; each is a complex figurative composition about 3’ x 4’. They depart from the unity and focus of the other pictures in various ways.

The bulk of Tillim’s show consists of still life paintings which are balanced structures contrasting areas with volumes. Set-ups of elaborate ordinariness (expressed in the choice of objects) provide the artist with curves, planes, bulks, voids, and contours which he utilizes in the building of sober, calm and stable compositions. The contrast of different regular or nearly regular geometrical forms accentuates the intimate formality of Tillim’s pictorial structures. He crops objects with the edge of the canvas a great deal, forcing the viewer to engage in the agreeable pastime of completing various forms himself. The concomitant close point of view combined with a naturalistic scale of rendering in most cases work to produce a genuine re-experience of familiar shapes and things in new associations and juxtapositions. The paint handling softens the rigorous formality of the compositions and, in doing so, enriches effects of atmosphere already laid out in the artist’s renderings of reflection, transparency, and cast shadow. At the same time, this very human evidence of the main tremblant in a straight edge or regular curving contour appositely reminds one of the physical participation and presence of the artist in his work. Tillim’s humane analyses of furniture, appliances, drapery and other objects are most penetrating when there are relatively few forms per canvas or not very many items in the set-ups; the more compressed the space, the more compelling his formal objectification of pictorial presence becomes. Tillim’s particular feeling for scale has limits at either end as the small picture of a hat on a table shows. In this work, the cropping of the subject is so extreme that the distinction between the clear plane of the table and the crumpled volumes of the homely hat disappears; the result is an ambiguity of surface and extent recalling Georgia O’Keeffe. Tillim’s palette still favors security-blanket pink and time-payment mahogany furniture brown, but it is now pleasingly bolstered by carefully toned whites, the free and telling use of blues and greens, and good, resonant blacks.

The figure paintings Champion (a game of marbles) and Those Who Pass (three women and a seated man) differ conceptually and in compositional methodology from the other works in the show. Put together in the studio from drawings and photographically generated images, the fashion of their assembly obstructs and distorts the artist’s compositional intentions. An example of this is the way that overlapping figures project a sense of having volume only on the side toward the observer; there is no air between them, and it seems that if one could see the other side of any of the figures it would be flat like the back of a cookie made in a mold. Since Tillim’s way of seeing (as distinct here from his composition) is about volumes and the spaces they occupy and activate, it is unsatisfactory to feel that the volumes are not continuously irregular all the way around and that the space in the picture only exists between the surface of the things represented and one’s self, and not in the invisible intervals between these things as well.

As both the pictures are set out of doors, there is “the problem of near and far” to cope with as well; Champion, having a ground plane of restricted extent (big enough for the marble game) is spatially flawed by the inappropriately small size of a figure seen from the rear and largely obscured by the heads of the two main figures in the foreground. This small figure, according to its size, ought to be in the far middle distance at least, but according to the established cant of the ground plane is but a foot or so away from the larger figures. Carping with this inconsistency has nothing to do with the issue of realism per se but it does have to do with the consistency of spatial structure in a work whose modular reference is such consistency. Those Who Pass resolves, by the time-honored device of blocking, the question of how to get the ground plane to sit down properly all the way from front to back, although it must fairly be said that this blockage is a part of the intelligibility of the imagery. Even so, it does not disguise, and perhaps even contributes to, Lindneresque distortions of scale in the figure of the seated man at the left. As in the still lifes, the interaction and contrast of contours is quite fine in both the figure paintings, but the problems inherent in the out-of-doors figure painting have not been so much solved as stated in these two gallantly ambitious works.

Tillim’s difficulties with these two particular pictures underline the magnitude of the problems that exist in all painting which deals with volumetric form existing in a space which has, or ought to have, measurable intervals. The still life and the interior, once mastered, do not automatically provide competency at that classic version of the problem, the horizontal composition containing several figures in a landscape space. The perplexing, tantalizing, and often flawed works of masters of modern painting since 1850 show this again and again. One need only look at the series from Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, to La Grande Jatte to Cézanne’s large Bathers to Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques, to Matisse’s Music and The Dance to Leger’s Nudes in a Forest. Figure painting since 1945 has shown no lack of effort expended on this problem which, by itself, has supported and proved the supreme mastery of Poussin for three hundred years.

Tillim’s approach to this kind of painting problem understandably misses on some points, and perhaps the major one is a double question of scale and size; having his figures cropped in the manner of the objects in his still life paintings means that the figures never really exist strongly within the space of the painting, but only stick out somewhat against the limits of the area of the canvas. And, in order to avoid this cropping and still have the figures big enough to exist as complex volumes, it would be necessary to enlarge the canvas size greatly. This in fact is what most contemporary painters in a similar quest have done (Georges, Diebenkorn, and Freilicher) with pretty impressive results. The weight of this painting problem is felt more and more among figure painters generally, and if it is necessary to fault Tillim for as yet failing to grasp its extent and implications, it is equally necessary to approve even his partial engagement with it.

Dennis Adrian