New York

Sidney Tillim

Noah Goldowsky Gallery

Sidney Tillim showed two of his large figurative paintings and a number of watercolor studies and drawings at the Noah Goldowsky Gallery. Since Mr. Tillim is a critic who has been assiduous and perceptive in his frequent defenses of representational painting as well as in his discussions of modernism in the pages of Artforum, before turning to a critique of his current work, I think it is in order here to review some of the ideas upon which his own artistic enterprise is predicated. In his article, “A Variety of Realisms,” appearing in this issue, Mr. Tillim airs his dissatisfactions with the state of representational painting today. He reproaches those of the “revisionist” or post-Pop persuasions for rehashing elements of older styles like, Dada or Surrealism or Expressionism mainly because he feels that the problem of monumental narrative subject matter is being ignored. The important practitioners of the new realism (like Jack Beal, Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz, Al Leslie, etc.) have abandoned subjective concerns in favor of formal ones, according to Tillim’s view, while the Pop-oriented painters such as Richard Estes or Wayne Thiebaud, or those who work with pre-fabricated subject matter, like Malcolm Morley or John Clem Clarke are not particularly interested in representation as such. That people like Leslie or Pearlstein have substituted a honed-down “Minimal” rhetoric of singular monumental presences for the more complex rhetoric of large scale narrative appears to Tillim as the grossest and most disappointing failure of nerve. He pleads for a new historical reorientation of awareness which would be conscious enough to court and consider all of the problems of modernist (abstract) style as well, while striking out a new frontier for the cause of figuration.

Mr. Tillim’s own exhibition makes clear the immense difficulties involved in even approximating the ambition to which he exhorts figurative artists. The entire question is whether the work can stand up under the pressure of the viewer’s knowledge of exactly what Mr. Tillim is attempting.

To my eye, the crux of the matter would seem to lie in a statement Tillim makes in his article in which he calls for the “meaningful friction that is caused by a confrontation of technique and inspiration.” Viewing the paintings at Goldowsky, one is struck by the studied arbitrariness of the compositions and one realizes that the reason for their disturbing awkwardness is that perhaps Tillim is too conscious of that nostalgia to reclaim a lost ideal of subject matter and quality; that the significant issues of modernist painting (scale, color expression, decoration, flatness, literalism, etc.) are too much in the forefront of his critical mind, so that his painterly inspiration gets drowned under his strategic confrontation with technique. The pivotal issue here, then, is that the paintings do not manage to rise above the level of looking merely problematic, in and of themselves. A kind of episodic, anecdotal illustration set in a shallow, even Surreal space is what results, rather than a persuasive resolve of a new set of conventions for representation in the narrative mode.

One could approach the works purely on the basis of their formal difficulties, although it is mainly the subject matter itself which I find ill-achieved. In A Dream of Being (as well as in Who Among Us Really Knows?) various disconnected figures are engaged in sports activities or are preoccupied with their thoughts and stances. They are related to a porch/lawn/athletic field setting in the most detached manner, simply using it as a (barely credible) spatial armature for their own self-absorption.

It is, however, the sentimentality of the thematic formulation of these two works which accounts for their inadequacy in terms of serious narrative content. And it is an intellectualized sentimentality which prompts Tillim to situate a kneeling old woman crying on the grass over an imaginary grave strewn with flowers, or which suggests to him the triangle of two unhappy-looking women and a man with his back turned to them on the porch structure. In Who Among Us . . . even the back view of a woman with her hands on her waist and head, standing in a questioning type of pose as an older man strolls with self-assurance across the picture field, seems irrevocably anecdotal and sentimental to my eye. In this case, the critical terms of success and failure are less illuminating than the terms of theory and practice. The enormous difficulties facing the incipient figurative movement which Mr. Tillim represents must be felt to be appreciated.

Emily Wasserman