New York

Sidney Tillim

Trans Hudson Gallery

The colors of Sidney Tillim’s recent abstract acrylics invite some distasteful associations: muddy drabs, the chalky mauves and pinks of flavored antacids, black, and tacky-decor shades of blue (powder and baby), purple and silver, and burnt sienna. Their melanges of awkward square, triangular, and rhomboidal forms are arranged chockablock like some tattered, mildewed board game thrown out during a move. Strips of cheap plasterboard nailed to the stretcher frame some of the paintings (in Hopperland, 1997, the nails protrude through the canvas’ surface). On the evidence of these abstractions, one would not have guessed Tillim to be the maker, long ago, of John Adams Accepts the Retainer to Defend the British Soldiers Accused in the Boston Massacre, 1974, or Count Zinzendorf Spared by the Indians, 1972, pictures that recall illustrations in elementary textbooks and Book of Knowledge.

But the exhibition, “Dreams of Being,” also offered some connections to this narrative side, in a series of skilled drawings in ink, crayon, and Korec-Type with such titles as The Victor and the Oppressed, 1996, Dammerung, 1996, and The Expedition, 1996. These representational works—some on notebook paper, coffee-stained and torn-edged—demonstrate a messy kinship with the acrylics. Their treatment of the subjects in the drawings is at once ironic and sensitive, satirical and lyric. The Evening News, 1997, for example, a masterly eight-by-five-inch work executed in blue crayon, is a view from behind of some people on a couch watching television, the numbing cathode rays made palpable. Others, such as Rosa L., 1996, and Der Jude, 1996, would seem to pronounce their historical and political sympathies more frankly.

The juxtaposition of social concerns and uningratiating style leads one to imagine in Tillim a cranky Trotskyite with a libertarian bent, the sort of brooding eccentric native to the Northeast, a good-fences-make-good-neighbors type that people tend not to bother. With attention, though, the abstractions gradually reveal the visceral and painterly life behind their off-putting facades. Considering the heavily worked sections of Big Drag, 1997, scraped to reveal vibrant underpainting, alongside the built-up, layered surface of Back to the Bateau, 1997, one begins to see Tillim’s primary focus as the discordance of the relationships between his paintings’ formal elements—the bumbling and jarring of shapes and colors that he nurtures more than any idealized sense of composition. In some areas of the larger paintings sharp angles and clear delineation between forms hint at an order establishing itself, only to be vexed in other sections by indecorous drips and splatters. The incongruity of Tillim’s color combinations is belied by surprising moments of care expressed in subtle features and textures that, once perceived, charge his work with force. He seems to leave off of a painting just as it reaches a most unlikely point of qualmish allusiveness.

Tillim seems to tease whatever’s left out of the otherwise exhausted language of Abstract Expressionism by making that language cope with more than it was designed to. Perhaps it isn’t so odd that the former narrative painter remains, in his work of the past decade, at home in abstraction, more than thirty years after he first abandoned it to its heyday. It’s likely that what he then found to be a forced freedom has now become a real one, in which he is capable of expressing a complex temperament that seems more an antidote than a surrender to nostalgia. Still true to his task, he is simply using another set of old-fashioned means to address the ineluctable ugliness of the world, and deftly to take the endless steps by which that ugliness might be turned just enough against itself to keep this world fascinating and habitable.

Tom Breidenbach