New York

Sidney Tillim

Trans Hudson

Sidney Tillim was a true-blue American as well as a modernist in the European tradition: Re loved movies, served in the army, began his working life as a baseball reporter; he was also an important critic, a trained painter, a connoisseur of photomechanical reproduction. These two aspects of his life combined to inform his painting practice for fifty years, pulling it between figuration and abstraction, the disarmingly direct and the academic, the humorous and the sober.

Tillim’s last show (sadly, he died unexpectedly as this issue was going to press) consisted of eight new canvases that draw on newsworthy events and popular culture: the murder of Manhattan socialite Irene Silverman by a mother-and-son team of grifters; Yankee pitcher David Cone’s perfect game; and memorable scenes from a range of movies, including Johnny Guitar and American Beauty. The images provide a certain amount of anecdotal information, the who, what, and where: mountains and roads in the landscapes; couches, fireplaces, and wide, sumptuous rugs in the interiors.

But these aren’t just genre scenes; they are highly charged, symbolic moments, and the characters take on significance beyond their local meaning. Some are heroic and alone (Clark Gable), others are locked in some relationship (misunderstanding, sympathy) with another person. Perhaps the most poignant encounter depicted appears in Chariots of Fire, 1998, in which an athletic blond embraces another man with Semitic features not unlike Tillim’s own. The work celebrates male friendship but also the fraught reconciliation of two cultures: Tillim saw complex emotion in a sentimentalizing film.

The strangeness of these pictures lies not only in their subjects but in the way they are painted. The brushwork is choppy, the handling of the figures slightly awkward, especially compared to Tillim’s facile, fluid drawings (not on view). He works hard here not to tighten up, to keep the touch spontaneous. He seems at times to be painting against the photographic source material of the images, and also against the academic tendencies that often emerge when an artist aims for narrative clarity. For all their directness, much of the appeal of these paintings lies in Tillim’s evident sensibility, his idiosyncratic, particular version of the mass-cultural events and images Americans hold in common.

The most striking painting here depicts a real event as the artist imagined it: Modern Crime or The Death of Irene Silverman, 2001. This scene has the richest spatial composition, the most detail, and the most dramatic subject: The victim lies dead on the floor as the murderers look down at her. The other works were painted from memory or from the artist’s thumbnail sketches of movies and photos (only The Secret, 2000, is totally fabricated).

Tillim’s relationship to popular culture may be generational, unavailable to younger mists: unironic, neither the meta-commentary of appropriation nor the so-bad-it’s-good wink. When looking at a favorite subject matter such as film, he neither read against the grain (cultural studies) nor celebrated the obscure (subcultural studies). Tillim took in movies like Philip Lopate or Manny Farber, New York intellectuals of a certain age who see them as repositories of our culture’s grand themes and images. The films he chose here aren’t Truffaut, but they’re not “bad” either; they’re mainstream movies, in which Tillim saw real emotion. Whether he actually found it there or made it up hardly matters.

Katy Siegel