Washington, DC

Amy Sillman, H, 2007, oil on canvas, 45 x 39".

Amy Sillman, H, 2007, oil on canvas, 45 x 39".

Amy Sillman

Amy Sillman, H, 2007, oil on canvas, 45 x 39".

EVERYONE HAS AT SOME TIME perched upon the lonelier, more acute angle of a love triangle. Childhood is the most brutal and famous introduction to the condition of the third wheel, when one discovers one is not a parent’s first and only love. The adolescent crush, which usually seeks the shortest route, is often directed at a sibling’s main squeeze. Less foundational, but just as traumatic, are those chaste threesomes in which a single adult might innocently accompany a couple to lunch, the loner doing her best to ignore the echoing vacancy on her side of the booth.

Amy Sillman has condensed the most gruesome and gleeful moments of such experiences into drawings and paintings she exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden this summer. (The show was co-organized by the Hirshhorn’s Anne Ellegood and Ian Barry of the Tang Teaching Museum.) Positioning herself as perpetual third wheel, the artist invited couples to sit for her. After her drawings of them were complete, Sillman retreated to her studio. She then painted large gestural abstractions in which she could work through her memories of and relationships with each couple.

Curator Anne Ellegood expertly arranged the works such that the viewer could reenact Sillman’s exercise in intimacy and memory. The doorway to the exhibition was wide, but it was blocked some six feet in by a broad wall on which Sillman’s drawings of couples hung in a loose mosaic. One could only see the abstract paintings on the other side by circumnavigating the wall and walking into the room behind it. The resulting arrangement was a study in contrasts: a public wall versus a more intimate interior space; representational drawings in sober black and white versus bold abstract paintings in gaudy hues. Shuttling back and forth between the two spaces, the viewer could think through the myriad ways it is possible for one person to develop a connection to a couple.

Sillman’s drawings are so seductive that it was not easy making the trek around that wall. She is a masterful draftsperson. Her touch is equally tender and ruthless. While the images play upon a naive cartoon idiom reminiscent of midcentury popular illustration, their economy of mark making exceeds any such citational mode. In one image, a single bold black line forms a viscous boundary at which two lovers’ heads press together in a sort of infrathin of intimacy. Limbs and features, meanwhile, fade away in soft washes to suggest the waning of Sillman’s memory or the dissolution of a bond. Sillman also mobilizes a variety of perspectives, tones, and touches to cast both the painter’s and viewer’s gaze in different “third wheel” roles: a neighborly visitor, a couples counselor, a home wrecker.

Couples strike poses at once coital and casual in the drawings; sometimes those different modes are dispersed across multiple images. Two drawings, for example, each stage one partner straddling the other, but to diverse effect. In the first, a woman’s ass projects upward, as if she were playing porn queen for the viewer’s benefit (is this an invitation for the third person to join a tryst?). In the other drawing, the straddler is more a tomboy who, at some awkward pubescent stage in which kissing is an embarrassment, wrestles the object of her affection to the ground (here the viewer is akin to a rival). There is no shortage of drama: In one portrait a man faces us in close proximity, while over his shoulder a willowy figure hovers, like Eurydice, in the distance. Another couple consists of a male figure draped limply over his companion’s lap, producing the effect of a pietà, though his partner seems more like a thick-necked golem than a mournful virgin.

Most of the drawings are wider than they are tall, and this lateral orientation encourages the viewer to read them as genre scenes. The abstractions, by contrast, are mainly in portrait orientation, suggesting a shift from narrative to focused introspection—these are portraits of Sillman’s reaction to the couples, in other words. To effect this meditative mood, the paintings deploy more midcentury tropes, this time with a high modernist flavor. The paintings reference scaffolds and orthogonal plunges reminiscent of Franz Kline. There is a familiar film noir slant to many of the compositions as well, such that forms list to the starboard side, making the viewer queasy. But Willem de Kooning is Sillman’s chief muse, as she slathers, reslathers, and slathers some more paint on the canvases in a shameless impasto.

As with the drawings, however, Sillman manages to transcend the prechewed ingredients of her appropriations, particularly when she executes her Tenth Street touch in key lime greens and grape soda purples. With such a chromatic range, the paintings teeter between bathos and irony, infatuation and critical distance. Meanwhile, Sillman occasionally converts de Kooning’s potent gestures (which might suggest that the artist wields power over the couples she visited) into something sweet and retiring. The resulting canvases suggest the various reactions anyone might have to a couple: affection, lust, envy, disdain.

Ours is a culture obsessed with couples. Gossip pages ruthlessly track libidinal traffic among celebrities. Reality shows render courtship an ever more vulgar burlesque. Sillman’s project offers us a chance to recover a degree of creativity and surprise within such a numbing spectacle. Entering into a threesome with the familiar languages of representation and abstraction, Sillman emerges on the other side with a lingering invitation for the viewer to join the affair.

“Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular” is on view at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, through Jan. 4, 2009.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University.