Amy Sillman on Painting

Here’s possibly my favorite explanation about the what of painting. From the recently published Amy Sillman the All-Over.

Excerpt from: Interview with Amy Sillman, Fabian Schöneich, December 2016

AS: Yes, people are always asking what paintings  mean
I responded by staging a joke*. I don’t really think you can understand a painting by reading about it.

FS: OK, so what does “understanding a painting” even mean?

AS: Ha ha! Good question. People who don’t make paintings, no matter how sophisticated they are, often say, in a kind of desperation, “I don’t know how to talk about abstract painting−can you teach me?” But painters don’t need this kind of explanation. Painters appreciate paintings probably the way car mechanics look at cars: you sort of marvel at someone else’s ability to put something across and you look at how it’s built, how it works, its compression system, its layers, or something like that. You only really learn this over time by appreciating how hard painting is all the time, even as a kind of antique construction. In a way, I think you only understand it by trying to make a painting yourself−or living with someone who paints. It’s almost impossible.

FS: So understanding a painting is not about “reading” something, which it seems you’re saying is against the nature of abstraction and simply doesn’t work. Would you say that painting is physically “doing” something, while language is more about “thinking”?

AS: No−I’d say it’s both. And that each half sort of vexes the other. Half of my painting process is accident/chance/mistake/erasure/discovery (i.e. body!), and this is balanced by about 50 percent decisions/analysis/editing/conceptualizing/etc. (i.e. mind!). And this is where the “mood” of painting really appeals to me, this crazy slippage between what we do and what we think….And language, or utterance, is a state in between the physical and the mental, which is precisely why I love it so much−that intermediary space of not really knowing what will happen next.


*conversation references Sillman’s satiric table-seating diagrams.

I’ve always appreciated Sillman’s ability to make painting (and her work in general) funny.

The Circular File.

A phrase guide for the spring art season 2006.