Amy Sillman, Unearth, 2003. Oil on canvas, 66 x 78 inches (167.6 x 198.1 cm). Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. © Amy Sillman
Amy Sillman’s work is aligned with that of Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning in blurring the boundary between abstraction and figuration. What makes Sillman’s work unique is the freedom with which she experiments with color. Early in her career, she painted in a riot of pastel and acid hues, but more recently her sensibility has veered toward digital-like colors and jarring combinations. Sillman has consistently resisted ideas of “good taste” and instead uses color to investigate the range of possibilities in painting. Cuing color to emotion and incorporating nonverbal jokes inherent in cartoons and comics, she has been able to examine the whole range of human emotions, from joy and pleasure to awkwardness, anxiety, and neurosis. No matter how discomforting or melancholic her work becomes, Sillman infuses her paintings with a physical and robust sense of humor to convey the compassion and empathy that lie at the core of her project.
Unearth depicts two landscapes, one above the other, separated by a band of blue sky. In the upper landscape, we see a cluster of building-like shapes huddled in a chaotic mass. In the lower landscape, lines and geometric blocks of color might represent figures marching in procession. Although Sillman deploys the landscape genre, the typically clear division of earth and sky is confounded here by the presence of two realms, one worldly and the other extraterrestrial.
This work adds to the ICA/Boston’s recently expanding collection of painting, and its acquisition reflects the tradition of collecting works from significant ICA exhibitions: it was included in Amy Sillman: one lump or two (2014), the first major survey of Sillman’s work. It joins works by Louise Bourgeois and Tara Donovan, who also had solo exhibitions at the ICA, as well as recently acquired paintings by Jason Middlebrook and Matthew Ritchie that similarly explore the history of abstraction and mark-making.