Sewell Sillman was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921, and attended high school in Atlanta. Upon America’s entry into World War II in 1942, Sillman enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force Reserve while simultaneously pursuing studies in civil engineering at Georgia Tech, and later at Johns Hopkins University. He saw active duty in the European Theater in 1944 and ’45 and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
Returning to America after the war, Sillman re-enrolled at Georgia Tech, this time with a focus on architecture. Eventually becoming disaffected with the “oppressive” atmosphere at Georgia Tech, Sillman followed his friends William Ragland Watkins and Albert Lanier to Black Mountain College, just outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
Sillman recalled that Black Mountain College “…gave me a chance to get rid of absolutely every standard that I had grown up with… It was like a snake that loses its skin… What was left was someone who had absolutely no idea in the world what to do… It was marvelous.”
Faculty members at Black Mountain included former Bauhaus professor Josef Albers and his wife Anni, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Walter Gropius and Robert Creeley. Among Sillman’s fellow students were Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, and Susan Weil.
Sillman initially continued his architectural studies with design visionary Buckminster Fuller, but it was his introduction to Josef Albers that would lead Sillman away from architecture to what would become a tireless lifelong push against the boundaries of visual possibility. As Sillman’s own aesthetic inquiry grew, so did his inspired relationship with Albers, evolving from acolyte to collaborator. Of Albers, Sillman said “What you get from Albers is not something that you can codify, that you can exhibit, that you can mine and make a buck with… It’s basic soul study in a sense. It goes inside of you.”
Josef Albers left Black Mountain College in 1949 and accepted the position of head of the Department of Design at Yale University. Sillman followed his mentor to Yale where he earned his BA in 1951 and his MFA in 1953 with a thesis on color. He joined the Yale Department of Art faculty in 1954 teaching Color, Drawing and Painting, and later becoming Director of undergraduate programs in Art. Sillman went on to teach at Parsons School of Design, Carnegie Tech, Ohio State University, SUNY Purchase, Penn State University and Rhode Island School of Design.
For many artists, drawing is a mnemonic aid in a much greater plan, plot lines to be dresses with the adornment of another medium. Not so for Sillman. His prolonged, patient dedication to drawing as his primary mode of expression elevated draftsmanship far above graphic design, reporting back from beyond the thermosphere with elegant and esoteric messages which compel us to stay and practice “seeing” more fully. Sillman’s paintings, however, are of another order. Though they clearly owe a debt to the carefully calibrated geometric abstractions of Albers, they are far less academic than the maestro’s works. Albers repeatedly explored color through his iconic square motif, with an inexhaustible need to be didactic, creating signature paintings clearly intended for presentation to the world. By contrast, Sillman’s color explorations are deeply personal and communicate a distinct appeal to the sublime. Some appear to be portals to be entered—by invitation only. Other paintings are crafted like textile designs with painstaking attention to detail, pattern, and composition. They are harbingers of a (computer assisted) aesthetic that would surface several decades later in popular contemporary fiber arts.
Despite his characteristic reticence, Sillman was widely exhibited during his lifetime. He was included in “Recent Drawings, U.S.A.” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and his works were handled by both the Stable Galleries and the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City. He is represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City, the Florence Griswold Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Sewell Sillman died in Lyme, Connecticut in April, 1992.
About the Artist
He spent fall and winter of 1943 at the Johns Hopkins University in the Army Student Training program, before being sent abroad, where he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. After his discharge, he returned to Georgia Tech in early 1946, where an instructor called him a “misfit.”
Sillman’s affiliation with Black Mountain and Albers began in January 1948. His intention was to study architecture, but he became disenchanted during the summer session, when Buckminster Fuller oversaw the unsuccessful construction of the first geodesic dome. Stimulated instead by Albers’ design and drawing courses and Pete Jennerjahn’s printing classes, Sillman shifted his focus.
He remained at the college through the following summer, and later revealed how the experience “gave me a chance to get rid of absolutely every standard that I had grown up with… It was like a snake that loses its skin… What was left was someone who had absolutely no idea in the world what to do… It was marvelous.” He soon discovered, however, after a semester at Windsor Mountain School, in Lenox, Massachusetts, that he enjoyed teaching.
In 1950, Sillman entered the bachelor of fine arts program at Yale University where Albers had become the director of the design department. Already well versed in art studio practices, Sillman obtained his degree quickly, and went on to pursue a master’s degree. He served as a teaching assistant to Albers, and in 1954 became a regular faculty member, a position he held until 1966.
In 1952, he returned to Black Mountain for the summer, but, without Albers, found the place changed and dominated by abstract expressionism in the guise of fellow teachers Franz Kline and Jack Tworkov. “When Albers left it was just so empty… It was death warmed over.”
In his own work Sillman continued to examine basic design and drawing concerns, such as the relationships of colors and shapes, and the use of line, which evolved from his teaching regimen. His oil paintings are formal exercises with hues that are far from primary applied with a palette knife to create bold geometric compositions. In contrast his series of “wave drawings,” artfully filled with curving lines, are organic and reminiscent of forms in nature.
In 1956, Sillman organized an exhibition of Albers’ work for Yale’s new art gallery and in the catalogue used two original screenprints from his mentor’s Homage to the Square series. From this experience grew a collaboration, not only with Albers, but with fellow faculty member and graphic designer, Norman Ives; jointly they issued Interaction of Color—1800 portfolios of eighty screenprints by Albers which became a seminal thesis on color theory. Established in 1962, the firm of Ives-Sillman produced portfolios and prints for other artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Roy Lichtenstein, and Walker Evans.
Between 1963 and 1965 Sillman taught at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and after his departure from Yale in 1966, he held positions at the Rhode Island School of Design, the State University of New York at Purchase, and Ohio State University, and he returned to Yale between 1973 and 1978 to teach advanced seminars.
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