(1924 - 1992)
A student and protégé of Josef Albers, the leading light of Black Mountain College, Sewell Sillman was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1924. He attended high school in Atlanta, where, in 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force Reserve. Simultaneously, he enrolled in evening classes at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and studied civil engineering there the first semester the following year.
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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