William Tillyer: Painting's Corpus, an Anatomy Lesson

By Saul Ostrow


William Tillyer is an ambitious artist - over the last 40 years he has restlessly sought to produce a non-exclusionary, cumulative model of abstract painting capable of referencing the sublime and the banal, the formal and the expressive. To achieve his goals, Tillyer by testing, discarding, retrieving and preserving differing aspects of abstract painting, comes to identify the potentials that lie dormant in its material qualities, aesthetic effects, and structural relationships. This exploration is driven by his awareness that to keep painting contemporary does not mean stylistic consistency, but subjecting it to conceptual revision. This is not an academic pursuit but reflects his commitment to the critical shift from formalism to conceptualism that took place in the late 1960s. It was at that time, he came understand abstract painting as a complex material proposition, which can conceptually and aesthetically address aspects of our experience of the world we live. So, as to generate structures capable of inducing such experiences, Tillyer continues to engage in a process de-familiarization and re-education.

This need to put at risk not only received knowledge, but what he has taught himself has resulted in his extending abstract painting beyond its tradition bounds, or alternately grounding his practice in the conventions of painting itself. This fluctuation between reflects the fact that he recognizes that some quality he may have dismissed in the past, will proves itself to be the very solution he is looking for tomorrow. Because of this, his thinking about how one might re-vision abstract painting functions in two registers: one as a way to reform it and the other to as a way to think about it in new ways. The dual nature of this proposition implies that painting's existent situation can be improved by making some small adjustments, while the other requires that fundamental assumptions be replaced with untried propositions meant to transform its object/ subject.

Tillyer's concerns (though somewhat unique in the UK,) joins his work to other artist's of his generation such as the German's Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, members of the French group Supports/ Surfaces such as Daniel Dezeuze, Claude Viallat and Noel Dolla, and in the States; Richard Tuttle, Allen Shields, Linda Benglis as well as Frank Stella (after he abandons minimalism.) These artists the influenced by Duchamp's readymade, Greenberg's formalism, and Merleu-Ponty's phenomenology and their own particular conditions approached painting as an assemblage. Their intent was to produce an ever-evolving present by liberating art's forms, practices and modes of presentation from their histories. What has obscured this aspect of abstract paintings history, leaving us with a reductive image of formalism is the fact that our understanding of late modernism continues to be informed by an instrumental critical vision set on generating linear narrative.

The alternative history, which is heterogeneous is instead concerned with states of being and what painting might make present. This had significant appeal for painters such as James Hyde, Polly Apfelbaum, Fabian Marcaccio, Steven Perrino, and Jessica Stockholder who in the 1990s, confronted with the pronouncement of painting's death were determined to renovate painting by seeking new models. in which art is conceived as an agent of de-sublimation and intervention meant to place the viewer and art back into the world of things. These artists were willing to admit that knowing what a painting had been, is not the same as determining what else it can be. The similarity between their attitude and the means they adopted and those of Tillyer, links his work to this genealogy.

In removing us from the realm of imagined ideals these artists, stood steadfast in maintaining the connection between the analytic (conceptual) and visual (materialist). Similarly these younger artists, rather than trying to produce a synthesis of these differing manifestations tend to investigate and re-investigate the mutable connections and contingencies of abstract painting's practices as if they were comparable. Their approach parallels Tillyer's, who envisions abstract painting's varied structures and effects as if they were analogous - that is as comparable in functioning though having different origins. Given this perspective the most reductive or expressionistic abstract painting - is rendered as having similar parts, forms, processes applied to different aims, and intentions. Again a problem of understanding arises when painting is defined as a nearly virtual form. The general audience wants iconic image, rather than multiple effects, processes, structures and histories being presented indiscreetly.