SIDNEY TILLIM (American, 1925–2001) was a painter who wrote about art. He is best known for his revival of history painting in the 1970s and was a much admired art critic (contributing editor at Artforum and Arts magazines).

Tillim’s estate holds over five hundred artworks and more than fifty years of journals (1945–2001) which, in forty volumes, cover the New York art scene in the second half of the twentieth century. There are also professional and exhibition records; published and unpublished manuscripts (Art After Ideology and The Return of Bad Art); teaching materials (including transcripts of Clement Greenberg’s Bennington seminars); as well as correspondence, an annotated personal library, memorabilia, etc.

As a painter, Tillim began in the 1950’s—a “promising” poet and abstract painter, declared the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the San Francisco Chronicle (1953). Regardless, toward the end of the decade he turned to representational and figure painting. “Consistently a contrarian but never an outsider,” was the judgment made on his long career in the obituary in The New York Times (2001) by the art critic Ken Johnson.

In the 1960’s Tillim began working on large narrative pictures of personal, historical, and current events (Champion, 1966, Hirshhorn Museum; Count Zinzendorf Spared by the Indians, 1972; John Adams Accepts the Retainer to Defend the British Soldiers Accused in the Boston Massacre, 1974; The Capture of Patti Hearst, 1978, private collection). In retrospect it could be seen that Tillim was on the forefront of a trend back to realism and narrative which would grow throughout the 70’s and blossom in the 80’s. By then, however, he had returned to abstraction (Bugs Bunny Meets the Sublime, 1982). His representational work developed in the socially and politically unstable sixties and seventies; while his experiments in abstraction (imprinting with paint-soaked paper towels and drawing with Korectype), at the time conservatism took hold in the eighties and nineties (Diderot in Hawaii, 1988; Fast Shuffle, 1990). In the last three years of his life he returned to narrative painting and popular culture—television, movies, and current events (The Death of Irene Silverman, 2001, private collection—“a masterpiece” declared the painter Jules Olitski in The New York Times, 2001).

Tillim was also a brilliant, idiosyncratic critic. He was a contributing editor at Artforum from 1965 through 1970. Before that, he had been a contributing editor and prodigious reviewer at Arts magazine, 1959–1965. His last published article, “The Academy, Postmodernism and the Education of the Artist” (1999) and his last exhibition review, “William Henry Fox Talbot at H.P. Kraus” (2000) appeared in Art in America. Tillim considered the writings of Clement Greenberg to have been the most important influence on his own criticism. The subject of “Critical Realist: Katy Siegel on Sidney Tillim” (Artforum, Sept. 2003), Tillim is extensively interviewed in Challenging Art: ARTFORUM 1962–1974 by Amy Newman (Soho Press, 2000).

In addition, Tillim was an avid book collector and collected specimens of the photomechanical processes from c. 1840–1960. On this subject, he organized the exhibition The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Representation (Bennington College, 1992), and authored the 1996 exhibition catalogue Photographs in Ink (Farleigh Dickinson University). In 2000 his unique collection was acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.

Born in Brooklyn, Sidney Tillim grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, where at age thirteen he won the Tidewater Marble Championship. After serving three years in the Army in Europe in World War II, he attended Syracuse University on the G.I. Bill, earning a B.A. in art. In 1956 Tillim married Muriel Sharon (1919–1996), director of the Children’s Theatre at the YMHA, New York City; in 1998 he married the art historian Diane Radycki. From 1966 to 1993 Tillim taught at Bennington College. A recipient of an NEA grant (1974) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1995), Tillim had twenty-two solo exhibitions during the course of his career and was included in over sixty group shows (among them, 22 Realists at the Whitney Museum in 1970 and Contemporary American Realism Since 1960 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1981). His last solo show took place at Trans Hudson Gallery in Chelsea, five months before his death, in August 2001.

Tillim’s works are in a number of public collections, including The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C., the Ludwig Collection in the Modern Museum of Art, Vienna, The Michner Collection at the University of Texas, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, among others.

Sidney Tillim

Sidney Tillim, 1998




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I am currently preparing an inventory of the papers of my late husband, Sidney Tillim, which are intended for donation to the
New York Public Library.