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Remembering Sam Gilliam: A legacy of colour field and lyrical abstraction

Sam Gilliam was an American contemporary artist well-known for his bevelled-edge and drape paintings, and most notably, his resistance to discursive language.

by STIRworldPublished on : Jul 08, 2022

On June 25, 88-year-old American artist Sam Gilliam passed away. The contemporary artist redefined and altered abstract painting and sculpture during the course of his seven-decade career. His work has had a tremendous effect on generations of artists by using vast constellations of shapes, textures, and materials to build innovative compositions.

The American painter, who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, was a key player in the Washington Colour School. This movement began in Washington DC in the 1950s and celebrated wide fields of colour as a response to the Abstract Expressionist works that arose from the New York School. In the mid-to-late 1960s, he immediately separated himself from his colleagues with the production of his characteristic bevelled-edge and Drape paintings. Gilliam created these paintings by folding unstretched canvas and staining it with acrylic paint to create dimensional, poetic abstractions that he would then stretch over bevelled frames.

Green April, 1969, acrylic on canvas | Sam Gilliam | STIRworld
Green April, 1969, acrylic on canvas Image: Lee Thompson; Collection of Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery

“Being black is a very important point of tension and self-discovery,” Gilliam said in an interview with ARNews in 1973. “To have a sense of self-acceptance we blacks have to throw off this dichotomy that has been forced on us by the white experience. For some, there is a need to do this frontally and objectively. There are some who believe there is no threat. I think there is a need to live universally.”

His most daring move was to unhook the canvas from the stretcher and move his painterly compositions out into space, resulting in his famous drapes on unstretched canvas. These revolutionary works, which the artist began making in the late 1960s, captured the ethos of the new trajectory artists were taking at the time. By suspending his stained canvases from ceilings and walls, Gilliam altered the medium of painting and its relationship to the physical and architectural space in which it is experienced. Beyond being an aesthetic statement, Gilliam's work opened up new pathways for interpreting art's position in a society in turmoil.

Seahorses, 1975, Installation view | Sam Gilliam | STIRworld
Seahorses, 1975, Installation view Image: Johansen Krause; Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery

"I am deeply honoured and blessed to have known Sam Gilliam through the last decade of his journey. To serve his vision has been a life-defining privilege. It has been about more than work or even passion—it is a form of devotion to principles that represent what is good, abiding, and true. Sam changed the course of my life, like he inspired the lives of many others, as a generous teacher, mischievous friend, and sage mentor. Above all, Sam embodied a vital spirit of freedom achieved with fearlessness, ferocity, sensitivity, and poetry. My heart goes out to his wife and partner, Annie; his children, Stephanie, Melissa, and Leah Franklin; Sam’s family; Jenn, Joseph, and the greater Gilliam studio; and all those touched by Sam’s boundless soul."  stated gallerist David Kordansky in an official statement.

10/27/69, 1969, acrylic on canvas installation | Sam Gilliam | STIRworld
10/27/69, 1969, acrylic on canvas installation Image: Fredrik Nilsen Studio; Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery

After garnering international praise for these breakthroughs, Gilliam represented the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1972 as part of a group presentation organised by curator Walter Hopps. "The year 1968 was one of revelation and determination," the artist once said. "Something was in the air, and it was in that spirit that I did the Drape paintings."

“Sam Gilliam was one of the giants of Modernism. He was a great friend and great artist who was able to convey the shared torments and triumphs of life through the universal language of abstraction. Sam was very much acclaimed in the 60s and 70s for his revolutionary work that freed the canvas from its support. The production of Sam’s work never wavered. He painted right up until the end of his life and his most recent works are among his best. I am proud that his late paintings have received great recognition and I take pleasure knowing that Pace, along with David Kordansky Gallery, brought his radiant work to a greater audience than it had ever known," stated the Pace Gallery founder, Arne Glimcher

Red, 1999, acrylic on panel with aluminum frame (or as printed in catalogue: acrylic on birch plywood construction with aluminum frame) | Sam Gilliam | STIRworld
Red, 1999, acrylic on panel with aluminium frame (or as printed in catalogue: acrylic on birch plywood construction with aluminium frame) Image: Mark Gulezian/QuickSilver Source: Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, October 15, 2005–January 22, 2006, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, exhibition catalogue, Published by University of California Press and the Corcoran Gallery of Art 2005

Building on his 1960s work, the visual artist continued to push the boundaries of his art in the decades that followed, adopting innovative techniques that questioned the traditional concept of what defines a painting. In the 1980s, he created his Quilt paintings, which consist of numerous layers of thick acrylic paint on canvas cut into geometric shapes and reassembled into abstract patterns. Sam Gilliam’s legacy, much like his artwork, extends beyond the boundaries of a frame and is sure to resonate with generations to come.

Untitled, 2020, watercolour on washi | Sam Gilliam | STIRworld
Untitled, 2020, watercolour on washi Image: Courtesy of Pace Gallery and David Kordansky Gallery © Sam Gilliam/ 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

(Text by Vatsala Sethi, Asst. Editorial Coordinator (Arts)

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