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At 85, Abstract Pioneer Sam Gilliam Is Still Making Innovative Paintings

Sam Gilliam with his work, Autumn Surf , at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1973. © Sam Gilliam. Photo by Art Frisch. Courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris.

Sam Gilliam with his work, Autumn Surf , at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1973. © Sam Gilliam. Photo by Art Frisch. Courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris.

In the 1960s, artist transformed his experience of a fracturing world into colorful, dramatic canvases that hung in folds from gallery walls. was emerging, American sculpture was blossoming as took hold, and the Civil Rights movement was energizing activists nationwide. Gilliam turned inward, using his Washington D.C. studio to incorporate all this noise into masterful paintings. “You arrive at what you do by challenging yourself and painting a lot,” he mused over a recent phone conversation.
Sam Gilliam, Spread, 1973. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Sam Gilliam, Spread, 1973. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Gilliam, who’s just shy of 86, moved to the U.S. capital in 1962 and has lived there ever since. Early in his career, he made clean-edged abstractions, in line with painters such as and . He gradually loosened up his style, soaking or pouring colors directly onto his canvases and folding them before they dried—a technique which created accordion lines and a deep sense of texture. Around 1965, he made his greatest stylistic innovation: He got rid of the stretcher bars that traditionally underpin a painting and draped his canvases from the wall like sheets from a clothesline. They bunched at the top, unfurling in color-splashed waves and adopting a third dimension, effectively becoming both painting and sculpture. This summer, the New York art world is giving Gilliam more attention than ever.
Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Detail of Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Detail of Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Last week, Pace Gallery announced that it would be the first Manhattan gallery to represent the artist. Gilliam is also represented by Los Angeles’s David Kordansky Gallery, which has shown his work for many years.
“Sam never wanted New York representation,” Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher wrote to me by email. “He avoided the influence of the art scene including its writers—he wouldn’t be grouped into a Color Field niche.” Glimcher plans to expand Gilliam’s international reach, particularly into Europe and Asia, where he’s not as well-known. That’s not to say that Gilliam’s own home city has forgotten about him: This fall, the Kennedy Center’s new performance space, called The Reach, will debut with one of Gilliam’s draped paintings.
Detail of Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Detail of Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Detail of Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Detail of Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Across the street from Pace’s major new flagship on West 25th Street in Chelsea, which is slated to open this fall, The FLAG Art Foundation is presenting an exhibition of Gilliam’s new paintings. The 12 large-scale works, on view through August 16th, are made on Japanese washi paper, a medium strong enough to withstand Gilliam’s intensive process. Hanging vertically against black gallery walls, the pieces feature Gilliam’s signature folding technique,evoking curtains, tree trunks, and flags. Paint splotches and other traces of the artist’s multistep process suggest skeletons and rorschach blots. The works’ palettes range from psychedelic purple and orange to deep forest greens tinged with blue, creating an unconventional rainbow across the dark gallery walls. “They’re examinations in pure color for him,” FLAG associate director Jonathan Rider told me recently.
Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

On August 10th, Dia: Beacon will present two Gilliam works from the 1960s and 1970s. Two large scale, 10-by-71-foot drape paintings from 1968 make up the installation Double Merge (1968). “They came out of uniting color field with the March on Washington,” Gilliam explained. Through these works, he was also responding to Martin Luther King’s assassination.
It’s impossible to say what exactly the Dia:Beacon presentation will look like until opening day—Gilliam hangs his drape paintings differently every time he displays them. Each new installation becomes its own site-responsive, improvisational performance. “I do like the stage,” Gilliam told me. No matter how the final presentation appears, the date of the works will be strongly suggestive. The year 1968 is a symbol of American turmoil and celebration: the year that Lyndon Johnson signed The Fair Housing Act—an expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; and the Vietnam War raged.
Gilliam was an activist himself. He took part in the March on Washington in 1963—“we got close to the Lincoln Memorial,” he recalled. Later, he co-organized “The Deluxe Show,” a 1971 exhibition in Houston that may have been the first in the U.S. to show the work of black and white artists together. Major art collectors John and Dominique de Menil supported the exhibition, which was presented in the city’s dilapidated Deluxe Theater. Alongside Kenneth Noland and painter , Gilliam helped curate the show that included artists ranging from to , to .
Living in Washington for decades, Gilliam has long been surrounded by an intense political climate. He remembers the “romantic involvement” that surrounded John F. Kennedy’s presidency and says that the Trump administration is great for making an artist want to get away from politics and do other things. Withdrawing into the studio isn’t an escape for him, but a way of “building beyond this time.” In their own way, Gilliam said, “artists always deal with drama. They get caught up.” Instead of wreckage and linear history, he’ll leave behind works of beauty that offer an alternate story about his time.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Dia: Beacon will be presenting three works by Gilliam, including two Drape paintings each called Carousel II (1968). The artist has changed the title and format of the work to a single installation, called Double Merge (1968).