Remembering Abstract Pioneer Sam Gilliam through 5 Trailblazing Works
Portrait of Sam Gilliam. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery.
Sam Gilliam’s journey to abstract art began, oddly enough, in the dirt. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Gilliam’s childhood dirt drawings caught the eye of his neighbor, who told his parents that “they needed to get that boy some paper.” They did, and Gilliam would go on to pursue the arts, initially as a cartoonist and later as a fine artist beginning in the 1950s. Gilliam, who died on June 25th, leaves behind a storied seven-decade career as a seminal abstract painter and an experimenter across the 20th and 21st centuries.
While Gilliam was always drawn to abstraction, his style took a dramatic turn in the late 1960s when he removed the wood stretchers from his canvases, beginning a series of draped works. This physical shift would shape Gilliam’s process for the rest of his life, as he continued to emphasize the sculptural elements of a painting.
It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that art institutions and the larger art market took notice of his long-standing body of work, making him a key artist for collectors. In 2012, he joined the roster of David Kordansky Gallery, and later joined Pace Gallery in 2019.
Installation view of Sam Gilliam, Double Merge, 1968 at Dia: Beacon, New York. ©Sam Gilliam/ 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS). Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation, New York.
Gilliam leaves behind a rich legacy of experimentation in painting that has influenced a generation of contemporary Black abstractionists. Notably, his work, along with Jack Whitten, Edward Clark, and Norman Lewis, played a critical role in shaping the style of genre-breaking contemporary artists who emphasized the political through their abstract paintings. Of his method and politics, Gilliam told the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2020 that “abstract art messes with you. It convinces you that what you think isn’t all. It challenges you to understand something that is different. That a person can be just as good in difference and sometimes [as an] adversary to what you believe.”
Here are five works that demonstrate Gilliam’s unwavering dedication to abstraction and his ceaseless ability to reinvent his style across color, form, and size.
Theme of Five I, 1965
Sam Gilliam, Theme of Five I, 1965. ©Sam Gilliam. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery
In the 1950s, Gilliam served in the U.S. Army. He later attended the University of Louisville, from which he received his masters in painting, before relocating to Washington, D.C., in 1962. While in D.C., he became a member of the second generation of the influential Washington Color School of painters that also included Alma Thomas. Theme of Five I is indicative of the work he produced during this period, drawing heavily from color field and hard-edged abstract paintings of the era.
Although striking red dominates the canvas, it is the slashed diagonal lines of black, brown, purple, gold, and magenta, each offset by white, that fully immerse the viewer into the painting. The style is indicative of the flat, clean, even look of the post-painterly abstraction of recent vintage, which resisted the free-flowing brushstroke and color spills of Abstract Expressionism, although Gilliam’s work with the latter would become a style that he would largely be associated with throughout his career.
While one of his works from this era was included in Clement Greenberg’s 1963 “Post Painterly Abstraction” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it was not until the 21st century that Theme of Five I received due recognition, when fellow artist Rashid Johnson curated “Sam Gilliam: Hard Edge Paintings, 1963–1966” at David Kordansky Gallery in 2013.
Double Merge, 1968
Installation view of Sam Gilliam, Double Merge, 1968 at Dia: Beacon, New York. ©Sam Gilliam. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation, New York.
Double Merge is characteristic of Gilliam’s iconic cowl-draped, expanded paintings. The work, which is currently on view at Dia Beacon through July 31st as part of its solo survey of the artist, is made of two large-scale canvases hung from the ceiling, each titled Carousel II. All of Gilliam’s draped canvases are site-specific in their installation hangings, meaning that no one piece is ever exhibited the same way.
Gilliam was partially inspired to drape canvases by his father’s work as a carpenter building sets for local church plays, as he said in a 2004 interview with scholar Rohini Talalla. The draped pieces, which he worked on until the early 1980s, premiered in the 1969 three-person exhibition “Gilliam, Krebs, McGowin” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, curated by Walter Hopps. The rest is history.
The Arc Maker I & II, 1981
Sam Gilliam, The Arc Maker I & II, 1981. ©Sam Gilliam. Collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Gift of the Friends of African Art. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery.
In The Arc Maker I & II, Gilliam returned back to the stretched canvas. This piece is part of several bodies of work across his career—including his collage paintings, black paintings, and beveled-edge paintings—that would push Gilliam’s painting approach to become more sculptural, not unlike the work of Frank Stella. Gilliam’s densely layered black paint of The Arc Maker I & II plays with perception through the form and shape of its several canvases, collaging the painting together in pieces as opposed to it being fully realized on a single surface.
Works from this era recall not only Gilliam’s early geometric paintings he made while part of the Washington Color School, but also his admiration for Northern and Southern Renaissance painters like Rembrandt and Jacopo Tintoretto, who both experimented with color to play with light. The Arc Maker I & II does something similar in its ability to swallow light through its use of dark pigments. The constructed piece also heralds his later sculptural work from the 1990s onward.
Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels: Monastery Parallel, 1997
Installation view of Sam Gilliam, Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels: Monastery Parallel, 1997 at Kunstmuseum Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen, Germany. ©Sam Gilliam. Photo by Johansen Krause. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery and Pace Gallery.
Like his contemporary Jasper Johns, Gilliam held a long-standing practice as a printmaker. While Gilliam’s prints have garnered less recognition than his paintings, they are critical to understanding his abstraction and experimentation. As a printmaker, Gilliam learned to experiment with papers, including Japanese papers made from gampi, mitsumata, and kozo fibers. These surfaces would later become the basis of paintings in his later works on washi paper.
Perhaps what is the most influential print in Gilliam’s oeuvre was his large-scale installation Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels: Monastery Parallel, in which several large prints are collaged together to form a single thousand-foot-long work. This enormous print was later painted on and knotted together to be draped from various ceilings during its exhibition run at various monasteries, and conveyed an ethereal, almost religious flair.
While Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels: Monastery Parallel evokes Gilliam’s draped canvases, its work-on-paper status makes it seemingly more fragile. The large-scale installation speaks to Gilliam’s ability to play with texture, form, color, and space across his career.
“New Works on Paper at the Flag Art Foundation,” 2019
Installation view of Sam Gilliam, “Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper” at the FLAG Art Foundation, 2019. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of FLAG Art Foundation.
One of Gilliam’s most recent bodies of work is a series of paintings constructed for a 2019 exhibition at the Flag Art Foundation, which consisted of 12 large-scale pieces made on washi paper. These paintings merge his practices as a printmaker, watercolorist, and abstract painter. They were constructed by soaking the paper in various paints to create an almost stained effect that leaves the colors to bleed into one another, an approach Gilliam likely learned from his participation with the Washington Color School.
Inspired by jazz music, the paintings are demonstrative of Gilliam’s long-standing practice of free-form use of color that draws from Black music culture and Black history. As he stated in the press release for the exhibition, these works evoke “the drama of music and the drama of colors coming together.”