Having featured prominently in the recent Tate Modern exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, the work Sam Gilliam is having something of a moment on the world stage. After a presentation of his work at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 (his first time representing the United States was in 1972), and as a major retrospective of his work The Music of Color opens at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, there is renewed focus on the contribution that Gillam has made to abstract painting.
Now in his 84th year, Gilliam’s vast catalogue of works are undergoing a re-examination on a worldwide scale, and the market for his paintings continues to gain strength. By all accounts, a quiet and understated – yet steady – rise.
Sam Gilliam was born in Mississippi in 1933, and went on to study fine art and painting at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, during a time of great politcal unrest in America. Gilliam was a supporter of the Civil rights movement of the 1960s, but is not known for being particulary vocal on these matters.
His series’ Martin Luther King and Jail Jungle address many of the issues prevelant in race politics in the 1960s, though the profound motivations behind these works are subtle and steer clear of overt references, such was the nature of abstraction. Gilliam preferred to employ a more subtle method in his work, and instead focussed his attentions on illiciting the emotive responses that Colour Field paintings were intended to evoke.
It was the Astract Expressionist painters working in the same period such as Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman who went on to outwardly define American painting in the eyes or the world, but it was the lesser-known Washington Colour Shool, founded by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, with which Gilliam was associated. The movement was in direct response to the investigations of the New York school, though experimentaion and boundary-pushing was the genesis of each group.
Gilliam’s paintings took on a three-dimensional element as he continued to investigate the potential of his medium. Canvasses came off the stretcher as he displayed large, draped structures that would fill a space, immersing the viewer and allowing a sculptual approach to his studies in colour. It is this bold gesture that has led many to acknowledge his significance in the history of 20th Century painting.
The process behind Forth marries the controlled and the contingent. To make these paintings, Gilliam applied diluted acrylic to raw canvas and then folded and creased the soaked material with his hands in a sequence of virtuosic bodily gestures that allowed pigments to infuse into unforeseen chromatic compositions.
Magmatic, otherworldly and explosive, Forth is a stunning instance of Gilliam’s 1967 Bevelled-Edge Paintings – also known as the Slice works – that immediately preceded the artist’s transition into the Drape Paintings the following year. In a gesture at least as significant to the progression of art history as Jackson Pollock’s placement of the canvas on the floor, Gilliam creates incredible, all-over hybrids of painting and sculpture in a process that deliberately challenges traditional modes of presentation.
The current Kunstmuseum exhibition surveys two prolific decades of Sam Gilliam’s career, and brings together some of his most important works, allowing a holistic evaluation of his diverse output. Gilliam has always existed at the very heart of abstraction, and through this exhibition and the continued emphasis on his practice, he continues to drive forward the conversation on the significance and potential of colour.
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