Contemporary Art

When Sam Gilliam Became a Master in His Own Right

By Halina Loft
Taking place at 10:00 AM EDT on 26 September in New York, Sotheby's Contemporary Curated auction features an array of spectacular works dating from the post-war period to the present. A highlight of the sale is Sam Gilliam's Ray VIII (1970) , an expansive work that showcases the artist at the height of his career.

I n the late 1960s, Sam Gilliam underwent a reinvention. Artforum writer Andrew Hudson noted the change in the publication's March 1968 edition:

“Suddenly and dramatically, a former follower of the Washington Color School emerged as having broken loose from the ‘flat color areas’ style, and as an original painter in his own right.”
- Andrew Hudson, “Sam Gilliam, Phillips Collection and Jefferson Place Gallery”. 'Artforum'. Print; March 1968.

Gilliam, then in his mid-30s, had begun experimenting with the boundary that separates painting and sculpture, image and object. His strategy was ingenious: untether the canvas from its supporting rectangular frame and allow it to hang in space, riding the line between the second and third dimension; paint the canvas by soaking it in acrylic paint, then twist and fold the fabric until the colors explode, expand and intermingle. With this approach, Gilliam gave the canvas a greater role in the artistic process – he let it be a sculpture and a brush, in addition to a surface and a painting. This way of rethinking the rudimentary tools of art-making in relation to the artist was radical; it's Gilliam's most critical contribution to the canon of art history, as well as the impetus to his professional success. Ray VIII stands as a monument to this crucial period, showcasing the artist at the height of his career.

Sam Gilliam, Ray VIII, 1970. Estimate $600,000 – 800,000.

Spanning more than eight feet, the artwork is part of Gilliam's Ray series, which he began in 1970. The edge of the canvas is beveled, giving the work the appearance of projecting into space, engaging multiple avenues of perception. Opalescent blue, red, pink and orange paint flower and erupt across the surface, creating a mesmerizing symphony color. A splattering of deep crimson paint guides the viewer's gaze across the work, creating an arch which balances the canvas's vertical folds. Gilliam's signature process of coloring the canvas leaves the work with a record of his choreography, much in the same way that Jackson Pollack's drips chart his steps around his studio.

All this is to say that Ray VIII is, simply, spectacular. But to appreciate the work fully, it's best to read Gilliam's own thoughts on the subject:

“['Ray VIII'] consists of solids and veils: the union of solids, or metal forms, seen as volumes against a raked and grooved paint surface. It is constructed painting, in that it crosses the void between object and viewer, to be part of the space in front of the picture plane. It represents an act of pure passage. The surface is no longer the final plane of the work. It is instead the beginning of an advance into the theater of life”
Sam Gilliam in: Annie Gawlak, “Solids and Veils,” Art Journal, no. 50, vol. 1, 1991, p. 10

Bid on Ray VIII and other contemporary artworks on 26 September in New York – until then, be sure to admire the other works included in the Contemporary Curated auction.

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