Lot 2
  • 2


400,000 - 600,000 GBP
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  • Sam Gilliam
  • Forth
  • signed, titled and dated 1967 on the reverse
  • acrylic on canvas
  • 170.5 by 129.5 cm. 67 1/8 by 51 in.


The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1967


Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Paintings by Sam Gilliam, October - November 1967, n.p., no. 1 (text)


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate, although the overall tonality is brighter and more vibrant in the original. Condition: Please refer to the department for a professional condition report.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Forth played a unique role in the launch of Sam Gilliam’s early career. In immaculate condition, the present work was bought by the owners from the October 1967 Paintings by Sam Gilliam exhibition of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and has since remained in their collection. The impact of this exhibition on the artist’s burgeoning career cannot be overestimated. In light of it, Gilliam would go on to become one of the most respected artists affiliated with the Colour Field and Washington Colour School communities, holding teaching positions at the Corcoran School of Art and the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and in 1971 he received the prestigious Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, an award that would grant him unprecedented artistic freedom. Having fallen deeply in love with Gilliam’s Red Petals (1967) during its display at the Jefferson Place Gallery, Marjorie Phillips, wife of Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, purchased the work for the museum's collection where it still resides. A symbol of her invaluable early patronage of Gilliam, Red Petals accompanied Forth within the same October 1967 exhibition of the Phillips Collection. 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 locates agency and chance within a captivating metaphysical dialogue. Removing the constraint of the stretcher, Gilliam consummates the formal innovations initiated by the Bevelled-Edge works through the Drape Paintings of 1968 onwards, patenting an unmistakable visual language that would irrevocably augment the potential of the medium.

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. Borderlines, partitions, thresholds and liminality created through Gilliam’s direct intervention communicate with serendipitous saturations of celestial colour. Suspended from a wall or placed atop a stool and left to dry in Gilliam’s studio, the canvas was then stretched onto a bevelled frame. An infinitely complex, three-dimensional entity, the resultant art-product directly implicates the viewer in a narrative involving intricate inter-relations between subject, object, and containing space. The Drape Paintings implemented a logical extension of this property, and at the Venice Biennale of 2017 (the artist's second appearance at the Biennale having first shown in 1972) Gilliam’s drapes hung over the entrance to the central pavilion in the Giardini. Not only did this render Gilliam the most prominently-placed artist of the entire exhibition, it also meant that each and every visitor to the space enjoyed an unrepeatable and unique encounter with Gilliam’s work.

The Bevelled-Edge and Drape Paintings deliberately resist facile legibility, enacting an abstraction that, especially at their time of creation, radically subverted the expectations leveled at African American art. In resisting the prescription – expressed by, among others, W.E.B. Du Bois – on African-American art to configure Black experiences as a means of inducing political change, Gilliam avoided and indirectly satirised the essentialist responses that such well-intentioned figurative art elicited in its predominantly white audience. As a consequence, Gilliam’s avowedly apolitical and abstracted work had, arguably, a more impactful political upshot than much contemporaneous African-American protest art. As Pernilla Holmes and Amele von Wedel write, “the pure aesthetic power of Gilliam’s work perhaps belies the nerve it must have taken him to pursue abstraction” (Pernilla Holmes & Amelie von Wedel in: Exh. Cat., London, Pace Gallery, Impulse: Frank Bowling, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, 2017, pp. 7-8).