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).
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