Located at the intersection of color and form, Sam Gilliam’s Ray VIII is replete with dualities, enduring as a monument to the artist’s central contributions to painting in the early 1970s. Executed in a time of intense experimentation and formal innovation for the artist, the present work is resplendent with chromatic intensity, unfolding in symphonic waves of jewel-tone hues. Ray VIII was purchased in the same year the artist represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and had his work shown at The Museum of Modern Art. It is exemplary of a painter at the peak of his abilities. Painted while the artist was honing a set of tools to take painting, traditionally two dimensional and bound by frames and glass, into the realm of sculpture, the present work marries premeditation and improvisation into a succinct whole. By projecting the canvas into space with its beveled edge, Ray VIII engages multiple avenues of perception, oscillating between object and image, dazzling in both the scope of its technical virtuosity and depth of feeling.
Nebulous and vibrant, Ray VIII appears as a product of otherworldly means. The present work expands outward from a central point along the bottom edge, erupting in saturated networks of tone that intermingle, clash and sing together. At each corner, opalescent fields of turquoise, dusty pink, and dusky blue spread out and flower. Overlaying this washy field of thin acrylic pigment, Gilliam has applied vibrant crimson splashes of red paint splatter which coalesce to form inflection points which dance along the surface of the tableau, rising like crescendos.
Spanning over eight feet, Gilliam’s canvas is expansive and sculptural. Belonging to the Ray series which the artist first started in 1970, the present work is a perfected version of the paintings the artist first started making in the late 1960s, emerging from the lived environment and blurring the line between, painting, sculpture and installation. At the same time, because of the way Gilliam has marked the surface, the present work has an ethereal quality, appearing lighter than air. Through a mixture of paint application and the physical structure of his work, Gilliam creates an object that is nestled in contradictions, both dense with mark making and airy and seemingly weightless. Works such as Ray VIII “charge the gap between the work and the wall with a distinctive energy depending on how he oriented the beveled stretcher” (Johnathan Binstock in: Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Sam Gilliam a Retrospective, 2005, p. 40). Projecting subtly forward and inward toward the viewer, Ray VIII engages notions of depth and perspective, occupying the border between sign and signifier, mimetic representation and sculptural presence.
Gilliam’s critical contributions to art history, that the canvas can occupy multiple artistic roles, existing as painting and sculpture as well as canvas and brush, are epitomized in the present work. The artist’s process involved using diluted acrylic and then soaking that mixture into the unprimed support, subsequently folding and twisting the canvas. Gilliam’s choreography in executing his work would become recorded on the surface of the finished product, much in the way Jackson Pollock’s drips tracked his circumambulation around his studio. Taking the narrative developed by Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists and pushing it one step further, Gilliam subverts the role of the canvas as passive support, transforming it into an applicative device and an extension of the artist.
An index of Gilliam’s gestures, the present work is an atlas that tracks the interaction of the artist’s body and the art object. Best explained by the artist, 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” (the artist in: Annie Gawlak, “Solids and Veils,” Art Journal, no. 50, vol. 1, 1991, p. 10). Fostering universal dialogues between order and disorder, chaos and control, the present work is an unusually large and rare to market example of one of Gilliam’s most celebrated series.