Executed in 1970, amidst a time of intense experimentation and global artistic innovation, Sam Gilliam’s With Crimson is a prismatic example of the artist’s highly coveted beveled edge canvases. Gilliam pushed the genre of Color Field painting forward as an influential leader of the Washington Color School. With Crimson embodies the very best of Gilliam’s extraordinarily colorful abstractions created using his pioneering painting technique which upended centuries of conventional practices. The exploding rays of vibrant jewel tones are anchored by rich crimson, for which the painting is titled, and by force invites the viewer into the otherworldly cosmos of color. Overflowing with a kaleidoscopic frenzy of Day-Glo highlights and secondary shades of blue, where these colors coalesce, they form deep pools of gradient pigment that dissolve into one another producing a dynamic sense of painterly activity. Warm tones emanate from the heart of the canvas in a spread of sunset orange and ruby red crimson, while cooler tendrils of violet and shards of teal cut through the surface of the work, fanning out into a polychrome topography.
With Crimson has remained in the prominent collection of Arthur and Gigi Lazarus for nearly 50 years. Indeed, the Lazarus family acquired With Crimson in 1971 from Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington, D.C., a cooperative gallery that promoted emerging artists of the Washington Color School, including Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring and, of course, Sam Gilliam. Nesta Dorrance, who ran the gallery from 1961 until its closing in 1974, was instrumental in launching Gilliam’s career on an international level. Just two years after the present work was painted, Gilliam would go on to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, having the distinction of being the first African American artist to ever do so.
Gilliam’s many contributions to the art historical canon include his innovative process. First, he soaked an unprimed canvas in a diluted mixture of acrylic paint which he would then fold and twist onto itself. Gilliam would then suspend the saturated canvas overnight, leaving the paint to soak, mingle, stain and spread under the natural gravitational pull. Returning to the canvas the following morning, Gilliam would then sponge, daub, splatter and further fold or roll the canvas in order to unearth unexpected geometries and combinations. This carefully calculated yet fortuitous choreography becomes recorded on the surface of the finished product, much in the same way Jackson Pollock’s dynamic drips and daubs traced his dance-like circumlocution around the studio.
Measuring nearly six feet across, With Crimson is expansive and sculptural. Gilliam here has created an object overflowing with contradictions that wrestle on the surface: the canvas is both dense with architectural blocks of color yet appears airy and seemingly weightless. Interested in breaking down the traditional distinctions between painting, architecture and sculpture, Gilliam's final tool to blur these rigid distinctions was to implement the use of beveled edged stretchers, which give the impression that a painting is emerging three-dimensionally from the wall as an object of weight and substance.
Radiating an inner glow, Gilliam’s With Crimson elevates the sensory potential of color, depth and form. Through his groundbreaking process of creation, Gilliam makes paint luminous, combining a myriad of finishes and pigments with sophisticated color transitions on a sculptural surface, all of which mimic the qualities of light and shadow.
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