Sam Gilliam: Beyond the Washington Color School
By Beth Hamilton
Sam Gilliam is best known as a color-field abstractionist of the Washington Color School, a loosely affiliated movement of artists founded by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland in the 1950s. However, he experimented with a number of styles throughout his long and varied career and has since remained a committed and experimental artist. Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, the seventh of eight children. His family moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1942 where he spent most of his childhood. Gilliam credits his creative spirit and ability to work with his hands to his family; his father was a carpenter and his mother a schoolteacher and avid sewer. Gilliam later refined his artistic impulses at the University of Louisville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1955. He then spent a short stint in the United States Army, serving two years in Japan. Upon return, Gilliam resumed his studies at Louisville and earned a master’s degree in fine art in 1961. After graduating, Gilliam married Washington Post journalist Dorothy Parker and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962 where he has lived ever since.
Gilliam first worked in a style of abstract figuration in the manner of Bay Area artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira, and David Park. He was interested in abstraction but his instructors at Louisville leaned towards more conservative subjects and career choices. Once he moved to Washington, D.C., he embarked on a period of experimentation. Taking regular trips to New York and studying artwork in detail, Gilliam developed an interest in the work of Hans Hofmann, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. He also learned of the Washington Color School artists and their work, which represented one of the most significant abstract movements to form following Abstract Expressionism. Washington Color School founders Louis and Noland painted color-field works using a method of staining unprimed, unsized canvases with acrylic-based paint. Other artists in this circle would later include Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and Tom Downing, who became the most influential figure to Gilliam. Gilliam became fully committed to nonrepresentational art, and exhibited his first Color School works in 1965 at the Jefferson Place Gallery, an important local venue for contemporary art at the time. This exhibition secured his position as a rising member of the Washington art world.
Motivated by Abstract Expressionism, Gilliam experimented with various methods of paint application during the 1960s; he poured paint, stained canvases, and folded the canvas while still wet. The resulting three-dimensional works of art allowed Gilliam to reconsider the role of the traditional canvas and stretcher bar support. In 1965, he became one the first painters to work without the stretcher, constituting a major development in the history of art. Taking inspiration from hanging laundry on clotheslines, the large, color-stained paintings were hung from ceilings, affixed to walls or laid on the floor. His radical approach to painting blurred the lines between painting and sculpture. Gilliam received numerous accolades within the art world, and he quickly earned public and private commissions for his draped canvases.
By the late 1970s, Gilliam abandoned his famous draped canvases and worked on a number of series, including collage paintings, and single-color works. As stated by Jonathan P. Binstock in the catalogue for Gilliam’s retrospective exhibition, “For more than forty years, Gilliam’s primary means to invention has been the series. Working in this manner enables him to elaborate on the potential of an idea and to survey the many variables within an overarching theme. Working in series means approaching art-making with a generative idea: to create white paintings or black ones; to make nine-sided beveled edge polygons, or Chasers, as Gilliam calls them or to produce plywood constructions with internal aluminum frames, and so on. A series may be defined by a dominant color, shape, image, format, or medium.” (Jonathan P. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective. Exh. cat. Corcoran Gallery of Art [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005], p. 87)
The Chaser series is a group of collage paintings, in which Gilliam painted the canvases, cut them, and recombined the pieces on a two-dimensional, geometric surface. Binstock elaborates, “Gilliam further explored the relationship between interior collage and framing edge in the Chaser series of 1980, for which he produced about seventeen paintings measuring roughly 80 by 90 inches. These evoke, as John Beardsley averred, the shape of Australia.” (Binstock, p. 118)
The present work, King of Prussia, is among the paintings in this series and demonstrates the artist’s love for paint, texture, and shape. Within the nine-sided support, Gilliam has painted in an all-over style using expressionist splatters of red, yellow, and blue paint, which demonstrates remarkable similarity in color, gesture, and scale to Gerhard Richter’s dramatic painting, Abstraktes Bild (fig. 1, above). Using a rake, Gilliam applied a gritty and textured surface, which can similarly be seen on other Chaser paintings as #8, To Repin, To Repin (fig. 2) and Robbin’ Peter (fig. 3), a work with similar energetic color patterns as the present painting. For these works, the frenzy of color masks the collaged pieces that make up the painting. However, in Purpled (fig. 4) the more articulated geometric collage segments resembles a colorful patchwork quilt. In fact, several works in the Chaser series are titled after old patchwork patterns, including Robbin’ Peter.
Gilliam exhibited four paintings from the Chaser series and other contemporary works at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1983. Washington Post art critic Paul Richard emphatically stated of the exhibition,
“It’s about time. Today, a smashing, well-selected show of recent abstract paintings by Washington’s Sam Gilliam opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gilliam is local, Gilliam is black, and he often is described, not without good reason, as a second-generation Washington Color Painter. All this has worked against him. He is an extraordinary artist. But though moderately prosperous and moderately famous, Gilliam, at 50, has failed to received—from the New York big-bucks market, or the glossy magazines, or the Corcoran itself—the recognition he is due. The Corcoran’s exhibit is an effort to correct that. ‘This show,’ insists John Beardsley, the young free-lance curator who picked the pictures, ‘was not intended as a sop to those who have complained about the Corcoran’s commitment to good local art. Nor is it an affirmative action show.’ When Beardsley praises Gilliam, he does not pull his punches. These pictures from the ‘80s, the catalogue contends, ‘are unquestionably the best’ of Gilliam’s career. When Beardsley writes that ‘Gilliam has always been a good painter,’ he is setting up his end-of-the-essay clincher: ‘Gilliam is now a world class painter.’” (Paul Richard, “Sam Gilliam’s Show at the Corcoran: Proof of his Power and Significance as a Washington Color Painter,” Washington Post, March 24, 1983, C15)
Gilliam’s four-decade long career has been met with numerous solo exhibitions and honors, establishing his importance as a modernist and African American artist. In 1972, he was the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. Gilliam’s solo exhibitions include ones held at the Corcoran Gallery or Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Most recently, Gilliam exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennale and currently has a major retrospective exhibition of paintings at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, his first European solo exhibition.
Cover image: Sam Gilliam, American, b. 1933. King of Prussia, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. 80 x 90 ¼ inches. Signed, titled and dated on the reverse.