Sam Gilliam’s musical musings on jazz, colour and Beyoncé

Sam Gilliam’s musical musings on jazz, colour and Beyoncé

‘Existed Existing’ reflects the Colour Field master’s six-decade career in boundary-pushing chromatic exploration

As one of the great pioneers of postwar American painting, the trailblazing artist Sam Gilliam has made a profound impact on American art throughout his six decade-long career. Starting in the 1960s when he began making works that both expanded and disrupted the principles of Colour School painting in Washington D.C., Gilliam quickly became known for his groundbreaking Drape paintings that saw stretcher-less lengths of painted canvas suspended from the walls and ceilings of exhibition spaces.

As a Black artist based in the nation’s capital during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Gilliam’s approach of redefining existing norms was not simply by coincidence. His re-envisioning of the art medium as a means of reflecting the major changes taking place in society is something he has continually explored over the years. This has allowed him to spearhead a new path that stems from Abstract Expressionism, but also draws from other facets of Black culture, be it the improvisational aspects of jazz, thanks to his childhood spent entrenched in the musical culture of Tupelo, Mississippi, or the influences of other personal heroes.

A new series of colourful paintings and sculptural forms inside African-American artist Sam Gilliam’s studio in Washington D.C.
A new series of colourful paintings and sculptural forms inside African-American artist Sam Gilliam’s studio in Washington D.C.
Above and below: new work by Sam Gilliam on display in his Washington D.C. studio, photographed in Summer 2020. © 2020 Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gilliam, in fact, credits the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane for teaching him how to paint, saying, ‘It’s time that matters: listening and realising what happened with the music, my experience of sound established these references in painting.’

This month, the 86-year-old Gilliam unveils three new bodies of work at Pace Gallery in New York – his inaugural exhibition since signing with the gallery in July 2019, which also marked the first time he has been represented by a New York gallery in his career. Entitled ‘Existed Existing’ and staged at both of Pace’s locations on 510 and 540 West 25th Street, the expansive exhibition includes large-scale paintings, a series of wood sculptures that are drenched in colour and monochromatic paintings on Japanese washi paper.

Gilliam’s eye-catching sculptures take shape as pyramids, parallelograms and circles – elemental forms in ancient African architecture – that are made from stacks of stained plywood and aluminium, coated in paint. Inspired by observing the influx of African immigrants in Basel, during an extended stint while installing an exhibition there in 2018, the monochromatic pieces command a regal degree of attention.  

 Existed Existing’, an exhibition at Pace gallery New York which showcases six decades of Sam Gilliam’s category-defying
Installation view of ’Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing’, 510 West 25th Street, New York, November 6 – December 19, 2020. Photography courtesy of Pace Gallery

At the core of the new show is Gilliam’s series of large-scale paintings, ranging from six by eight ft to eight by 20 ft in size, that explore the density and physicality of colour. Highly textured due to the mixing of sawdust and other remnants from around the studio into the paint as well as the application of multiple layers, Gilliam’s gestural splatters of paint create hypnotic fields of colour that are then suddenly interrupted by the artist’s hand, marks made by a palette knife and even traces of a garden rake dragged across the canvas.

These paintings pay homage to Gilliam’s heroes and heroines, including the late civil rights leader Senator John Lewis, tennis player Serena Williams and Beyoncé (in the titling of the works). They also count on his other established formal archetypes, such as Gilliam’s signature bevel-edged paintings – a technique of mounting that makes the works appear like they are emerging from the wall – that he began using back in the 1960s. Oscillating between past and present, in a state that appears as both liquid and solid, dense and flat, these paintings are an inspiring representation of the fluidity and inconsistency of time. §

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