Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)
Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)


Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)
signed, inscribed indistinctly and dated 'Sam Gilliam 1971' (on the reverse)
acrylic on shaped canvas
58 x 61 x 2 in. (147.3 x 154.9 x 5.1 cm.)
Painted in 1971.
Private collection, Miami
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Lot Essay

“The rediscovery of an artist is always endearing. It seems to happen every couple of years: An older painter with a sterling record, who has nonetheless escaped notice for a few decades, is suddenly taken up again. The work looks great, the artist is rescued from oblivion, and everyone is bracingly reminded of how fragile and mutable our sense of history can be... It’s happening now to Sam Gilliam, who is 81 years old and living, as he has for more than 50 years, in Washington, D.C.; and no one is more cheered by the rediscovery than he is.”
(J. Lewis, “Red Orange Yellow Green and Blue Period,” W Magazine, November 28, 2014)
Across the surface of Sam Gilliam’s Untitled (1971), the artist powerfully demonstrates his pioneering painting technique, in which he physically manipulates both pigment and canvas to produce a series of colorful abstractions, upending centuries of artistic convention in the process. The jewel-like colors are emblematic of the paint-staining technique the artist developed in the 1960s, in which he poured diluted pigment directly onto the surface of his unprimed support. The result is a canvas that surrounds the viewer in a dazzling aura of color — swathes of blues and greens, warm pinks and golden yellows are absorbed directly into the surface of canvas. Where these colors coalesce, they form deep pools of pigment — intense areas of concentrated color that dissolve into each other, producing the dynamic sense of painterly activity that so enthralled the artist: “…it’s all theater or performance” (S. Gilliam, quoted in C. Picard, “In the Studio: Sam Gilliam,” Blouin ArtInfo, 17 December 2015, via [accessed 7/22/2018]). Untitled is one of the most striking examples of the artist’s work to come to market in recent years.
The varying concentrations of pigment result in a rich display of overlapping translucent color. Gilliam would begin his artistic process by soaking the lightest colors of the composition, like the pinks and yellows in the present work, into the raw, unprimed canvas before applying the darker greens, reds and blues. He would then fold the canvas repeatedly back and forth on itself before leaving it to dry overnight. As the canvas unfolded the next morning, the evocative abstract forms were revealed for the first time, appearing like mysterious Rorschach-esque forms embedded directly into the canvas. “When they’re unfolded, there are pieces of geometry in them, which is part of the aesthetic,” explains Stephen Frietch, who has assisted the artist for over 35 years and thus witnessed the evolution of his practice. “In a sense, it is a mini version of how the early drapes were made, except they were made on canvas and painted on the floor” (S. Frietch, quoted in C. Picard, “In the Studio: Sam Gilliam,” Blouin ArtInfo, 17 December 2015, via [accessed 7/22/2018]). The dappled colors evoke the spirit of Claude Monet’s Nympheas (1920-1926), the French artist’s late career paintings in which the graceful depictions of weeping willows against the watery surface of the lily pond merge into gloriously colorful abstractions.
Yet Gilliam’s paintings are inherently more complex than mere abstracted landscapes. Coming of age in the social and political instability of the 1960s, the artist was interested in disrupting the traditional distinctions between art, architecture and sculpture, in addition to investigating the properties of physically combining his chosen medium and support. In addition to the richness of the paint-soaked surface, the beveled edges of the present work's stretcher help to give the impression that the painting is emerging from the wall as an object of weight and substance (J. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2005, p. 31).
Untitled belongs to a series Gilliam produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s known as Slice paintings, which are now some of his most admired works. Many similar examples are in major museum collections including, April 4 (1969; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.); Red April (1970; University of Iowa Museum of Art); Blue Twirl (1971; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Scatter (1972; Indianapolis Museum of Art).
With his paintings of this period, Sam Gilliam established himself as one of the preeminent painters of his generation. Together with his Abstract Expressionist counterparts in New York, Gilliam’s innovations with paint application and radical transformation of the canvas support continuously expanded the possibilities for the future of abstract painting. Working in Washington, D.C., alongside artists such as Kenneth Noland, Gilliam expanded and elaborated upon existing Color Field processes and aesthetics while turning on its head Clement Greenberg's notion of the “integrity of the picture plane,” in addition to disrupting the boundaries between the world of painting and the physical realm. During an era when African American artists were expected by many to create figurative work explicitly addressing racial subject matter, Gilliam insisted on pursuing the development of a new formal language that celebrated the cultivation and expression of the individual voice and the power of non-objective art to transcend cultural and political boundaries.
The critic Eleanor Heartney has written that Gilliam’s practice “presents a body of works in which meaning is woven into the structure of the works, as part of their strivings for unity and their measured accommodation of freedom and order” (E. Heartney, quoted in J. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2005, p. 133). Linking his work to that of Frank Stella, Heartney concludes that both artists are seeking meaning through “explorations of real and illusionary depth, this time incorporating elements that paraphrase part art… [for example,] de Kooning brushstrokes” (Ibid.). In this way, Gilliam’s work predates that of other artists who would also examine notions of depth on a two-dimensional surface, such as Gerhard Richter, by almost a decade. In Untitled, Gilliam’s painted surface more clearly evokes the spirit of his Abstract Expressionist forebears, including those of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and yet remains an important voice in the history of 20th-century art.

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