SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)
SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)
SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)
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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK … Read more PROPERTY OF A PROMINENT ASIAN COLLECTOR
SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)


SAM GILLIAM (1933-2022)
signed ‘Sam Gilliam’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on beveled edge canvas
72 x 73 1/4 x 2 3/8in. (183 x 186 x 6cm.)
Painted in 1972
Galerie Darthea Speyer, Paris.
Private Collection, USA (acquired from the above in 1973).
Anon. sale, Christie’s New York, 11 November 2015, lot 228.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Claudia Schürch
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Lot Essay

Created in 1972, the same year that Sam Gilliam became the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, Empty is a spectacular example of his signature vibrant, freeform abstraction. Gilliam made the painting by pouring and splashing acrylic pigment directly onto unprimed canvas, which was then folded, crumpled and left to dry before being stretched over a frame. Spanning almost two metres across and marbled with canary yellow, copper green, coral pink, purple, deep emerald and bright spots of white, Empty exemplifies the dynamic colour and grand scale of the works Gilliam created in the late sixties and early seventies. With its slight bevelled edge, the canvas becomes a three-dimensional object: in composition and process it also relates closely to the groundbreaking ‘drape’ paintings he initiated in the same period, which released the canvas from the stretcher-frame entirely. Moving beyond the ideas of the Washington Colour School—a movement with which artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland were also associated—Gilliam reconceived painting as a performative, theatrical and sculptural act.

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933, and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962 after studying at the University of Louisville. He spent his first years in Washington working as a high-school art teacher, developing his own practice during the weekends. At a time defined by social upheaval and the Civil Rights movement, abstract art was widely held to have little relevance to the African-American experience. Undeterred—and inspired early on by artists including Louis, Noland, Emil Nolde and Paul Klee—Gilliam pursued abstraction in radical new directions, arriving at his first unsupported and folded canvases by the mid-1960s. He would begin works like Empty by soaking the lightest colours into a raw canvas before applying the darker pigments. He would then pleat and crush the still-wet fabric repeatedly back and forth on itself before leaving it to dry overnight. As it was unfolded, the composition was revealed for the first time, blooming in a maelstrom of pools, vapours, blots and swirls. Gilliam’s approach to painting as a material in space was unique. While Minimalists like Donald Judd were seeking to create austere, non-expressive objects that hybridised painting and sculpture, he blurred these boundaries with a baroque painterly exuberance.

If Empty echoes the bravura brushwork, drips and stains of Abstract Expressionism, its luminous hues and the peacock variety of their form, texture and depth give the work its own distinct energy. They evoke what Gilliam called ‘the drama of music and the drama of colours coming together’ (S. Gilliam, quoted in T. Loos, ‘At 84, Sam Gilliam Fires Up His Competitive Spirit’, The New York Times, 12 June 2018). The rhythms of his process move from two to three dimensions and back again, imbuing the work with a synesthetic spatial richness. Gilliam, like many American artists of his era, was deeply inspired by jazz music. By turns chaotic and controlled, his works are perhaps truer to the genre’s improvisatory spirit than any paintings by his Abstract Expressionist forebears. ‘Gilliam’s cascades of colour’, writes Mary Schmidt Campbell, ‘are not unlike Coltrane’s sheets of sound’ (M. Schmidt Campbell, ‘Sam Gilliam: Journey Toward Red, Black and ‘D’, in Red & Black to “D”: Paintings by Sam Gilliam, exh. cat. Studio Museum in Harlem, New York 1982, p. 9).

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