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

Flowering Plum

Details
Sam Gilliam (b. 1933)
Flowering Plum
signed and dated 'Sam Gilliam '86' (on the reverse of the second panel from the left)
acrylic on canvas, in four parts
overall: 54 ¼ x 97 ¼ x 4 1/8 in. (137.8 x 247 x 10.5 cm.)
Painted in 1986.
Provenance
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

“This is an artist who seems capable of making paint stand on its head and do tricks”—Karen Gunderson, New York Times, May 3, 1991

(K. Gunderson, ‘Review/Art; Nicholas Africano Explores the Melding of Innocence and Experience,’ New York Times, May 3, 1991.)

Across four large canvases, Sam Gilliam presents a vivid display of expressive color and brushwork. Building on his iconic ‘drape’ paintings from the 1960s, Flowering Plum develops his investigations into expansive canvases by enveloping them in thick layers of acrylic paint. Dynamic brushwork covers the surface of the canvas with sweeps, splatters, and peaks of thick impasto. Broad swathes of acrylic interrupted by thin ribbons of color nestle alongside substantial mounds of paint, making for an extremely active painterly service. In addition, the two central canvases have a thin horizontal ‘notch’ cut into the lower right corner in further example of the artist’s interest in non-traditional supports. Early in his career, he painted on loose tarpaulin-like canvas which he then gathered up and displayed hanging from the wall or ceiling. Both the encrusted painterly surface and the shaped canvases attest to the artist’s desire to push the traditional boundaries of painting, a wish that has remained with Gilliam throughout his life.

Of these later canvases, the critic Eleanor Heartney wrote that in the mid-1980s Gilliam “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 by 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 Flowering Plum, Gilliam’s muscular brushwork clearly evokes the spirit of his Abstract Expressionist forebears, namely Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Sam Gilliam established himself as one of the preeminent painters of his generation while working in Washington, D.C. during the 1960s. Together with his Abstract Expressionist counterparts in New York, Gilliam’s innovations with paint application and his radical transformation of the canvas support continuously expanded the possibilities for the future of abstract painting. Working alongside painters such as Kenneth Noland, Gilliam elaborated upon existing Color Field processes and aesthetics while turning on its heading the Greenbergian notions of the “integrity of the picture plane,” in addition to disrupting the boundaries between the visual world of painting and the tangible world outside it. 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.

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