"My work... is constructed painting, in that it crosses the void between object and viewer, to be a part of the space in front of the picture plane. It represents an act of pure passage, The surface is no longer the final plane of the work. It is instead the beginning of an advance into the theater of life." -S. Gilliam, quoted in J. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: a retrospective, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 130.
Painted in 1972, Sam Gilliam’s Red Under is an enticing visual essay on the artist’s unique process. Across its expansive surface, the constituent elements of the work remain suspended in action: traces of Gilliam’s manipulation of his canvas—ripples that run through the horizon of the color field and a sea of fire-red paint—range across the surface leaving us the impression of a sunset, assembled in splashes across the picture plane. Like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and his Washington Color School peers, Gilliam operates within a process-oriented aesthetic tradition: the symbolic content of these works are all but impossible to remove from their form.
At first glance, this picture field reads with abstract dogma: color equals content equals form. But for Gilliam, working during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Red Under represents more than purely an abstraction. Using gesture and movement to stimulate the interaction of colors, textures and motion was liberating: The Washington Color School afforded Gilliam a limitless capacity for personal expression and the ability to completely embrace the unknown. Red Under represents an act of political defiance for Gilliam as African Americans nationwide took part in a larger struggle for freedom. “I was free to try anything that I really wanted to. I was free to be easy or mysterious,” Gilliam said in a 2012 interview with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “I was free to be the artist that I really wanted to be” (S. Gilliam, quoted in Meet Sam Gilliam, Smithsonian American Art Museum, December 3, 2012, https://americanart.si.edu/videos/meet-sam-gilliam [accessed 3/29/2018])