A veritable revolutionary figure in 20th century postwar art, Sam Gilliam’s body of work helped define the radical and influential Washington Color School and pushed the very genre of Color Field painting to an unbridled extreme. Improvisation and experimentation converge across the resplendent surface of Sam Gilliam’s Lady Day II, a surface that showcases the artist’s pioneering painting technique in which he physically manipulates both the pigment and the canvas to produce a series of extraordinarily colorful abstractions, and in the process up-ends centuries of artistic convention. The tall vertical columns of jewel-like colors are emblematic of the paint-staining technique that Gilliam first developed in the 1960s, in which he poured diluted pigment directly onto the surface of his unprimed support. A commanding 9 by 13 feet canvas summons the viewer into a dazzling aura of blues and reds, warm pinks and golden yellows which emanate directly from the heart of the 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,” he once said (S. Gilliam, quoted by C. Picard, “In the Studio: Sam Gilliam,” Blouin ArtInfo, December 17, 2015, via blouinartinfo.com). Previously in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Lady Day II is arguably the most striking example of the artist’s work to appear on the international market.
The expansive composition is comprised of vertical bands, each with varying concentrations of pigment, which result in a rich display of overlapping translucent chroma. Passages of deep ruby red dissolve into areas of warm pink, before softening into more neutral organic tones; this is then repeated across the canvas in various combinations of other glistening tones of red, blue and yellow. This rich and variegated surface is the result of the artist repeatedly folding the canvas while the paint is still wet, allowing the colors and geometries to dissolve into each other. Gilliam would begin the process by soaking the lightest colors of the composition, like the yellows and pinks 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 they were unfolded, the evocative abstract forms were revealed for the first time, appearing like mysterious Rorschach like 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 has witnessed the evolution of his practice. “In a sense, it is a mini version of how the early drapes were made” (S. Frietch, ibid.). This method evokes the unconventional working methods of Jackson Pollock, and while William Fowler notes that in the 1960s Gilliam was «hailed as radical as Jackson Pollock» (William Fowler, “Searching for Sam Gilliam: the 81 year-old art genius saved from oblivion” The Guardian, October 15, 2015); Matthew Kangas notes that while “Sharing an approach to all-over compositions with Abstract Expressionism’s ace Jackson Pollock, Gilliam goes farther with submerged shapes rising and receding as the eye inspects each large painting, up to eight feet wide, challenging the unity of Pollock’s drips and varying their width, texture and density” (M. Kangas, “Gilliam and Hurley,” Visual Art Source, 2017 http://www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&pcID=27&aID=4358).
Coming of age in the social an.d pollical instability of the 1960s, Sam Gilliam 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. Hence, in Lady Day II, we find the radical implementation of beveled edged stretchers, which help to give the impression that the painting is emerging from the wall as an object of weight and substance. Unlike the conventional stretchers favored by his predecessors and contemporaries, Gilliam’s beveled edges “charge the gap between the work and the wall with a distinctive energy depending on how he oriented the beveled stretcher” (J. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2005, p. 40).
The title an artist assigns to an artwork is an essential part of their essence. Much like his contemporaries, Sam Gilliam was heavily influenced by his love of jazz, and Lady Day II is a seminal example of this influence. Gilliam himself notes, “the more far out the better,” and that his own work evoked “the drama of music and the drama of colors coming together” (T. Loos, “At 84 Sam Gilliam Fires Up His Competitive Spirit, New York Times, June 12, 2018). Lady Day II is the apotheosis of Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell’s assessment that “Gilliam’s cascades of color are not unlike Coltrane’s sheets of sound” (M. Schmidt Campbell, “Sam Gilliam: Journey Toward Red, Black and ‘D’,” Red & Black to “D”: Paintings by Sam Gilliam, New York, Studio Museum, 1982, p. 9). Lady Day II refers to the inimitable Billie Holiday, who was eponymously nicknamed Lady Day by her friend and music partner Lester Young. “Before painting, there was jazz,” Gilliam said in 2014, “I mean cool jazz. Coltrane. Ornette Coleman, the Ayler brothers, Miles Davis. It’s something that was important to my work, it was a constant. You listened while you were painting. It made you think that being young wasn’t so bad. All the young painters were into jazz” (S. Gilliam, quoted by J. Lewis, “Red Orange Yellow Green and Blue Period,” W Magazine, via https://www.wmagazine.com/story/sam-gilliam-artist).
Painted in 1971, the same year Gilliam’s work was prominently featured in as solo exhibition, Projects: Sam Gilliam at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lady Day II belongs to a series of works produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s that are among the artist’s most important paintings. Known as his Slice paintings, they have subsequently become some of his most admired and respected works; many similar examples are in major museum collections including, April 4, 1969 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.); Whirlirama, 1970 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Wide Narrow, 1972 (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University); Blue Twirl, 1971 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); and Scatter, 1972 (Indianapolis Museum of Art). Recently honored with a major retrospective exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel (his first in Europe), Sam Gilliam is now regarded as one of the most respected painters of his generation.
Exposed by his European professors to Renaissance perspective experiments and German Expressionist atmospheres, Gilliam matured in a detached, albeit rich, art historical environment. After time in the army, years of teaching, and meeting the Washington, D.C. Color Field, Gilliam realized that while his training was essential, it was not representative of his lived experience. “Ideas I was dealing with were mostly someone else’s. …What was most personal to me were the things I saw in my own environment—such as clotheslines filled with clothes with so much weight that they had to be propped up…” (quoted in D. Miller, “Hanging Loose: An Interview with Sam Gilliam,” January 1973). Thus, he began to work with different types of non-traditional canvas, such as the beveled example of the present work or his draped canvas—unstretched, unsupported works folding in on themselves after being saturated in luminous hues and hung from gallery walls. Such a convention drove the liberating ideas of Color Field to their natural, if unseen, conclusion: if the image could be obliterated, so too could its structure. Together with his Abstract Expressionist counterparts in New York, like Jackson Pollock, 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 in Washington, D.C., alongside painters such as Kenneth Noland, Gilliam expanded and 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 nonobjective art to transcend cultural and political boundaries.
The critic Eleanor Heartney has written that Gilliam’s paintings “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 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. Yet, in Lady Day II, 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 a unique and increasingly important voice in the history of 20th century art.