Created in 1972, the same year that Sam Gilliam became the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, Petite is a spectacular example of the artist’s vibrant, freeform abstraction. Gilliam’s revolutionary paintings were composed by pouring and splashing acrylic paint and pigment directly onto unprimed canvas, which was then folded and crumpled before being stretched over a frame. Spanning over a metre in height and marbled with a glorious array of reds, yellows, greens and cobalt blues, Petite exemplifies the exuberant colour and monumental scale of the works Gilliam created 1967 and 1973, widely considered the greatest years of his practice. In composition and process it is closely related to the ‘bevelled-edge’ paintings and ‘drape paintings’ Gilliam initiated in the same period, which became three-dimensional objects or released the canvas from the stretcher-frame entirely to interact with their spatial context in radical new ways. Gilliam blurred the lines between painting and sculpture even as his Minimalist contemporaries such as Donald Judd were seeking to reinforce that same boundary. Moving beyond the ideas of the Washington Colour School – a movement with which artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland were also associated – he reconceived painting as a performative, theatrical act, and created exhilarating new worlds in his medium.
While the ‘all-over’ chromatics of Petite might seem to echo the bravura brushwork of Willem de Kooning, for example, or the staining technique of Helen Frankenthaler, its brooding luminosity of hues, and the resplendent variety of their form, texture and depth – ‘the more far out the better’, as Gilliam has said – gives the work a unique energy, evoking what he calls ‘the drama of music and the drama of colours coming together’ (T. Loos, ‘At 84, Sam Gilliam Fires Up His Competitive Spirit’, The New York Times, 12 June 2018). There is a dialogue between control and chaos in his pouring and folding technique that lends the work an expressive vigour unmatched by even the ‘drips’ of Jackson Pollock. Gilliam, like many American artists of his era, was deeply inspired by jazz music, and his works are perhaps truer to the genre’s improvisatory spirit than any by his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries; Mary Schmidt Campbell has aptly noted that ‘Gilliam’s cascades of colour 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, exh. cat. Studio Museum, New York 1982, p. 9).
Gilliam would begin his paintings by soaking the lightest colours – like the yellows and pale mauves of Petite – into the raw, unprimed canvas before applying the darker pigments. He would then fold 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 and swirling Rorschach-like shapes. ‘I heard a young artist, Peter Bradley, say, in 1971, To kill the hand was my most important move’, recalled Gilliam in a 1973 interview. ‘I realised that years earlier I had thought that way in trying to free myself from the masking tape, the brush; to deal with the canvas as material by folding it, crushing it, using it as a means to a tactile way of making a painting’ (S. Gilliam, quoted in D. Miller, ‘Hanging loose: an interview with Sam Gilliam, Art News, January 1973). Gilliam’s approach to materiality was staggeringly ahead of his time. Almost five decades after it was made, Petite, with its dynamic galaxies of colour and striking, near-sculptural presence, looks glowingly contemporary.