Sam Gilliam

Existed Existing

Nov 6 – Dec 19, 2020
New York

Sam Gilliam's inaugural exhibition with the gallery, Existed Existing debuts new works and artist-led installations that reflect the culmination of his six-decade-long career with color.


510 & 540 West 25th Street
New York

Sam Gilliam: In Process

By Arne Glimcher

Imagine the Show on the First Day

By Courtney J. Martin

The Circle With a Whole in the Middle

By Fred Moten

A Conversation with Sam Gilliam

Interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist


Sam Gilliam, Pyramid, 2020, wood, stain, lacquer, aluminum, 110" × 122" × 122" (279.4 cm × 309.9 cm × 309.9 cm) © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibition features three new bodies of work that include large-scale paintings, some titled as tributes to influential Black contemporary and historical figures; a series of geometric color-drenched wood objects; and monochromatic paintings on Japanese washi paper. Accompanying Existed Existing is a fully illustrated monograph that includes a new interview between the artist and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as commissioned essays by art historian and curator Courtney J. Martin and scholar and poet Fred Moten.

Gilliam's new sculptural works take the form of geometric objects—pyramids, parallelograms, and circles made from stacked and stained plywood and aluminum. These new sculptures developed following Gilliam’s extended stay in Basel, Switzerland, for the installation of his exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2018, where he noticed that the city’s population had grown more international through an influx of immigrants, primarily from Africa. Inspired by this urban change and African influence, Gilliam returned to his studio and began to revisit the elemental forms of ancient African architecture.


Sam Gilliam, The Mississippi "Shake Rag," 2020, acrylic on canvas, 96" × 96" (243.8 cm × 243.8 cm) © 2020 Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the center of the exhibition is a series of new large-scale paintings, measuring from six-by-eight feet to eight-by-twenty feet, that further meditate on the physicality of color. Several of these works pay homage to Gilliam’s Black heroes, from singer-songwriter Beyoncé and tennis player Serena Williams to Senator John Lewis, the late civil rights leader who passed away this year. Densely layered and mixed with sawdust and other detritus from the studio, Gilliam flings, spatters, and throws paint to create fields of color interrupted by impressions of the artist’s hand, the mark of a palette knife, or the traces of a garden rake dragged across the wet surface. Continuing his series of signature beveled-edge paintings, which began in the 1960s, these canvases at first appear to emerge from the wall toward the viewer. The density of the paintings at first disguises the depth of the canvas’s bevel, giving the illusion of flatness. As if offering an infinite space in their depth, each painting seems to oscillate between liquid and solid when viewed from different distances.


Installation view, Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing, Pace Gallery, New York, Nov 6 – Dec 19, 2020 © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Complementing Gilliam’s new large-scale paintings and sculptural structures is a series of monochromatic paintings on traditional Japanese washi paper, handmade from the inner bark of specific trees and and plants. To make these works, Gilliam drenches the paper repeatedly in applications of rich, monochromatic color. The intensity of the saturation is such that the painting can no longer be seen as paper holding color but becomes color in and of itself.

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New work by Sam Gilliam, June 2020 © 2020 Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gilliam’s three new bodies of work are unified by a performative sensibility: the relationships between music, art, and dance that are fundamental to his practice. Music has always been a grounding presence in the artist’s life and a strong influence on his creative output. Growing up amid the rich musical culture of Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam was exposed to Billie Holiday and Muddy Waters at a young age and most of his family members were musical, including Gilliam himself, who sang and played the harmonica. He credits jazz saxophonist John Coltrane for teaching him how to paint: “It’s time that matters: listening and realizing what happened with the music, my experience of sound established these references in painting.” For Existed Existing, Gilliam has carefully choreographed the placement of each work; relationships emerge in the architectural space created by the sculptural elements, unfolding rhythmically as viewer moves through the installation.

Works from Pace’s presentation will be included in Gilliam’s solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in spring 2022, the artist’s first museum retrospective in the United States in fifteen years.


Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam is one the great innovators in postwar American painting. He emerged from the Washington, D.C. scene in the mid 1960s with works that elaborated upon and disrupted the ethos of Color School painting.

A series of formal breakthroughs would soon result in his canonical Drape paintings, which expanded upon the tenets of Abstract Expressionism in entirely new ways. Suspending stretcherless lengths of painted canvas from the walls or ceilings of exhibition spaces, Gilliam transformed his medium and the contexts in which it was viewed.

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