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Arne Glimcher Recounts His Friendship with Sam Gilliam

Published Monday, Jun 27, 2022

I’ll never forget seeing Sam Gilliam’s Drape paintings in the 1960s. They were a revelation for me and for all who encountered them. No one could forget the 75-foot piece that Sam made for the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1972. It stole the show that year and made a profound impression on everyone who saw it. Our mutual friend Walter Hopps, always a great supporter of Sam’s, curated the exhibition. I remember Walter brimming with enthusiasm for the work. In truth, it was impossible not to feel the audacity, grandeur, and complexity of what Sam was trying to do. He exploded the borders between sculpture, painting, and installation. He reinvented color and space in abstraction, and he’s kept doing that ever since. It’s been a thrilling thing to witness.

The same year as Sam’s Venice show, I met him for the first time at an opening for another mutual friend, the artist Kenneth Noland, at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York. I was younger than Sam, still in my early thirties, and I was immediately impressed by the fierce intelligence and magnetic presence of this tall, handsome individual. Even then, as a relatively young artist, he wore his independence and self-confidence on his sleeve. He was a D.C. figure—already recognized as an important member of the Washington Color School together with Noland—and fiercely proud of his association with his chosen city, where he would live and work for more than six decades.

I followed and admired Sam’s career from New York, and in recent years I had the privilege of working closely with him. We were from the same generation and shared the same fundamental understanding of the power and possibilities of abstraction. In recent years, I’ve cherished the experience of visiting Sam in his studio, often experiencing goosebumps when I walk in and encounter a fresh group of paintings. I’ve rarely had such an experience in an artist’s studio. It reminded me of visiting Rothko in my twenties. I think Sam’s recent works may be some of the greatest abstract paintings ever made. His experiments with color and surface are right up there with the achievements of Rothko and Pollock.

Recently, I got to talking with Sam and explained that I’d tried to reach him a few times over the years and had never succeeded. I asked why he’d never come to see me about showing in New York. He explained that he had never wanted a strong commitment with any New York gallery. He wasn’t interested in playing that game. It was my friend David Kordansky who re-introduced us. When I spoke with Sam on the phone for the first time in years, he was at first reticent to do a studio visit. Eventually we convinced him to let me come to Washington, and that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship and collaboration. I couldn’t have imagined what a profound impact Sam’s work would have on me in our time working together.

When I first arrived to visit Sam and Annie in the studio, I came armed with all the plans and drawings for our new gallery at 540 West 25th in Chelsea, which was just taking shape. During my enthused presentation, Sam was very cordial and very quiet. He waited about 15 minutes without any comment on my proposal for an exhibition of his work at the new Pace. After I’d concluded, there seemed to be no apparent response from Sam, but suddenly, he looked up at me and said: “Are you asking me a question?” “Yes, I suppose I am,” I replied. “The answer,” he said, a wry smile blossoming on his face, “is yes.”

It was a beginning of a relationship that quickly evolved into a dear friendship. For the last few years, we talked on the phone every other day and I visited him in D.C. regularly. Each visit was an extraordinary experience. I count myself privileged to witness the development of his work in recent years. Visiting Sam completely transformed my understanding of his process. I would often have the experience of seeing great paintings in the studio, which I thought were complete, but the next time I visited him they would be gone forever, sealed beneath a new layer of surface that he had added in the meantime. Sam constantly worked and reworked his paintings. Then, one day, suddenly, almost miraculously, they would be finished.

Sam was a legendary artist who has inspired subsequent generations. He is truly one of the giants of Modernism, but he was also an exceptional human being. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to have counted him as a friend, and to have worked so closely with him in these last years and to support his extraordinary contributions to art making.

Arne Glimcher

  • Essays — Arne Glimcher Recounts His Friendship with Sam Gilliam, Jun 27, 2022