A Conversation with Sam Gilliam

Interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist

Interview recorded on Dec 1, 2019 in Washington, D.C. & Jun 16, 2020 on Skype
Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020

The full version of this interview is included in our publication (opens in a new window) Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing, which also includes contributions from Arne Glimcher, Courtney J. Martin, and Fred Moten.


Family Life and Finding Art through Music

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I read that your father was a carpenter. Can you tell me more about your upbringing?

Sam Gilliam: My dad was a good carpenter. Yeah. He wasn’t a real carpenter, but he was very aggressive in doing things, like building houses and churches. He did everything: he was a farmer, a baseball pitcher, a deacon, a janitor. He was born in Mississippi, in the Delta, which is a very rich source of music—Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, all those great singers and guitarists. They made work songs.

The memory of my father became more meaningful when I became much older. I tend to think that he was a great guy. He was beautiful. Wonderful. Very strong. He said I asked too many questions. He is who I became. I always thought that being one of the youngest in the family that I saw more, I saw it from a different position. Now that I’m older, I’ve passed those kinds of responsibilities on to my kids. One day he said, I’m so proud of you. That was so important. I feel the same about my kids, my relationship, my friends—I’m proud of them.

HUO: How did you come to art? How did art come to you?

SG: Good teachers, that was probably the most wonderful thing of all. I was number seven in a family of eight: five girls, three boys. That whole picture of what it’s like to be a family always plays out: it’s that old, generational theory that says if you have a lot of kids, you always have someone to do the work.

My first inclination was to run away from home. Most members of my family were musical—my sisters had singing groups, and we all sang in church. Baptists go to church at nine o’clock in the morning for Sunday School and then eleven o’clock service. Then you have to go back for Baptist training union, the doctrine, and then midnight service. Your Sunday is fully tied up in religious worship. Obviously that was something I did not want to do, so this was a family conflict until, finally, I made my move…

HUO: Into art, and music played a big role. I’m interested in art-music collaborations. Dan Graham always says: “We can only understand artists if we understand what music they are listening to.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

SG: I’m interested in art and music and dance. I danced very well—I used to. And I used to play lots of sports growing up: I was a very good high-school football player and baseball player, like my father. I’m more of a music lover than anything else though, probably because it’s much more stable. Music was that presence that established a reservoir of thought in me that allowed me to build, to enjoy, to be free.

With a friend who played harmonica, we would perform at parties—better parties because it was a freer time. The one thing about going to college was that all these memories were constructed. My professor of American Culture asked me what I was going to write about for my term paper, and I said it would be about dance. He replied, “You’ve got to write about Faulkner’s epic of Yoknapatawpha County—the beginning of the history of Mississippi.” One of the beauties of that story is that Faulkner set it in my hometown. Not that I knew it at the time. Tupelo, which is also the place of Elvis Presley, is in the northern part of Mississippi, closer to the Tennessee border.

With sons who are musical, the most difficult thing to do on a Saturday night was to keep us in. We had a father who said, “No smoking, no drinking”—I mean all the rules you’re given, and the more he had, the more we broke. The most beautiful thing is that whatever the older brother wanted to do, there was nothing like the protection of a younger brother. You got the younger brother with you, so you have an alibi. Dad didn’t like dancing in the house or music. But there was a very good phonograph and lots of records. We knew about Billie Holiday, and all the singers. Kids in the Baptist church were always getting gifts from various members of the church. We’d call them “play mothers,: but they were actually people who guided or influenced our thinking. One of my mother’s friends, who gave me books, told me that I’d understand Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” one day; it’s about lynching. These became subjects of paintings later on—Lady Day [1971] and things like that.

The biggest experience for me was a visiting artist coming from Paris, who said that if it wasn’t for the music of America, the Nazi concentration camp would have been miserable. In particular they referred to the singer Marian Anderson. And after painting class we’d go to the musical joints in Kentucky where there were visiting bands or a house band playing. The age restriction for the places we were going to was twenty-one, but we were in there at seventeen. The opening hours of the bars that had music were based upon their ability to serve liquor, which expired at twelve o’clock in some places. But if they served beer, they could stay open until three or six o’clock in the morning. And there were always places afterward where people would gather. If you went out on a Friday night, you didn’t come back until Monday morning—there are songs about that, too.

Professors, Peers, and Influences

HUO: The other day I came across a very exciting painting by Tom Downing. He’s an important painter.

SG: He’s a great artist. We collect Downing, and any time an artist visits, we talk about how great Downing was. He was the greatest generational influence for younger groups. He was a teacher, but he liked to hang out, which meant that we all went to certain bars downtown. Tom was very argumentative, but argument—which is nothing more than discourse—led us to think about Gainsborough and Titian and Giorgione, who was one of his favorites. And then Kenneth Noland, who had taught at the Catholic University in DC, moved to New York, and they formed the Washington Color School.

HUO: I read in an interview you gave that Tom prompted you to do your striped paintings [fig. 1], which brought you to abstraction. What was that epiphany?

SG 12-005b.jpg

fig. 1, Sam Gilliam, Helles, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 71 3/4 × 71 5/16 × 1 1/2" © 2020 Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photograph: Stephen Frietch, courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

SG: Like a musician, if you hear music, you practice it. He didn’t influence me, he was someone that I had to beat, to compete with, which meant we hung out together. We had one thing in common: our wives. When I would go to Tom’s studio, my wife would talk to his wife, Polly, who was a beautiful woman, a writer. She explained to my wife that artists are great, but they’re going to starve you: “He’s going to go off and paint, paint, paint, and there will be no concern for family or for you. Plus, he’s not going to make any money.” The sad experience after leaving Tom’s that day, from the first step into the street, was my wife saying, “Stop. Don’t starve us.” Tom introduced me to Josef Albers’s [practice], which inspired me to teach so I could have time to paint. I taught high school, which was the best thing I could do—I had freedom and was around young people. I was teaching a major art program, which was the first in this part of Northwest, in Washington, D.C. I was interested in Barnett Newman and Matisse. Tom’s environment was Noland, Frankenthaler Motherwell.

HUO: Can you tell me more about Matisse?

SG: I had been taught about Matisse in college, and French painting. One of the fortunate things I had a chance to do was shoot slides for the whole art history department. I saw and ingested all the things that, later, I had a chance to think about. When I was in graduate school the most important visiting professor was Charles Crodel from the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. My professor Ulfert Wilke, an abstract painter, was also important. He spent a lot of time in Japan and was influenced by Mark Tobey, David Parks, and George Weeks. And there was a Spanish painter who taught at Stanford whose paintings, called Walking Men—California figurative paintings derived from Abstract Expressionism—impressed me.

Wilke was interested in African art, Colombian art, and Japanese prints. I also spent time in Japan, and the most exciting thing there was the ritual, climbing mountains, Japanese songs, things like this. Within the cultural element of Buddhism, the stillness, etc., you begin to understand the meaning of time as it is stable, as it is constant, as it is moving various aspects. And from that I started making a lot of watercolors.

HUO: When did you start the watercolors?

SG: I did that in college. If you paint on paper, particularly on a hard surface paper, it pushes back. It holds the color up. The water moves, or it moves with the paper so you can’t stop it. You go with the flow, and you don’t have to play just for the accidental aspect. You can learn to do deliberate things; you establish your references on the page.

HUO: Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this little book, Letters to a Young Poet. I was wondering, what would be your advice to a young artist now?

SG: You should digest Barnett Newman. Digest the mystery of every artist in the past. Sit and listen to a lecture by a good art historian who puts things in focus. Read books backward. Read books any way you want to. The greatest thing is the play that you had when you were a kid. Maintain that. Of course, right now, the impeachment, the drama, are things that have happened throughout history, but the ability to judge and criticize this time and have your consensus as to how you want to be is very important. The whole idea is to exercise your dreams—those things that are in your head, your desires.

HUO: Gerhard Richter says that art is the highest form of hope. Do you have a definition of what art is for you?

SG: It’s possibility. I’d like to form something that is still concrete, and that will change your mind. I don’t like Richter. I prefer Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer’s work is the most beautiful. He poses the question, “Where’s Heaven?” Richter moved too much without real solution. When he came to New York, he came with hopes of making Pop art, but he was confronted by the great Warhol, and Warhol was better, in my mind. But we’ve learned so much from these artists, and that has changed the dialogue around art.

HUO: You were friends with Jack Whitten, Melvin Edwards, and William T. Williams. How was it being associated with that group?

SG: It’s not what you call Black art; it’s actually the openness of art, and this openness was acquired by each of us. I’m the oldest, and Mel and I were the ones that worked off each other. Mel was always the one that referred to Jack. He’s shown the most with Mel. And William has shown most with me.

HUO: Did you ever have a manifesto or a collective group?

SG: No, because I’m singular. The teacher who came from the Bavarian Academy to teach in graduate school would write a lot, and his activity with us was really so important. It has led to the kind of reading that I do now.

HUO: I am writing a text on Thaddeus Mosley right now, and he said you’ve known each other for a long time. Can you talk about your friendship?


fig. 2, Thaddeus Mosley, Opposing Parallels - Blues Up and Down for G. Ammons and S. Stitt, 2015, walnut, 88 × 36 × 28" © Thaddeus Mosley, courtesy of the artist and Karma, New York, Photograph: Maxwell Lee-Russell

SG: Thad is the most beautiful artist you’ll want to see. He used to be a postman and then a jazz musician and critic. He is actually the soul of Pittsburgh. He’s a craftsman woodcarver [fig. 2]. I knew Thad before I came to Pittsburgh—he invited me to the city. He just knew everybody. When I taught at Carnegie Mellon, Thad and I spent more time together. I taught there for five years, mainly because they were being penalized for not allowing Black people to be a part of the university, so they had to hire a teacher who would also be paid a commensurate salary. If I ever got locked out, which I did sometimes at university, I’d go spend the night with Thad. I wrote an essay that got him into his first gallery. That was the beautiful thing about Pittsburgh when the steel mills died: there was the Mattress Factory, there was a celebration of Warhol, there was the Carnegie and the Carnegie International, and then there was Thad. We talk all the time. Thad is the future. We talk all the time.

HUO: He also talked a lot about African art and Oceanic art. There is, of course, also a connection of African art with your quilted paintings in the ’80s. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about this?

SG: Yeah. All of the striped paintings I did after working with Lewis, Noland, and Downing, I gave African titles—cities and things like that. But this was because of Mel, principally, and his first wife, Jayne. They went to Africa together and befriended the poets of Négritude.

HUO: Who else has been impactful in your life?

SG: Well, I spent a lot of time in Paris with Darthea Speyer—she was the most influential person in my life. She was just the most wonderful, because anything you wanted or had to do, she did for you or you did with her. She made you behave, but she was such a wonderful person. And when I went to Paris, I wanted nothing but to meet Beauford Delaney.

HUO: Why was Beauford the artist you wanted so badly to meet?

SG: Beauford is the most transitory artist of all. I mean, there’s a rumor that he was sent to Paris because he always talked about Monet in New York. The Black artists wanted to talk about Harlem music and things like that, and he was talking about Monet. So they bought him a ticket to Paris. But, I mean, Monet is Monet—Monet is the artist that is the artist. If you could think about Monet and you lived in Harlem, you were alright. The beautiful thing about Beauford is that he couldn’t spend the winters in Paris. His body wouldn’t work. So Darthea had to send him to Hydra, Greece. But Beauford is Beauford. His brother paints figuratively, but Beauford does these marvelous abstract paintings and these things that are Beauford. But they are just so beautiful, and the fact is that he was with James Baldwin. They were like a shrine together.

HUO: Was Virginia Jaramillo part of your group?

SG: Yeah, Virginia Jaramillo, Betye Saar, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Joyce Kozloff, Lynda Benglis. Virginia Jaramillo and I were in The De Luxe Show in 1971 in the Fifth Ward of Houston, sponsored by the de Menil family, curated by Peter Bradley, and directed by Greenberg. Nancy Graves, who for a time was married to Serra, made paintings, sculpture, prints. We were in some shows together. Joyce Kozloff is an activist for women’s art and in 1970 became involved in the feminist art movement in Los Angeles and New York. She has always represented women artists and worked to promote young artists of that time that should have been elevated.

HUO: Are there other artists that you admire?


fig. 3, Barnett Newman, Concord, 1949, oil and masking tape on canvas, 89 3/4 × 53 5/8", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. George A. Hearn Fund, 1968 © 2020 The Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photograph: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

SG: My favorite artist is, of course, Barnett Newman [fig. 3]. There’s a list of forty Newman scholars, that’s what we are, and one was John Baldessari. Baldessari was one of the most exciting artists. He dealt with script and theater. Many of those artists that came out of Irvine, Baldessari particularly, and Chris Burden, were exciting for artists like Robert Irwin that taught there. It’s a perfect example of a different kind of classroom, this sense that there’s choreography between the artist and the teacher, you learn from each other.

New Work

HUO: What is the process with your new painting?

SG: It’s not finished yet: it has to be picked up, thrown into position, then painted, and then brought back to a final color. It’s going to be a red painting. We start with white, just by pouring paint, and it’s glazed over. Then we’ll pull the painting into a physical shape and paint that. That will give it a start and stop. It marks an empty feeling. And then we will try to paint that structure into something that is singular and stretch it.

HUO: So it becomes holistic in the end?

SG: Yes, it becomes both whole and theatrical.

HUO: You have also made a new series of works on paper, so I wanted to ask you to tell me a little bit about them.

SG: They are seventy-nine inches square, thereabouts. And there’s some color and an image that you have to find by looking at it, you discover it. It’s not obvious.

HUO: So it’s an image the viewer has to find.

SG: Yeah.

HUO: I saw your beautiful exhibition at the Flag Art Foundation. Those works were very much about solid and transparent paint with a lot of blending, and it seems that these are more monochromatic.

SG: Yes. The paper absorbs more, so you have to maintain the surface quality. One thing is that with the number of pieces of paper, color alone cannot be the identity, so there has to be some way of distinguishing one from the other. However, whenever I work on it, I don’t want to destroy the green, the blue, the red, the yellow.

HUO: There was an interview in the Brooklyn Rail, and the interviewer visiting your studio, Tom McGlynn, saw some of these newer works and said they are more hard-edged, more monochromatic. Are they more hard-edged?

SG: They are. Everything is geometric, and the color is used in a way that is equal. Most of the larger works are made of wood—one is eight feet in diameter—so the color builds the visual relationship. Most paintings are black or white, and, thus, the color in the space establishes a different moment or presence. It’s just there.

HUO: You also said that they are more structured, like completely structured. Can you talk a little bit about this aspect of them?

SG: Yeah, there are circles and squares, and by that I mean they have a form, and that form corresponds to other forms. At the moment, I’m trying to be subtle, and it’s something that you have to find, that you have to establish yourself. The problem is that nothing is new. So why not make it fun?

HUO: They’re very different from the previous ones I saw at the Flag Art Foundation. But do you make them in the same way?

SG: The ones at Flag were folded, much like free concepts of origami. And the paint is poured through the folds, which sometimes may be from the back. And then there’s a surface that is painted directly. Because there are agents that cause the paint to flow, or other things added, an accidental process happens that only occurs when the paint dries, or in the drying process. There’s a lot of movement, though it’s controlled for the fold, so when you open it up, it’s there. The real thing is not to have control of what happens, just to set it into motion. It’s not to be exact so they can arrive at something.

HUO: In the previous ones, there is a lot of unexpected, almost accidental blending; in these new ones is it more controlled? Is there less accident?

SG: Yeah. The new work is hard to make because the aim is not to lose the materiality of the paper that I’m working with. Whatever I do, the surface has to have that texture, so everything seems to reside inside the paper, which is very thin, very large, and, obviously, architectonic—built to exist in the space, built to be realized, not built to be perfect.

HUO: You’ve also made some new watercolors. They are beautiful. They’re watercolors on…?

SG: On rice paper.

HUO: They have amazing colors.

SG: All the colors that are mixed are very strong. They're either very strong in color and intensity or they’re strong in concentration of pigment. Most of them are vertical, which means that they’re then a consideration of how they’re going to operate in the space.

HUO: You once said that purple is your favorite color. Do you still have a favorite?

SG: I’m more didactic: red, yellow, blue, black, and white. I choreograph the color in terms of the way I want it to be seen. I write these colors out in a sequence of what the painting’s going to be.

HUO: So you’re quite systematic.

SG: Yeah. Well, actually, it’s what I want to be seen in the space. It’s all Mussorgsky. I want these visual elements. There are a lot of musicians that I actually react to.

HUO: Can you talk a little bit about your new body of work using dyed lumber?

SG: I’m looking for union, unity, even though the black has to be transparent because it has to reveal the structure of the wood. Most of the wood is parallel to the floor, and it comes from a block, which starts out in a radical form. All of the pieces have a band, and as you go around them, it changes. Dyeing, as such, allows the wood grain to exist with whatever shape you have, and is established by your examining it. If you get close to the block, it seems to be leaning over you—maybe I’m too impressed by mountains! You won’t climb it; you’ll see it. You’ll fill it.

HUO: As far as I understand the pieces are going to be eight feet high, which is very large.

SG: That’s only one piece. If it’s possible to put the cap on the eight feet, we may have to dislocate the other dimension. But you could imagine that they go together, they go together and almost touch the sky, as personified by the room.

HUO: When I was in your studio the surfaces were still wet. You were working on it, and it seemed that they were dyed like stains.

SG: The staining is to clarify how it’s made. How you are supposed to see it and react to it; it’s recognizable. You have to move in order to see it, as in dance.

HUO: Walter Hopps always told me that Duchamp would talk about the viewer doing the work, or doing half of the work, or maybe even more than half of the work. And it seems that with this dance you describe, the viewer is very involved and doing part of the work.

SG: It’s true, and in a sense the viewer discovers themself. You are who you are, or you become what you aspire to become. It’s the presence of an object within a room, within a space, its relationship with things like this that the viewer defines. And he better do a perfect job. I mean, it’s about them. What do they say? What you see is what you get.

HUO: In terms of what you see is what you get, when you were describing your piece Rail, you said that it’s a visual whole. How would you describe this visual whole?

SG: You see it mostly by seeing it. It becomes whole in terms of the experience of what you make of it. When it’s built in a space, you see it, you think about it.


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

The Exhibition

HUO: What’s the title of the show at Pace Gallery?

SG: Existed Existing. As in, you weren’t there, but here it is—for your information, here it is.

HUO: Historically your work has been very specific for and connected to each space. Has your latest work been prompted by Pace’s new space?

SG: It is definitely connected to the space, but it’s connected to the space as you see it, as you want to see it, and as you want others to see it. There has to be space, of course, for a person or people, but it’s going to be a dance. It’s going to have an expression because it’s architectonic, which means it’s going to be built for that particular space.

HUO: Let’s talk about this idea of the exhibition being a dance.

SG: It’s controlling people’s movement. There are only certain ways you can move through the dance and build your rhythm, which will be controlled by the way that things are placed on the walls or in the space. The word “dance,” in that sense, doesn’t mean a particular thing. It’s free.

In terms of other works of mine, these pieces are more resolved. Less in terms of color, because the color will only be black and white. With an aluminum piece that sort of changes the aspect of the blackness or the whiteness—there’s something subtle, something not there.

HUO: In the exhibition, there is also going to be a series of circular wall works. Can you tell me about those?

SG: They are a response to this idea of the pyramid. I realized that the exhibition would be better defined by the works on the wall, which refer to large, circular color. This discovery of these exact relationships allows you to enjoy the dance—to think, to move, and hopefully, to buy! It has a certain organization. It really is a pretty good solution to things that I’ve been about all along. Clarity. It exists.

HUO: And then there is one work that almost seems to be a box with six elements.

SG: The abacus is like the table of contents. The idea of pyramids turned into blocks, and the blocks are simply a small sample that changes because they are made to rotate. It’s interesting to see one plane against the other as it spins. Suddenly this idea of the abacus became a form of content for larger pieces that I wanted to see a certain way. Actually there are some leftover blocks that became more beautiful than the idea I had for them in the beginning.

I discovered that a block is not a block; it has all sorts of positions. I realized that one thing I had to do, personally, was create a presence to make one block. It just stayed there. I mean, it stayed in space because of the square image. It was like a wall—and much like the wall pieces. It is what it is in terms of the four sides—which way it leans, the way it goes away from you. You walk around it. You find it. It’s yours, because it’s the content you develop. It’s existence. It’s the individual nature of the person.

HUO: The abacus, of course, is also the calculating tool from lots of different ancient cultures. In this exhibition, will there only be one abacus, or is it a series?

SG: We started with a limited edition of abacuses, but they’ve grown. We started accepting the fact that there were blocks of wood, and that idea transferred into many forms. One becomes many—I’m getting religious. One becomes particular, and one is all you need.

HUO: There are endless possibilities, and once more, you really expand that horizon, you expand the language through this exhibition. In a previous conversation you told me that in order to stay alive, you have to keep mobile.

SG: Keep moving. Keep growing. Be persistent. Not like some politicians that we know. This dance contest you win by endurance. Through insistence. Through existence, perseverance, and having a point of view.


Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing

Author Texts by Arne Glimcher, Courtney J. Martin, Fred Moten, Hans Ulrich Obrist

(opens in a new window) Available for Sale Now

  • Essays — Hans Ulrich Obrist: A Conversation with Sam Gilliam, Nov 25, 2020