fig. 1, Sam Gilliam, Autumn Surf, 1973, Installation view of Works in Space, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, February 9–April 8, 1973, Photograph: Art Frisch, courtesy San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Imagine the Show on the First Day

By Courtney J. Martin
Friday, Nov 20, 2020

This essay is included in our publication (opens in a new window) Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing, which also includes contributions from Arne Glimcher, Fred Moten, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Works in Spaces

In 1973 Sam Gilliam’s work was included in a group show at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) titled Works in Spaces. [i] Unleashed from the museological parlance of “galleries,” various areas of the museum were conceptually re-designated as free-form, architectural environments where the ceilings, extant walls, fixtures, floors, and passageways could be used or ignored at the discretion of the artist. Of the five artists whose installations were on view (Stephen Antonakos, Ronald Bladen, Gilliam, Robert Irwin, and Dorothea Rockburne), all had explored the space between mediums (Rockburne through dance and painting, and Bladen by way of sculpture, for example), which was a direct influence of earlier Abstract-Expressionist painters and their contemporaries in Minimalism. While the exhibition’s goal may have been dialogue, the show resulted in singular statements by each artist. This was especially true for Gilliam, who, after one of the other artists maneuvered their work closer to Irwin’s, ended up with the most enclosed or clearly defined gallery room. This allowed him to expand his large-scale draped painting Autumn Surf (1973, fig. 1) to the full contours of the architecture. Perhaps unknown to the curator and certainly not to the artist, whose tenacity gave him a better location, Gilliam’s display-making ethos was predicated on responding to the space once in situ. His process, then and now, is syncretic:

You begin to imagine the show on the first day. I try not to arrive at a concept of it in advance. Sometimes you dream about it at night. You live with an uncertain moment, only to arrive at the end.

Sam Gilliam [ii]

Gilliam’s conclusion found Autumn Surf hung from several points in the ceiling before dropping down to the floor. Oriented along one of the room’s long walls, it extended out from one of the short walls to make a convex bay that visitors could walk into (toward the wall but not totally around) or alongside. Parts of the solid length of polypropylene canvas were lapped over wooden bars constructed as right-angle arms to standing wood columns that ran from floor to ceiling. The armature under the drapery allowed for a series of formal cloth protuberances throughout the room, some distinguishable as elongated isosceles triangles. The draping was Baroque in its fluidity, and the room was an undulating territory, with an overall effect that was an immersive, flowing, painterly balance between elegance and crudeness. From either end of the gallery, viewers could take in the peaks and valleys of the material and its dense, rich color, achieved by the repeated soaking and staining process that he had mastered, and for which he was, by then, well known.

What Gilliam achieved in Autumn Surf was the culmination of years of problem-solving complex equations with which he tasked his art. From the early 1960s he added a number of technical changes to his process that affected how he worked and the ways that his works were received. In 1965 he began to paint without a stretcher. By the next year he poured paint directly onto unprimed and unstretched canvas. In many of these compositions he made use of beveled-edge stretcher frames, which created significant depth to an otherwise two-dimensional form by adding in a forty-five-degree angle (either facing toward or away from the wall) to all sides. By 1968 he suspended swaths of canvas from varying heights or draped them over industrial implements, including ladders, two-by-fours, and sawhorses. The juxtaposition of high-key color, an excess of unprimed, unstretched canvas, and construction elements was high and low, rough and refined, unwieldy and yet totally harmonious.

Within a decade he had moved from the late Abstract Expressionism that permeated his graduate education and early career in Washington, D.C., to the most important aspect of Minimalism—the loosening up of categories like painting and sculpture. This freedom allowed Gilliam to fit his work among the triad of methodology (his own), art historiography (that resisted placing him), and spatial depth (defined by flat painting versus sculpture in the round). It is tempting to call Gilliam’s work Postminimalist, but I would resist the urge in favor of simply describing what Autumn Surf made visible: Gilliam was interested in the exploration of shapes within an extended topography. Autumn Surf spread up and out in the gallery, speaking to his interest in architecture, geometry, industry, landscape, organic forms, and the interaction of all with color. Color! Pure color—whether stained, soaked, sprayed, rubbed in, or piled on—drove the installation. Autumn Surf is a hinge in Gilliam’s practice, showing how his work matured up to that moment and giving clues as to what was to come as he continued to evolve as an artist.

In 2018, while in Basel, Switzerland, for an extended period installing an exhibition, [iii] Gilliam noticed that the city’s population had grown more international with an influx of migrants from across the world. Watching the daily news there made him more attuned to the plight of dislocated peoples, specifically those from parts of Africa. This line of thought led him back to previous interests in the forms of “early Africa”—the triangulated pyramid and the flat-roofed mastaba—that had captivated him as a student. He describes the intensity of being aware of the “agony of people who are dislocated” alongside the knowledge of the rich legacy of their ancestral achievements. [iv] His most recent sculptures, begun shortly after his return to his DC studio following the Basel exhibition opening, are centered around elemental forms (specifically, the pyramid and circle) and his earliest innovations in process: pouring raw paint onto canvas, allowing pigment to saturate, and stretching canvases over a beveled edge. The result is a body of work consisting of monochromatic pyramidal sculptures and concentric circle wall reliefs, along with new beveled-edge paintings on canvas and painted works on paper. Though distinct objects, they are interconnected (comprised of at least two series) and sensitively unified like an installation.

“…working with cubes and trying on shapes.”

From his earliest work making depth in his painted canvases, stretching them across two bars, Gilliam has been in conversation with the sculptural, if not actual sculpture. He prefers to think of his work as an extension of not only his painting practice but also an understanding of the medium of painting. [v] Gilliam is not unusual in his insistence on the medium of paint over the method of its delivery. Jo Baer and Robert Ryman have defined their works as painting, regardless of form or ground. Ryman even used the term “three-dimensional paintings” to describe a group of his free-standing and partially wall-mounted objects (fig. 2), which might otherwise have been called “sculpture.” Similarly Anne Truitt (whom Gilliam knew well in DC) used the sculptural form to enhance the presence of her painterly surfaces, which often operated as variant grounds for her steady hand and tonal complexities.


fig. 2, Robert Ryman, Varese Wall, 1975, polyvinyl acetate emulsion on wood with steel bars and foam blocks, 96 × 288 × 12" Dia Art Foundation. Gift of The Greenwich Collection, Ltd. © 2020 Robert Ryman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photograph: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy The Greenwich Collection, Ltd.

The progression from the beveled canvases to draping cloth over existing elements to the addition of visible three-dimensional objects, like stones or lumber in his 1960s and 1970s installations, speaks to his desire to work in space. But this is born out of a greater connection to the architecture of a given space. This is certainly true of his pyramids, which grew out of seeing the small, leftover pieces of the basic cubic structures as they returned from the fabricators and finding the “irregularity of the block of wood…inspiring.” [vi] First he strung six wood polygon pieces along a metal bar. Then he suspended the bar in the middle of an open-faced case. The wood pieces (some white, others in rainbow colors) are stained so you can see the grain of the wood and feel the balance between the added color and the wood’s natural tonalities. The moveable units resemble an abacus. Despite the name given to the series and the reference to the calculating tool, there is only one bar, so Gilliam’s abacus cannot be used to count or measure. Instead the wooden digits slide over and across the single bar, referencing the larger pyramids that he worked on simultaneously.

The Pyramids are composite floor pieces erected in two sizes: a large one that rises to eight feet and several smaller ones that top out at five feet. Gilliam, inspired by the remote-control toy cars in his studio, placed wheels on them, lifting the structures slightly off the floor to give them the appearance of hovering. Constructed from wood, each piece is a single, solid color (some jewel tones and white) from top to bottom, which is sequentially broken up by a recurrent, lateral aluminum insertion—suggestive of the stepped construction of a monumental pyramid. Gilliam cites his attraction to making a pyramidion object as born from encountering ancient pyramids (like those in Egypt), calling forth our desire for more contact with something larger, rather than smaller, because “pyramids angle to a point. When you are standing it moves away from you.” [vii] His effort to replicate the corporeal experience of monumentality resembles his interest in installation, wherein “everyone is in the work.” [viii] To move around the structures is similar to interacting with Autumn Surf: you can come in, move out of or around it, but it must be confronted in some way.

The strong sense of play in Gilliam’s tabletop abacus and moveable pyramids permeates much of his practice. In recalling the installation of Autumn Surf, he noted that children knew immediately how to experience it: they ran around it, tried to go under it, or found their way into the center of the drapes and folds; whereas adults initially stood cautiously at the edge of the work before venturing closer. The element of play is crucial here, not simply because he wants us— the viewers of his installations—to immerse ourselves in his work but also because play is key to fully embodying something. Play requires both comfort and flexibility, being able to go with the flow of a concept, no matter where it takes you. This is true in both a mental and physical sense.

It is no surprise then that Gilliam cites Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Yvonne Rainer, and David Smith as important interlocutors for his formal and conceptual way of working in space. Each engages a form of play. [ix] Poignantly he speaks of Rainer as “not the kind of artist that is always an artist.” [x] This description could easily apply to how he wills the viewer to come and engage (in other words, to play) with his three-dimensional works, while always maintaining that they are part of a painting practice. When I asked Gilliam what these works (both his older installations and his more recent objects) were if not sculpture, he replied that he had been simply “working with cubes and trying on shapes”[xi]—a statement that playfully obscures his studied, careful approach to working on ideas over time to allow for refinement. As an artist, he acts as an agent activating the artwork, which is a way of side-stepping the limited definition of an artist as only a maker of objects. Notably each of these artists’ practices activates variation from a known form—be it dance for Rainer, classical music for Glass and Coleman (particularly true of Coleman’s further departure from jazz into free jazz), and sculpture for Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

While preparing to install his exhibition at Dia:Beacon in 2019, he shipped a single blue hoop along with the other elements that would comprise the suspended draped painting, which was the show’s central focus. The circular hoop is the basic form from which the Circles are derived. Like the Abacuses and Pyramids, the Circles are constructed of pigment-dyed wood. Each is a wall-mounted relief composed of interconnecting concentric circles that radiate out from a central negative space. Made in separate pieces, once connected, the seams between the parts are visible. The void in the center is surrounded by a recessed, brushed aluminum circle that draws light to the construction. Gilliam connects this body of work to Kenneth Noland’s seminal Concentric Circle series (1958–63)—more commonly known as his “target” paintings because rings of color surround a central, circular point in each of the canvases. Noland frequently alternated light and dark colors in varying widths or allowed bands of unprimed canvas to peek through his compositions to magnify their surface light. Gilliam achieves something similar with the aluminum and visible seams, where the parts of the circles connect to each other to emanate light and suggest total depth.


fig. 3, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kinderspiele (Children’s Games), 1560, oil on wood, 46 7/16 × 63 3/8", Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Photograph: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

In later conversations he revealed that the hoop was his referent for play as a fundamental aspect of his practice, one that he traced back to his study of paintings, like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kinderspiele (Children’s Games) (1560, fig. 3) in which a male and female figure use sticks to roll hoops (hers adorned with bells, no less) in the foreground. This painting’s focus on children at play has long been understood as an explication of humanism, with the child functioning as a visual metaphor for the inherent goodness of human beings. [xii] Gilliam’s take on play has a similar aim for both the art object and the viewer. He sets up both as equally eligible for activation and variation through the interplay of one to the other. If humanism stresses a kind of commonality of the human experience and, thus, the ability to use ration as a method of problem-solving, then the viewer of his art can figure out what to do once in the presence of art. Hence the unfettered reaction of the children who saw Autumn Surf versus that of the adults, who needed more time to react and act on their instincts.


Gilliam describes his recent works on paper as placeholders, a term that defines the way that they are hung as visual directives, “positioned on the wall to be seen in regards to the rest of the show.” [xiii] The rest of the show—the free-standing Pyramids and the Circle reliefs—forms a unified installation, though each object is an individual work of art. Gilliam’s holistic approach to this new body of work derives from his earlier room-scaled installations that he ceased producing in 1980. Starting in the late 1970s Gilliam began experimenting with paper before settling on washi, the traditional Japanese paper, which is handmade from the inner bark of specific trees and plants—primarily Gampi and Mitsumata shrubs and Mulberry (Kozo) bush. The bark’s fibrous nature creates a paper that can take on applied color well and be handled more easily than other paper types. In a prolonged manner, Gilliam first wets down the paper with pigment paint (by spraying it or working it with a rag) to such a degree that he nearly saturates it back to pulp. This achieves what he calls “solid color”—the paper’s complete and total saturation with the intended color. Over time he has learned the balance of working with paper and found his own peace with it: “It is nothing more than a print…it is fragile.” [xiv] Working with the paper is a slow process. The color has to be built up gradually so that the paper does not tear, and each layer of paint dries and hardens to allow for the next. This process is an adaptation of the technique he has used on canvas (whether natural or synthetic) for nearly sixty years.

The square or rectangular sheets (some deep and dark, like the black and blue-hued Ad Reinhardt paintings that he has so admired over the years, while others are lighter in tone) are nearly indistinguishable from recto to verso. Each sheet is a solid color field that may stand alone as a tone or be matched in variance to form a color sequence. Hung on the wall, they are literally color holding a place, demarcating a distinct space through what appears to be color only, since the saturation of pigment nearly removes the paper’s physical presence. Gilliam’s concept of placeholding references the “old term for teaching math” [xv] that allows for something to denote a missing quantity by effectively filling in for it. In relation to the other two- and three-dimensional elements, the works on paper represent and reflect their pigments and maintain the centrality of color to the conception of his process. They also point back to the entire body of paintings that preceded them—he sees them as having “isolated color” out of his multihued paintings, like Autumn Surf, which was soaked and stained in multiple paint colors. [xvi] Each work on paper is an index to the individual colors that made up the earlier multi-colored compositions, allowing viewers to recall or identify colors present in other paintings.

When I asked Gilliam how his new artwork related to his previous work, he said that it did not. [xvii] Full stop. We then began a conversation about the installations that he had previously completed, before settling into a long discussion of Autumn Surf. Works in Spaces was, for Gilliam, what P.S.1’s seminal, inaugural show of installation art, Rooms, was for Richard Serra three years later—an exhibition that allowed him to use the building as material that would be both an apex in his practice and a codex to his thought processes. [xviii] Gilliam was at the right stage personally (he turned forty in the fall of 1973) and professionally (he had been selected for the American pavilion in Venice the year before and had a solo museum exhibition) when he completed Autumn Surf. For an artist, creating an installation forces you to make a few or many things work together, whereas seeing an installation should reveal neither: few nor many. The inherent effort required should be visibly and, more importantly, experientially cohesive. And Gilliam’s were just that—full, uninterrupted experiences. There is a seamless quality to the way in which the artist’s latest works reference his known milestones—the tautly pulled bevels, the organic forms, the process-driven applications of paint—while also adding new, unexpected diversions into free-standing objects and materials used in totally different ways. These works come together as a cosmology, oscillating back and forth between what preceded them and what is yet to come. Gilliam is in a sweet spot once again.


[i] Curated by Suzanne Foley, Works in Spaces was on view at the San Francisco Museum of Art from February 9 through April 8, 1973. For a longer discussion of the exhibition relative to Gilliam’s practice, see Jonathan P. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 89–92, which remains the definitive exploration of the artist’s work. I am thankful to Gilliam, Rockburne, and Naomi Spector Antonakos for their assistance in gathering information on and discussing Works in Spaces with me.
[ii] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, July 16, 2020.
[iii] Gilliam’s first European retrospective, The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam 1967–1973, was on view at the Kunstmuseum Basel from June 9 through September 30, 2018. The exhibition was curated by Jonathan P. Binstock and the museum’s director, Josef Helfenstein.
[iv] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, July 2, 2020.
[v] See “Painting Objects: Robert Ryman’s Three-Dimensional Paintings,” in Robert Ryman, eds. Stephen Hoban and Courtney J. Martin (New Haven: Yale University Press and Dia Art Foundation, 2017), 277–93.
[vi] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, May 28, 2020.
[vii] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, July 2, 2020.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] He cites Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Miami project, Surrounded Islands (1983), and the more recent opera by Philip Glass, Appomattox (2007/2015), as specific moments of aesthetic fascination and connection to his practice.
[x] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, July 16, 2020.
[xi] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, August 8, 2020.
[xii] For a longer discussion of humanism and Brueghel’s Kinderspiele, see Amy Orrock, “Homo ludens: Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games and the Humanist Educators,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 4, no. 2 (Summer 2012), DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2012.4.2.1.
[xiii] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, July 9, 2020.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Sam Gilliam in conversation with the author, May 26, 2020.
[xviii] P.S.1’s (now MoMA P.S.1) first exhibition, Rooms, was curated by founding director, Alanna Heiss. On view from June 9–26, 1976, it showcased installation art by seventy-eight artists throughout the interior and exterior of the building, a former elementary school. Given his prominence as an installation artist at this moment, Gilliam’s absence from the show is notable. Antonakos and Bladen were, however, included in both the SFMoMA and P.S.1 exhibitions.


Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing

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

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  • Essays — Imagine the Show on the First Day by Courtney J. Martin, Nov 20, 2020