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Detail of Sam Gilliam, Double Merge (1968). Image: Ben Davis.

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How to Look at a Sam Gilliam Painting

Artnet News

Written by Ben Davis

August 29, 2019

Here’s an old question that I find is still alive for a lot of people: How do you look at an abstract painting?

Are you meant to just immerse yourself in the wordless presence of its colors? Or does it tell a kind of story too—about its author’s ambitions, about its place in art history, about ideas of painting itself—that you are meant to enter into as well? How does it speak to you?

Sam Gilliam is certainly an artist who lends himself to wordless immersion. Now in his late 80s, the artist has a storied history, becoming the first African-American artist to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, in 1972, and winning the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2015. But he has been having a major moment lately, and if you’d like to contemplate why, Dia:Beacon has just unveiled a permanent gallery dedicated to him at its upstate temple of Minimalism. Its centerpiece is the ambitious, gallery-swallowing Double Merge (1968).

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Sam Gilliam, Double Merge (1968). Installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. © Sam Gilliam. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

This is one of the first of Gilliam’s signature “Drape” paintings—abstract painted panels that are then loosely hung from the wall, often at ambitious scales. Above all, these are lovely choreographies of paint and canvas, impressive presences. Double Merge is almost nostalgic to me in its tonic faith in the direct pleasures of color.

But there’s also more to get out of it. In their deep structure, Gilliam’s works are animated by a story too. Their specific dynamism condenses something about the historical moment when Gilliam had his inspiration for them, the late ‘60s—exactly when people were asking more of abstraction.

Read the full essay, written by Ben Davis, on Artnet News.
Press — Sam Gilliam in Artnet News, Aug 30, 2019