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Essays

Sam Gilliam: In Process

By Arne Glimcher
Friday, Nov 6, 2020

This essay is the introductory text to our publication Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing, which includes contributions from Courtney J. Martin, Fred Moten, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

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Sam Gilliam, Five Pyramids (detail), 2020, wood, aluminum, die-stain, lacquer, 36-1/4" × 48" × 48" (92.1 cm × 121.9 cm × 121.9 cm) each, 5 total overall dimensions variable © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Over the past three years, I made several visits to Sam Gilliam’s studio in Washington D.C., consulting with him in preparation for an exhibition of his new wood sculptures and works on paper. Made from stacked layers of plywood and thin sheets of aluminum, the sculptures are drenched in intense color, allowing the pattern of the wood grain to function as brushwork. As Sam has explained, their geometric forms are inspired by details from ancient Ethiopian architecture.

Concurrently, Sam produced a series of watercolors that he refers to as “Washi papers.” Large, thick sheets of ripple-edged Japanese paper have been saturated with layer upon layer of monochromatic pigment, resembling skins or animal hides pinned up to dry. They appear to be made of color itself—red, blue, green, yellow, turquoise, cream, and white—and project real density, as opposed to the weightlessness of watercolor in the traditional sense of the medium. They harness color as a conduit for pure emotion. I am reminded of Agnes Martin talking to me about people’s reticence toward abstraction: “From music, people accept pure emotion, but from art they demand explanation.” Sam’s sculptures and Washi papers defy explanation.

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Sam Gilliam, TBD, 2020, acrylic on washi, 79" × 79" (200.7 cm × 200.7 cm), paper 83" × 83" × 3" (210.8 cm × 210.8 cm × 7.6 cm) © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Sam Gilliam, TBD, 2020, acrylic on washi, 79" × 79" (200.7 cm × 200.7 cm), paper 83" × 83" × 3" (210.8 cm × 210.8 cm × 7.6 cm) © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By January of 2020, our exhibition was set and three catalogue texts had been commissioned. Then the pandemic struck and sent us all into seclusion. Contact continued by phone and e-mail as we went on planning the exhibition. One day, about eight months ago, I received a communication from Annie Gawlak, Sam’s wife, concerning details for framing the Washi papers. It ended with the cryptic words: “The boy is painting.” More than once Sam had told me that he was finished with painting. But he is a painter and I was right not to believe him. By the time we were ready to exhibit the sculptures, the sorcerer’s apprentice had assembled a flood of new work. Sam can’t stop.

Annie sent me iPhone images of four new paintings in process. They appeared to be an extension of his stained canvas paintings of the ‘60s and ‘70s. More dynamic in their application and more intense in color, they were nevertheless clearly connected to the trajectory of his career. The exhibition and our plans for the installation would have to be reconsidered. The paintings deserved a gallery to themselves. With my curiosity piqued, I flew to Washington to see the new works as soon as they were stretched. When I arrived, gone were the color-field paintings I had expected and in their place, a series of predominately white paintings filled the studio: four of them eight-feet-by-eight feet and two eight-by-twenty feet. Monumental in scale, upon first glance these new works were vapors, appearing almost weightless. Yet on closer inspection, they were dense, crusty, and as heavy as volcanic ash with smoldering embers beneath.

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Sam Gilliam, They Dance and Sail Away, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 96" × 240" × 4" (243.8 cm × 609.6 cm × 10.2 cm) © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Monumental in scale, upon first glance these new works were vapors, appearing almost weightless. Yet on closer inspection, they were dense, crusty, and as heavy as volcanic ash with smoldering embers beneath.

Beginning with fields of color, Sam had layered the canvases with the history of his own development—ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny. Layers of paint materialized layers of ideas. Zooming past his white paintings of the ‘70s, the slices, and his many works which free painting from the wall, these new canvases went further to incorporate physical materials from Sam’s new sculptures. He retrieved the detritus from the construction of the sculptures—the sawdust and wood chips from the carpenter’s floor—and mixed it with pigment, erupting in lavish surfaces that Sam clawed and raked to reveal bubbling color below. Now that this volcanic dust has settled, we are honored to present the results.

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Publications

Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing

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

Available for Pre-Sale Now

Essays — Sam Gilliam: In Process by Arne Glimcher, Nov 6, 2020