Pace Live

Sam Gilliam's Latest

A Roundtable Conversation

Recorded on December 16, 2020

Presented on the occasion of Sam Gilliam's exhibition Existed Existing in New York, this online conversation brought together Courtney J. Martin, Director of the Yale Center for British Art and curator of Gilliam’s installation at Dia:Beacon, and Fred Moten, poet, theorist, and 2020 MacArthur Fellow, both contributors to the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue.

This conversational roundtable explores each panelist's reflections on Gilliam's work and their distinctive dialogues with the artist.

Learn more about Sam Gilliam

Andria Hickey (AH): Okay, I think people will trickle in and catch up with us. Welcome, everybody. My name is Andria Hickey. I'm Senior Director and Curator at Pace Gallery. Thank you for joining us this afternoon, pre-snowstorm, at least on the East Coast. We're so happy to be able to share virtual space with you today to talk about the work of the formidable artist, (opens in a new window) Sam Gilliam, and his (opens in a new window) newest body of work that are on view for just another few days, until December 19th, across two of our galleries at Pace here in New York. As you can see, we've chosen to make this event a Zoom meeting rather than a webinar so that despite our physical distance, we can be a little more together in our conversation today. Feel free to leave your cameras on or off, whatever you prefer. We would love for you to use the chat to share your thoughts, your comments, your questions. There is also an option to give a reaction at the bottom tab. You can also raise your hand to ask a question, and we'll leave the last portion of the event to have some dialogue altogether. Gabi, could you share your screen? Thank you. It's been a true pleasure to work with Sam Gilliam this past year. Before we begin, I also want to acknowledge the work of my colleagues who helped bring this exhibition and its publication to life.

Sorry, my screen just did a thing. First and foremost, Arne Glimcher, whose friendship with Sam and his keen curatorial eye guided the exhibition to its culmination during more than a challenging year. And of course, Sam's wonderful partner, Annie Gawlak, and his studio manager, Jenn de Palma, who provided invaluable support in making the show happen. My colleagues, Oliver Shultz and Kathleen McDonnell, who worked closely with Arne and Sam throughout the process, and Gillian Canavan, Paul Pollard, and Tomo Makiura, who shepherded this beautiful (opens in a new window) new book into being. As you can imagine, there are too many wonderful people involved in projects like this to make it possible to name everyone but suffice it to say, we are enormously grateful for each and everyone's contribution. Sam is one of the great innovators in post-war American painting. I love this picture of him because he's smiling and he's quite a funny person, and this reminds me of that. He emerged from the Washington, D.C. scene in the mid-1980s with works that elaborated upon and disrupted the ethos of (opens in a new window) Color School painting. Gabi, can you flip through the next picture? A series of formal breakthroughs would soon result in his canonical drape paintings, which are pictured here in 1973 from an exhibition it was in called (opens in a new window) Works in Spaces in 1973. He’s looking quite cool. These canonical drape paintings expanded the tenants of Abstract Expressionism in entirely new ways, spreading structureless lengths of painted canvases from the walls or ceilings of exhibition spaces. Sam transformed his medium and the context in which it was viewed. Over the course of his career, Sam has pushed the chromatic and textural possibilities of painting with an unprecedented verve, pursuing a pioneering course in which experimentation has been the only constant. Inspired by the ethos of jazz and improvisation his lyrical abstractions continue to take on an increasing variety of forms, moods, and materials.

Right now, I'd like to share some DIY video I took on my phone, so bear with me, of Sam's exhibition. I really wanted everyone to get a sense of the show if you haven't been able to get there in person. Gabi, can you share the video? I’m going to talk a little bit about the exhibition and then introduce our panelists, but while that's happening, you can have your own walk-through. Existed Existing, debuts three new bodies of work created over the past year—one year—but honed over a lifetime of looking, making, and discovering. The exhibition features three new bodies of work that include large scale paintings, some titled as tributes to influential Black, contemporary and historical figures, a series of geometric color-drenched wood objects, and monochromatic paintings on Japanese washi paper.

I'm just getting a message here, Gracia, that some people are locked out of the webinar. On the back end, I'm going to ask somebody to help let people in. The new sculptural works that you're seeing here take the form of geometric objects, pyramids, parallelograms, and circles made from stacked and stained plywood and aluminum. At the center of the exhibition is a series of new large-scale paintings, which you'll see as the video continues. They are six-by-eight feet and as big as eight-by-twenty feet, and they meditate on that physicality of color that has been present throughout Sam's entire practice. Densely layered and mixed with sawdust and other detritus from the studio, Sam spatters and throws paint to create fields of color interrupted by impressions of his own hand, the mark of a palette knife, or the traces of a garden rake dragged across the wet surface. Complementing these paintings and sculptural works are a series of monochromatic paintings on washi paper, which you are about to see in the video. To make these works, Sam drenches the paper repeatedly in applications of rich, monochromatic color. The intensity of the saturation is such that the painting can no longer be seen as paper holding color but becomes color in and of itself.

I'm going to have this video keep playing just so that you can get to see the other exhibition. This exhibition is at our gallery on 510 West 25th Street and as we finish our walkthrough, you'll get to the 540 space, which has the large abstract paintings I mentioned. But while I'm doing that, I am very, very pleased... It's my very great honor to introduce our esteemed guests, Fred Moten and Courtney Martin, both of whom have written incredible new essays in the exhibition catalogue that is now available for preorder on our website. I also want to acknowledge Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who could not be with us today, unfortunately, but has also contributed an incredible interview with Sam that has been included in this publication. If you order now on our website, there is a small possibility that you may be able to receive it in time for the holidays. We'll soon have copies in the gallery and look forward to sharing a print copy with you soon. Courtney Martin is the Director of the (opens in a new window) Yale Center for British Art. Previously, she was Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Dia Art Foundation. She has held professorships in art history at Brown University and Vanderbilt University and has had a research fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, the Getty Research Institute, and the Henry Moore Institute. She has also worked in the Media, Arts and Culture Unit of Ford Foundation, and in 2015 she received the prestigious (opens in a new window) Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Courtney is an incredible curator and has curated important exhibitions, including the acclaimed solo show of Frank Bowling's work in 2012 at (opens in a new window) Tate Britain. In 2014, she co-curated the group show (opens in a new window) Minimal Baroque: Post-Minimalism and Contemporary Art at the Rønnebæksholm, Næstved. I hope I didn't totally kill the pronunciation of that institution, which is in Denmark. From 2008 to 2015, she co-led a research project on the Anglo-American art critic Laurence Alloway at the Getty Research Institute and was co-editor of (opens in a new window) Laurence Alloway: Critic and Curator. In 2015, she curated an exhibition of (opens in a new window) Robert Ryman’s work which also saw works by Dan Flavin, Blinky Palermo, Dorothea Rockburn, Keith Sonnier, Andy Warhol, and Sam Gilliam, all at the Dia Art Foundation. Courtney received a doctorate from Yale University for her research on 20th-century British art, and she is the author of numerous essays on contemporary artists, including Sam Gilliam.

Sorry, it's quite dry, so I'm just [sips water].

Fred Moten is a cultural theorist and poet, creating new conceptual spaces that explore emerging forms of Black cultural production, aesthetics, and social life. In his theoretical and critical writing and visual culture, poetics, music, and performance, he seeks to move beyond normative categories of analysis, which are often grounded in Western philosophical traditions that do not account for the Black experience. He is developing a new mode of aesthetic inquiry wherein the conditions of being Black play a central role. His first book, (opens in a new window) In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Transition, offers seminal insights that emerge from taking sound, as opposed to visual or textual imagery, as a point of departure for interpretation. Fred's recently completed three-volume theoretical treaties called, (opens in a new window) consent not to be a single being, includes essays written over the course of fifteen years. The first volume, (opens in a new window) Black and Blur has writings on art and music, Charles Mingus, Theodor Adorno, David Hammons, Glenn Gould, Ben Hall. The second, (opens in a new window) Stolen Life, focuses on ideas that Fred describes as “broadly sociopolitical.” The third, (opens in a new window) The Universal Machine, is broken into three suites of essays on Emmanual Levinas, Hannah Arendt, and Franz Fanon. Fred continues the project of this theoretical work in his poetry. In his 2014 collection, (opens in a new window) The Feel Trio, for instance, language hovers at the edge of science so that sound rises to the floor and the reading of the poem approaches musical performance. Through his writings and lectures, Fred is demonstrating the power of critical thinking to establish new forms of social actualization and reconfiguring the contours of the cultural field more broadly. Fred received an A.B. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Since 2017, he has served as professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. He has taught previously at the University of California at Riverside, Duke University, and University of Iowa. His additional publications include (opens in a new window) All That Beauty from 2019, (opens in a new window) The Service Porch from 2016, The Little Edges from 2015, (opens in a new window) B Jenkins from 2010, Hughsun’s Tavern from 2009, and he is co-author with Stefano Harney of The Under Commons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, among his many other accolades. Most recently, Fred was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, congratulations Fred. I think we're almost through our walk-through here, but maybe we can get started with our first part of the discussion. I wanted to ask you both, Courtney and Fred, if you could share a little bit about your first encounter with Sam's work and how his practice has influenced your own work over the years.

Courtney J. Martin (CJM): Fred, do you want to go first?

Fred Moten (FM): I was happy for you to go first if you don't mind, but whatever is better for you.

CJM: I’ll let you go. You go ahead.

FM: OK, well, first of all, thank you, Andria, it’s great to be here with you and with Courtney and everybody who's tuned in. It's obviously a privilege and an honor to be able to talk about Mr. Gilliam’s work. Wow. OK, my first encounter with the work and is kind of a long story. I mean, just seeing his work in museums throughout the course of the last twenty-five or thirty years and then also hearing about his work and thinking about his work within the context of other scholars who were particularly interested in the work of Black abstract artists going back to the 1960s and ‘70s. Encountering the work through the ideas and through the scholarship of people like Guthrie Ramsey and Phillip Brian Harper, esteemed colleagues who I learned a lot from, but maybe the most direct connection, although it's at the same time indirect, is through a friend of mine, actually a neighbor of mine, from when I lived in Los Angeles with my family maybe close to fifteen years ago. There was an artist from Los Angeles named (opens in a new window) Melvino Garetti, and he was a beautiful friend and neighbor who was part of a generation of Los Angeles artists that included David Hammons and Melvin Edwards, John Outerbridge, folks like that who had moved through Los Angeles but who were all involved in these really intense, various commitments to abstraction into the forms of aesthetic experimentation in the field of painting. I remember going next door to Melvino's house one day just to hang out and talk and he had all these drapery paintings that he had been working on for many, many years, in addition to the ceramics that he had done. He was the first person with whom I ever really had a really intense, deep discussion about Sam Gilliam's work because he was so influenced by it. I feel like I came to my own interest in Sam's work very honestly as a function of my friendship and tutelage, friendship with and tutelage under Melvino, my neighbor.

CJM: That's lovely, Fred. I have to say, I don't remember not knowing who Sam Gilliam was because I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sam had been invited, much before I was born, by the late Dr. David Driskell to come to the Fisk University galleries, the Carl Van Vechten galleries, to visit there and to show there and to be a part of that artist community. His presence in that space meant that the people who then were teaching art from very early on, local artists in Nashville, local elementary school teachers, people that my parents knew by way of both Fisk and Tennessee State University, knew who Sam was. And there were a few works in town, so to speak. In the same way that I knew who Robert Ryman was as a child before I could remember... that because these were people who were referenced by the people that talked to me about art and spoke to me in the same breath about someone like Sam Gilliam, the way that they talked about Picasso. It took me a long time before I got older to understand that Sam was someone that I could know. I didn't meet Sam until much later, but I had always known that work. And then when I went to college, when I went to Oberlin College, the Allan Memorial Art Museum had work by Sam, and so he seemed to always be there in a way for me. I have to say that sense of having a long-term relationship means that I do feel like I've grown up with Sam's work and I feel like that was a privilege because as I got to see more and more art, as I became an art historian, as I got to understand art, in the back of my mind someplace is always those early kinds of ways that I learned about art and artists and thinking, oh, well, I can compare that. I can compare the drapery in this painting to the way that Sam Gilliam drapes. I can compare the way that someone builds out a stretcher to the way that Sam Gilliam does that because I'd always known that that was possible. I have to say that I totally now, as an adult, recognize what an incredible privilege and perspective that was to have been given, and so I thank those people who did that for me. I have to say that later, when I began to develop a relationship with Sam and with his family, getting to know this incredible person who made those incredible works are two definitely very different experiences. This summer, as we were writing the essay, I feel like Sam really helped me write this essay for the catalogue. I was both... every week that we would talk I learned something new. Mostly because he was imparting new information to me. I learned about his art in different ways, but I also had to go back and rethink about the things that I first thought. There was a constant kind of back and forth that was... it was amazing. This summer was, for all of the other turmoil that happened in our lives this summer, getting to spend all that time talking to Sam weekly and writing that essay was an experience that I will never be able to compare with any... far fewer other things.

AH: It was such a treat to be able to spend this year thinking about Sam's work, just intellectually, with everything else happening. His work opens the door to so many other things. I know we don't have that much time, but I’m hoping we can talk about a few of them. I want to talk about choreography and exhibition-making, which also, I think, connects very much to improvisation. Courtney, in your essay, you talked about what exhibition-making means to Sam and how exhibitions come together. I know you also installed a really important work of Sam's at (opens in a new window) Dia. Fred, also in your essay, you talk about the relationship between music and jazz and improvisation as it relates to these bigger aesthetic questions that are part of Sam's work. I thought we could ruminate on these ideas for a moment and share a little bit. Courtney, you can start with your own experience installing with Sam and the current exhibition—you guys saw a little bit through the video. I should also note for those of you who don't know Sam's work, this is a radical departure. These sculptures are a brand-new idea. They very much build on a number of things that Sam has explored over the years, but they're quite new and very exciting because of that. They're also all on wheels, so, they're easy to move around. They're not intended to be moved by the audience. I think the wheels are really a more practical consideration but like Sam's drape paintings, the staging of where each of those works is is very intentional. So, there's a choreography at play that you as a viewer become part of. I'm sure that came into the installation process, Courtney, at Dia also.

CJM: Completely, I mean, I have to say, I've seen Sam's work sold in private collections, in public museums, I've seen exterior work. I thought I had a sense of what the work... I thought I had a sense of how to install this work because of having seen it installed and I was absolutely wrong going into this process because what I didn't fully understand, even though, you know, we talked about it, I didn't grasp how important Sam's direction was, how important this sense of engagement with the objects as you install them was. We had an amazing team. Sam has an incredible studio staff who came to work with the staff at Dia, but we all took a back seat when Sam told us what was supposed to happen. Watching him give direction about not only how an angle at which something should be hung, or the degree at which one piece should relate to another piece—so with the drapes that's very important—but also the way in which the drapes actually needed to be kind of ruffled, sort of like embodied in a way, just so that they hung exactly right, and that that was absolutely a part of making sure that they were alive in that space. And I didn't know that, and I learned a lot during the process of that installation. One of the things I learned is also something that I included in the essay for this show, which is that Sam had sent a blue kind of hoop up to Dia in advance of the installation. I remember calling him and saying, what is this hoop? What are we doing with it? What is it for? And his answer was interesting. He talked to me about the history of early modern painting. This is where the hoop for him had come from, that there was this idea that there is an element of play. So it wasn't that the hoop wasn't a part of the installation itself—the hoop wasn't going to go up on the wall, the hoop wasn't going to be on a pedestal—but the hoop needed to be visible to all of us so that we understood what we were doing in that space once we came into the exhibition. Once I learned that, once I was able to receive that information, I realized, oh, this is a world view that I'm trying to enter into, and I need to sit back and learn.

AH: Wow, that is incredible. It totally changes the understanding of that installation and is not something you can understand without being part of that. Thinking about how Sam's work embodies a world view, Fred, can you talk a little bit about this relationship to improvisation? I'm also thinking more broadly in terms of how despite Sam's work being very abstract, there's a lot of cultural content that, as you said, is almost like a whirl around Sam's work and there's a tension and a dynamic there that I think also creates a connection with improvisation.

FM: Yeah, I mean, well, improvisation is an interesting word. The root of it is, you know, visare, which implies seeing, visuality, improvisare would be to look ahead, to look in front of you. The “im” is a, it's a negation of that, it means... The full meaning of the word is about what it is to proceed without looking ahead. And that's the general formulation but that's where a lot of, I think, misunderstanding comes in because people think that when you improvise because you're not looking ahead, you're not thinking, not planning, not fully cognizant of what you're doing. That it is, therefore, something other than or even less than human about the endeavor. Sometimes people want to valorize that nonhumanity, like Shelley when he writes about the skylarks—unpremeditated, profuse strains of unpremeditated art. But with Mr. Gilliam, and I think this is generally part of the improvisational force of Black aesthetics in a general, diasporic way, it's not unpremeditated. The meditation is not only there before the work is composed, but it's there all throughout the composition of the work and there all throughout the reception of the work. It's a constantly meditative work. If the work proceeds, not by way of looking ahead, that's because it's so intensely focused on looking behind, on looking back. So, it's a studious, critical, historical kind of meditative endeavor and the spontaneity of it never negates the intensity of the thought that it is comprised of. And that thought, that work is, as Courtney says in her essay, it's syncretic. To say that Mr. Gilliam is a syncretic artist is to say that he's a Black artist. That syncretism is it is part of a worldview or a whirl view if you want. In this respect, I think it's just maybe on the most basic level, there's all this stuff going on. When you read his interviews and there's such a wealth of conversation that he's been engaged in about his work and about other people's work to access. For him, the distinction between artist and art historian is completely obliterated. He's an artist who is a historian of art, and his intense relation to the history of art is given to us visually in all that work but he's also not just a visual artist—he's a choreographer, he's a dancer, he's a musician. There's a deep theatricality, it seems to me, to the work. Now, Michael Fried sort of famously or infamously denounces theory as being sort of in-between the arts, but I don't think Mr. Gilliam's work is in between in that way. It sort of belies the whole sort of spatiotemporal assumptions that are embedded in the very phrase “in between.” There is no in-between anything. He embraces all of that stuff. So to me, to go into the gallery there for this show, I snuck into the galleries at (opens in a new window) Dia Beacon and you're being moved by the work, right? Like, he doesn't arrange your movement through the gallery in a restrictive, carceral way, but a set of modalities of experience are arranged for you that then you can move through in your own thoughtful and meditative way and so for me, the work is really beautiful, and it indexes another way, another modality of social existence that we might want to tap into that’s not so authoritarian, not so separable, and not so vicious.

CJM: Fred, I think you're absolutely right about that sensibility because when one talks about improvisation, I think that we often think that improvisation is somehow the space at which someone is making up something. That may well be a part of it, but in the case of all people that I know who are able to improvise, the level of skill and technique and study and agency that it takes to get to the moment at which you can let go and actually utilize those things altogether can in some way be unimaginable if you were to unpack it. And to take apart the number of courses and painting hours that Sam has had up to a certain point. To look at all of the books that he has read on the numerous subjects. In conversations with him, I found that I was building a new vocabulary in fields that I had not ever had to really engage so that I could understand what we were talking about and could come back and ask questions that then led to more information. And so, for someone... I think we're all accustomed to, particularly for those of us who work with artists regularly, I think we're all accustomed to the idea that artists know art history. I think that's a given. But I think it's more interesting to find out that someone like Sam knows architecture, that someone like Sam is as rooted, I would say, in basic math, and I don't mean basic in the sense of a lower level of math, I mean in the terms of looking at the building structures of math as a discipline. Looking at someone who can talk to me about the chemical process in all of the work that he is doing, as well as the work that other people are making across a variety of fields. That kind of knowledge does not happen overnight but it is that huge bank of knowledge that he comes to working with and that you then can feel in the process, both of watching him work, but also watching the result of that. Going to an exhibition is the result of an accumulation of knowledge that he is consistently and actively working on. At times I felt that I wanted to spend more time talking to Sam about what he knew because I realized that there was a wealth of information about other artists, about exhibitions, about art-making that was untapped, unrelated to the objects that he was making.

AH: Also, an incredible amount of information, just about parts of the art world that we were talking a little bit about, are lesser-known—what was happening in the Midwest in the 1970s and why were some artists leaving New York and working there? Why did Sam do that? This question of a kind of network of community that impacted his work and names we know and names we don't know, and how that shaped a practice over time. I think, Courtney, your point about Sam is every time we work with artists, I always think of it like as a whole new course where you learn a whole new world of what somebody else is interested in but Sam, in particular, with this new body of work, you really see that the practice continues. It is not something that’s static and has never been. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about abstraction and phenomenology in terms of these new works. I think that phenomenology is... I tend to use a less art historical word, the feeling of an object or the aura. Sometimes I say the vibe, which is not very academic, but the feeling of Sam's work in these particular two exhibitions is to me as potent as the choreography that the drape paintings create for your own movement through the space, there's even in the flat, large scale painting to be looked at there's a sense of density and depth and a kind of experience of a portal even, and the physical objects in space and these circular new works on the wall, they literally have a hole in the center. There is a kind of dynamic that's bigger than the object. I wonder if we can talk a little bit about that in terms of the past work and now this current body of work.

CJM: Well, I mean, there's an interesting spatial issue that happens that I wanted to figure out what exactly it meant because we're sitting in front of what are perhaps some of his flattest, and just in terms of depth, flattest work. This is the paintings on washi paper. And then we're also looking at sculpture and some of that sculpture, like the ones that are that were depicted behind you, Andria, they are taking up space, real space. They are taking up real space. If you were walking around the galleries right now, if you're in Sam's studio, you would absolutely have to engage with them and then move accordingly. I think that that we've seen that before with the drapes, but the juxtaposition between the super flat and the three-dimensional in various degrees is, I think, a clue into where he is thinking or sort of what he's thinking about right now. You know, playing with where, as a viewer, you find yourself, because essentially as the viewer you're in between that super flat and the dimensional. And so what does your body have to do to adjust to those two different vectors on either side of you?

AH: Fred. Do you want to add something?

FM: Well, phenomenology as a kind of philosophical discipline, I think, implies some very specific ideas about spatiotemporal coordination and three-dimensionality. It implies a kind of separation of the subject and the object. The object comes into view. The object comes into consciousness for a subject as a function of that separation and hopefully what the object does is, in a way, both confirm and also mirror the assumed three-dimensionality of the subject, of the viewer. When we talk about a well-developed character, in a novel or in a play, the complement we like to give such a character is that they are three-dimensional. And I think there's something to be said, there's much to be said in praise of two-dimensionality. There's much to be said that’s in praise of what people ordinarily, I think, misrepresent as flatness. And for me, I would maybe begin, if you have a chance to visit the gallery, by encouraging a stance towards the works, particularly to the wall-based works, to encourage a stance that isn't, let's say, full-frontal. Don't stand up in front of it or stand against it as if it were your object. It's a really cool thing to walk carefully and respectfully up to the side of it so that if you can imagine not looking at it, but looking with it or almost looking through it. And especially in those big, huge wall paintings, what you see is all this texture. And you see all this richness. And you see all this shape. And you see the intensity with which color doesn't oppose itself to shape, but folds into shape. And all of a sudden, it turns out that this two-dimensionality, this sort of holographic reality that he's giving us, is immeasurably and unimaginably rich, which I think allows us to begin to imagine how rich all of the things which we ordinarily would dismiss as two-dimensional must be, right? Including, for instance, let's say, the generally understood to be two-dimensional lives of, say, Black folks in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935 or something like that. It makes me want to really, really think hard about the rich, deep, syncretic, two-dimensional richness of Black Tupelo, Mississippi, which must have been the deepest possible flat place that anybody could ever imagine if it turned out to produce both Sam Gilliam and Arthur Jafa within thirty years of one another. That's a mystery that somebody needs to try to figure out right there.

CJM: I don't know, Fred. I'm mean I to have to tell you, I am from a mythical place that the people call the South, where nobody who actually lives in the South actually calls it that. I would say, I don't think any of us think that a place like Tupelo, when we're from places like Nashville, that it would be a secret that you could get those two giants to come from those places. I would say it would be... It's hard for me not to believe that they don't come from those places.

FM: Well, I come from such a place too. It's called Kingston, Arkansas, and it's beneath Tupelo, let's say, or Nashville, for that matter. So, when I say what I'm saying I'm not... It's with a smile on my face.

CJM: I also have to always bring my Southern chauvinism almost into any conversation, because the richness of what we come to the space of art-making with is so incredibly divergent, I think, from what people assume. This is where it is interesting also to think of Sam from Tupelo, but it's even more interesting to think of the connection between Louisville and Tupelo, which is the place where he really does get the training as an artist. Louisville is the industrial South, like Birmingham, and that texture between the rural and the industrial is something I think that you absolutely feel in the work. When you talk about what I think you're describing as the kind of haptic sense of it, those things are there as well, that sense—the low and the high, because Tupelo technically is geographically low, and Louisville is a city of hills and valleys, but it is also one that has been remade to service and to make things for this country, which it did for a good part of its history.

FM: Yeah, no, I mean, I think that's true, I think at the same time you can imagine a standard distinction between the rural and urban, and that makes sense in a way. The distinction between the industrial and the, I suppose, agricultural... that's less clear to me but I'm agreeing with you—the agricultural was always industrial. You don't have to drive down Highway 61 for very long in the Mississippi Delta before you understand how that's true. It reminds me of, like you say, this whole rich tradition of experimental visuality that comes out of the South and as you say, it undermines any kind of simple distinction between the so-called “trained” and the so-called “untrained.” There's just all this beautiful stuff that people have always been doing. And the mystery is not that they could do it, that they had the capacity to do it, the mystery is how they do it and continue to do it under such mind-numbing, flesh destroying duress. You know, that's the mystery.

CJM: Exactly.

AH: I took down so many wonderful notes that I'm going to send you guys after. I love this idea of the holographic richness and color folding into a shape. We're, as expected, running out of time, and I want to make sure that we have some time for questions from everybody. If you raise your hand, we can unmute you and we can also ask that you put your questions into the chat. I know we had a question earlier about texture in Sam's work. I think what Fred and Courteney just talked about is very much an answer to this understanding of texture beyond the haptic or the tactile is a better word. If you guys want to talk about texture a little bit more, maybe in terms of the new work, but also in the older work as well. I know, Fred, at one point we were talking a lot about the stain, which I think of as the texture in Sam's work. If that calls to mind anything.

FM: I mean, yeah, I don't know, before I say anything else, before I forget, I just wanted to mention the name of the scholar, a colleague, I think must be of Courteney's at Yale named (opens in a new window) Marta Figlerowicz, who has written this very, very beautiful work about aesthetic two-dimensionality or novelistic two-dimensionality. And again, it's just that, it's just the idea that that there's all this, another word might be topographical richness to any surface, right? That, too, could be part of what one might think of the mathematics of Mr. Gilliam's work is that his surfaces are rich and complicated, and they provide, like, all this tremendous, I don't even know what the word... Information could be one word. Experience could be another word. But when one looks, for instance, at the stain on those wall-based sculptures, your eyes are just allowed to move through so much complexity and that just always feels like a good thing to me. And it's not just a good thing because one has fun looking at it and with it, but it also is a good thing because like I said, it gives you another way, a better way of understanding what is generally maybe mischaracterized as flat.

AH: I'm just responding to the chat here. At the end of the event will share in the chat links to excerpts of the essays from the publication that are on our website, they're not in the entirety, not all of them anyway, but you can definitely read excerpts there. I'd like to address a question here, “Is it possible to talk about the sediment, the laminate, the hole at the center, the overwhelming rich feature of color saturation as consistent, abiding elements of Mr. Gilliam's body of work?” Great question.

CJM: Greg, do you want to, could I ask you just to clarify a little bit, Greg? Do you mean the process, but like, how do you actually do that? Or are you talking about perhaps something that's a little bit closer to patients and physicality, like how do you live through that kind of saturation as a part of the process?

CJM: In a lot of those early works, because he is working on untreated cloth, he is painting flat out—staining, soaking, all of those techniques. When you actually see the unprimed canvas peek through, you do get the sense that you're getting a glimpse into something. Is that process? Is that purposeful? What does that mean that you get, quite literally sometimes “behind the curtain,” but you're let through it? And I think that, when you get now to seeing this body of work, I'm so drawn to these sculptural spheres on the wall because they quite literally have a hole. But not only do they have a hole in them, one of the things that might not be as visible in Andria's video is that they're being fit together so you've also got the faint sense of space between each of the areas in which the circles fit together. And that is not different to me than having seen the space of the unprimed canvas before. And I think, ah, there it is all over again. Once again, the viewer is let in, just for a glimpse. It's exciting as a space. I don't know what to do with that space, but I share your intrigue in it.

AH: Fred, did you want to also comment?

FM: Well, we have this... I have a new, very beautiful print that an artist friend gave me, and we have it sitting on our floor, right behind me, kind of propped up against the wall. And one of our cats has taken the habit, has fallen into the habit of he just knocks on the door of this image. When he walks past it, he can't help but try to get in it. He thinks it's a door that he should be able to go through. And it is, you know. Maybe, you know, I try not to get too involved in articulating what are supposedly these intense differences between human being and animal being because it seems like everything bad in the history of the world comes from that kind of activity, but maybe the difference between the cats and us is he just hasn't figured out a way to go up in that painting. But what Mr. Gilliam does is both allow and require us to figure out a way to go up in this space that he makes. In this respect, this is why, again, we could think of him as a choreographer, but also as a musician, as an arranger of experience, but an arranger of our capacity to improvise the experience. And I think, what if it turns out that this is what painting can do? Not because of the enabling illusions that perspective makes possible, but rather that this is what painting can do in this very deep and intense way as a function of the arrangement of materialized color on a surface, right? I remember when I was in college, Frank Stella gave the Norton Lectures, in which he was really, really obsessed with trying to establish the terms and conditions under which depth could be brought back into painting. This is, I don't know, ‘84, 1984, or something like that. I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe it wasn't a question of depth ever having been made absent from the painting, it was just a function of how you look. It's not just...which is to say a difference between looking with and looking at. So maybe what Mr. Gilliam does is he gives us a chance to look with his painting rather than just look at them.

AH: A radical concept that is so present in that work from the beginning. To change that subjectivity.

CJM: I’m trying to think, I think I am really impressed by Fred's sense of this “looking with,” because I think that that is something... We can go back to Renaissance terms like the (opens in a new window) paragone to talk about the way in which we conceptualize space, essentially that here's that fight between painting and sculpture. What we're really talking about is looking for how the body adjusts itself to being with art. This is Judd-specific objects, you know. That there is a way in which the body is the thing that has to accommodate itself to the art object. I think Fred's idea of “looking with” is a far better way to accommodate what it is that we should be doing as viewers because I think that sometimes people come to look against or sometimes people come to look at, and neither is actually useful if you just want to see and be a part of this in some way. I have never seen the art object that doesn't want you to be with it. I can't. I don't know one. And I'm not saying that I've not seen things that I don't feel close to. I've seen lots of art that I don't feel close to, but I know that that work was not intended to push me away. I think it was intended to draw me in. And maybe I didn’t get close enough. I wasn't with it enough.

AH: Something about the pyramids that I've been thinking about in terms of being with the object is that Sam creates the conditions for inviting you to be with it. The pyramids are low in order to really see them, you have to get down and you have to change... There's an invitation to change your own body to see the work properly and to look underneath. There's a large pyramid in the exhibition that's made up of a series of smaller objects with a pyramid top, but there's a gap between each of those objects that joins the sculpture together, and that gap... it keeps coming back to me all the time. Like, why is that a gap there? I think that gap is part of that invitation. You look differently. You're not standing back to understand the work, you're changing your perspective to see different ways of understanding the object.

FM: Yeah, I loved the... There's one piece in particular, it's not a pyramid, but it's on some wheels. I can see it in my mind's eye in the gallery. It's the 510 gallery. I'll tell you what it reminds me of. It reminds me of those big, huge tool carts that the NASCAR driving... What do you call them? What the pit crews used. Those big carts that are full of every possible tool that you could ever use. And they're always on wheels because they have to be moved. They have to be mobile. And maybe it's because of the way that the movement of the wood is broken by the stainless steel so that it looks like it is shelves. It looks like drawers.

AH: I have a picture I can share it with you guys. I think I know which one you're talking about. Can I share my screen, whoever is in charge of sharing screens? Ok, here, Fred, tell me if this is the right one. This is the pyramid I was talking about, but I think, is it this piece here?

FM: Yeah, the one in the back that that one.

AH: Sorry, it's not a great picture, but you can see these are two pieces that actually move. And so, they're positioned together. They don't necessarily have to be together.

FM: Yeah, no. And if you go there and kind of just linger with it, a lot of things emerge. One is that the space between the two pieces is not uniform. It widens out just a bit. Right. It's a little bit narrower at the bottom than it is at the top but what I notice more than anything, what just kind of made my thoughts kind of flow is the fact that it was on wheels, as you suggested, which not only makes the mobility of it easier to deal with because of the fact that it has to be arranged in particular ways, but it also... I guess in a way, the workshop thing for me is big, because maybe on a really, really, really sort of deep level, it's important. You know, I think Courtney has already said this in the essay as well as today. Mr. Gilliam is like, he's a working artist. He's an artist of the working day, you know? You get the feeling like he's always at work in this modality of arrangement. Now, it's not a megalomaniacal kind of work, it's not Wagnerian, it's not him arranging some absolute carceral space that everybody else has got to fit in in order to have a very specific and particular experience. I mean, again, it reminds me of the kind of work that people like my grandfather did or my cousins in Arkansas do where it's social work and it's work that is part of a general common arrangement of social existence. Existence is a word that I guess I even want to emphasize, not only because of its importance to the title of the show but also maybe existence even as a, for a minute, at least, as an alternative to the word “life,” right? That the social existence which is at stake is a more general formulation because it includes not only things that we think of as human and things that we think of as animal or animate, but also things that ordinarily get coded as inanimate too. And maybe, it would be wrong to say that he breathes life into these inanimate objects, but it is right, I think, to suggest that he's deeply, deeply attuned to the social existence of the inanimate as something that we also have to pay attention to as well. That's a deep kind of ecological kind of thing that's going on to me in the work. Again, I love the... it felt like, going into that gallery, it felt like going into the workshop. It seemed like it was much more like being in a studio where work had been going on just before you got there than it usually does when you go to a gallery and everything is carefully... It doesn't mean that he didn't carefully arrange it. It just meant that it was carefully arranged to give a sense of the ongoing-ness of his working.

AH: Living form. Yeah. It is now 1:11PM. I would like to have this conversation for the rest of the day, but we have to go, unfortunately, and that's a really beautiful note to end on. Sam’s work being alive in the space, almost resisting the death of the museum, as people say. I think that's a beautiful sentiment. Thank you all for joining us today. This is our last discussion of the season. Thank you so much, Courtney and Fred, for your incredible contributions to this publication and your thoughts on Sam Gilliam’s work and contributions to the thinking around his work. It's been incredibly special to work with you. I want to just say a quick shout out. There is another fantastic program happening tonight at The Drawing Center with (opens in a new window) Torkwase Dyson and Amy Sillman, who I see here in the chat, which I think will be an equally compelling conversation if you have time for two Zooms in a day. Check out our website, we are going to be doing these conversations pretty regularly about our program that will be coming up in the new year. Stay safe. Stay well. Buy your shovels now and thank you, Courtney, again and Fred, again, thank you for your wonderful contributions. Have a great day.

  • Pace Live — Sam Gilliam's Latest: A Roundtable Conversation, Jan 7, 2021