“I’m just getting started,” Sam Gilliam says with a playful smile as he watches me take in his Washington, D.C. studio. It is a candy store of color: a vast, skylit room, crisply renovated, with stacks of vividly stained sheets of Japanese paper on long tables; multi-panel enamel paintings in various stages of production; older assemblage pieces leaning against the walls; plans and maquettes for site-specific work pinned to walls; and the sound of activity in a wood shop in the back.

When I ask Gilliam how he makes his tabletop paper pieces, he takes a flat sheet and proceeds to fold it for me. “Like this,” he says, creasing it deliberately, with long, elegant fingers. Our conversation is like that, too: he tells stories with a quiet reverence; his gratitude for the beauty of a life spent with art is palpable.

He gives equal weight, in telling this narrative, to childhood play, the circus, the army, music, racial tension and the Civil Rights movement as it affected Louisville and Washington D.C. It has been said that Gilliam doesn’t make “black art,” but this assessment misses the mark. His work is experiential: these events are recorded and imprinted into the texture and facture of his work. Experience is then proffered to the viewer: to move through the work, or to observe the movement of the work itself.

Sam Gilliam (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Although Gilliam is best known for his “Drape” paintings—unstretched canvases stained in vibrant pigments and extended into three-dimensional space—the surfaces of the paintings he has made over a fifty-plus-year career are actually quite diverse. They include the “Black” and “White” paintings: dense thickets of monochrome paint, with collaged, cut and reused canvas additions. Gilliam has also worked extensively with multi-panel paintings in enamel on aluminum with plywood structures.

Gilliam was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Louisville in 1955, served in the Army from 1956-58, returned to Louisville and completed his MFA in 1961. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1962, where he continues to live and work. Between 1965 and 1973, he exhibited at the Jefferson Place Gallery. Early museum exhibitions at the Phillips Museum in 1967 and the Corcoran Gallery in 1969 established him as an innovator, expanding and reinventing the possibilities of Color Field painting and the Washington Color School. Since that time, Gilliam has completed numerous large-scale, site-specific, commissioned installations in museums and outdoor public spaces all over the world. In 2005, the Corcoran Gallery organized a traveling retrospective exhibition of his work. In 2013 David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, hosted an exhibition of his work, curated by Rashid Johnson. A second exhibition at the Kordansky Gallery will open in June 2016.

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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. What are some of the childhood experiences with art that you recall?

Sam Gilliam: I was number seven in a family of eight children. Play was the biggest thing that went on with the six kids still at home. I wanted to be a cartoonist. It was the time of Dick Tracy; it was a long time ago. All through school, if you finished lessons early, your teacher would let you draw, at an extra table, or in an extra notebook. One of my mother’s friends pointed out that when we played in the front yard, every other child was running around making noise, and I was quiet. I was drawing. She suggested to my mother, “If you keep that kid filled with paper, you won’t have any trouble with him.”

We lived quite close to a fairground in Louisville where there was a circus, so I grew up around that. The kids set up studios in garages and put on little shows with aerials and circus tricks. We made wagons and race cars. When the buses weren’t running, we kept busy. We played cowboys and Superman.   The biggest activity, though, was touch football. When Coach wasn’t there, we played tackle along with the big kids. That’s how you get started.

JS: Who were your important teachers and mentors? What art or music did you like, and what ideas were you interested in?

SG: I was lucky go to a great school, the University of Louisville. I was part of the second black class. I decided I wanted to be an artist, and I was determined. There was an art center off campus. The head of the art center was a Yale graduate, a portrait painter, Eugene Leake, who then became president of Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

My first professor was a design professor, who also taught painting. He was from Paris, and he loved music. Louisville was where Count Basie was born and it was home to the Kentucky Derby. It was an amazing time. Paul Robeson came to speak, and there were very few black students at the time. He said he wouldn’t speak without black students, so they bused in students from the black college nearby.

The professors from Europe were actually more involved in black culture than the American professors. They were mostly Germans. Our visiting professor, Ulfert Wilke, had an interest in African sculpture. I figured the only way I was going to be an artist was to be his studio assistant.

I worked as a fellowship student in the university library and the art library. I showed all the slides to the art history classes. I worked in the art library and got the books that professors needed to prepare for their lectures. There was nothing that kept me from reading them. So, I had two occupations.

Sam Gilliam, “Light Depth” (1969), acrylic on canvas, Installation Corcoran Gallery of Art Retrospective, Washington DC (photo by Mark Gulezian) (click to enlarge)

I was in the ROTC, and I did basic training in Texas. We were stationed with Airborne troops and drilled by Airborne sergeants.   After that I was quite lucky to be stationed in Japan. Japan was just marvelous. There were galleries and art stores, and a woodcut studio near the base. There was one person in our unit who did nothing but go to Kabuki theater. From what I had seen of the art world, I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to be an artist, but I knew I didn’t want to be a soldier. So, I grew up. I went back to school to do my thesis.

The head of the department, Dr. Bier, had seen so many artists in Germany go hungry that he believed you couldn’t manage unless you took a teaching job. So we all had to take education classes. I taught the sixth grade while I was in graduate school. There was a visiting professor from Munich named Carl Crodel. He looked at us and decided to teach us nothing but drawing. He was in a concentration camp, yet he knew Matisse, Klee, most artists. He said when he was released from the concentration camp, he took a boat and went around the world just to see if it was still there.   He said—and this was something I felt from the French teacher as well—that his real passion was American music. He said that Marian Anderson kept him alive.

He considered Miró the last modern artist worth caring about. He would say, “Don’t worry about now – there is nothing going on. There is Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velázquez, Goya, and then there is Miró.” He spoke about the different uses of solid form and symbolism in painting from Giotto to Miró, with eight artists you were supposed to copy.

JS: After school you moved to Washington, D.C. You met Kenneth Noland, and had a show at the Jefferson Place Gallery, where you got to know Tom Downing. Walter Hopps was another important friend and art world supporter. Can you talk about this circle of friends?

SG: By the time I moved to Washington, Morris Louis had died, and Kenneth Noland had moved to New York and Vermont. Tom Downing was some kind of angel. He taught at the Corcoran, and he was so interested in the students. He’d say, “If your head doesn’t come off, paint.” Many people in his workshops were young Color Field painters who showed at the Jefferson Place Gallery.

Sam Gilliam, “Dihedral” (1996), polychromed aluminum and steel, Laguardia Airport, Queens NY (photo by Max Frietch) (click to enlarge)

I taught in public schools. It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. My friend Gene Davis worked for a magazine. He said he went to work, came home, had supper, and went to bed. Then he would get up at 10 PM and would paint until it was time to work. So I set up a schedule.   You paint after midnight, and paint in daylight. There are weekends; you can just paint. And I would go to New York. I spent as much time as I could seeing shows in New York. There was plenty of time to think on the four-hour bus ride back.   The most important thing is to learn how to be part of the art world.

Walter Hopps, who had been the director of the Pasadena Museum, was fired from that position. He joined the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington and moved here. He had founded the first vanguard art gallery in Los Angeles, the Ferus Gallery, with Ed Kienholz. He sold the art collection of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and made everybody angry. His idea was that Washington needed studios. He knew about building an art world to live in.

Sam Gilliam, “Dihedral” (1996), polychromed aluminum and steel, Laguardia Airport, Queens NY (photo by Max Frietch)

Hopps managed to set up studios for architecture, sculpture, photography and painting. All of the artists received grants, so our studios and rent were covered. I had three children at the time, and was teaching in public high schools. My wife did not want me to quit teaching. She also thought that with five thousand dollars of the grant money, I should make a down payment on a house.

I was given a show at the Phillips Collection, and after that, I decided I wasn’t going to teach. I was roughing it with a studio downtown, and I decided that’s where I was going to stay. When the National Endowment for the Arts started, I was one of ten artists who got a grant. And then I got a Guggenheim Fellowship.

JS: How did you get the idea to fold canvases? And did you think of this work, and the “Drape” paintings, as installations pieces or interventions in space?

SG: When Hopps became the director of the Corcoran, he made galleries with 20-foot ceilings. He planned a three-person show with Rockne Krebs, Ed McGowin, and me. He said to us, “You guys are just sitting on ideas that you need to explore.” Color Field painting sat there without a change. It seemed to have been part of the past. The people who liberated Color Field painting were involved in changing ideas.

Hopps also told me that I was going to have a hard time building frames for my paintings. I had been doing paintings and rolling them up. Color Field painting was mostly made on cotton duck. You could get it in 25-yard rolls or you’d order 100 yards. The next size was 300 yards.

Here in Washington, we had one of the best under-known collections of American landscape painting, at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian Collection). It includes Bierstadt and Cole, paintings of Niagara Falls. I also knew a lot about Titian, Tiepolo, and Giotto’s Arena Chapel. So, it was just the instinct that once I had the space, I wanted to make work that put the viewer in the same space. I had a meeting with Walter at the Corcoran. Walter asked me what I was going to do. So I took paper, as I’d been doing, with watercolors, and folded it up. And I said, “I’m ready.”

Sam Gilliam, “Autumn Surf” (1980), acrylic on canvas, University of Wisconsin, Madison Wisconsin

JS: You’ve done numerous pieces for public sites and over the years, your work has changed in terms of its facture, material, and supports. Can you talk about some of these projects and the shifts of material?

SG: It turned out the real way of supporting myself was by doing commissions. I would make paintings, but we couldn’t sell them, so I would roll them up. It became about doing works in spaces. There are eight major drapes titled “Carousels.” For the San Francisco Museum, I made “Autumn Surf” with 150 yards of 15-foot-wide polypropylene.

I started working with metal and doing permanent outdoor commissions, in airports, like LaGuardia, and for subways. In Cambridge I built a piece for the Davis Square Subway Station above the tracks. We were part of the project for Times Square, when they had just started putting in the large billboards. We lost that bid, but we built models. We had a library of presentation material.

We have done installations in Germany, Chile, Korea. We traveled and we had a great time. There are all kinds of ways to have an art career. In the studio, you have everything you need. But you think about Carl Andre who would bring in a box of blocks or plates and do his piece on the floor. I had drapes I could only show in certain buildings and sites. It was just as interesting to ship a roll of fabric and fly there. Art is material. So you simply make works.

Sam Gilliam, “Seahorses” (1975), acrylic on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art (click to enlarge)

JS: Your Philadelphia Museum of Art installation of 1975 is so dramatic. How did that project come into being?

SG: The United States General Services Administration started sponsoring a program called Art in Architecture. They commissioned Claes Oldenberg’s “Batcolumn,” and they worked with the Brooklyn Museum and the Philadelphia Museum. In Philadelphia, Gene Davis painted murals on the street, and Rockne Krebs did a laser installation for City Hall. Then they told Rockne they wanted me. I was to figure out how to join the museum to the city. Outside the museum is a sculpture of Neptune, and the museum has bronze rings, which encircle it. That inspired the project “Seahorses.” The materials were all supplied from sail makers and paint companies. We designed the six pieces; two of which were 30 x 90 feet and four that were 30 x 60 feet.

The most beautiful thing is that we could lay all the paintings on the plaza. But when we moved them the canvases just floated. I could ride a bucket lift and go up with the work. For someone who grew up around the circus and airlifts, it was a dream come true.

On the night we installed it, there was a hurricane. I went to dinner, and when I came back, the canvases were undulating. They would swing out, and they were moving. It was the most beautiful thing to see. The next morning they were on the ground. I had to put it up again.

The next summer we used the same pieces to do an installation at the Brooklyn Museum. There was another hurricane. The winds around the Brooklyn Museum are really fantastic. You don’t stand a chance. Walter came by the day that everything was lying around, and he said, “It doesn’t make a difference whether you put them up or whether they stay there.” He was such a kind person; he was like that.

Sam Gilliam, “Art Park” Installation (1977), wood, polypropylene and shale, Lewiston NY (click to enlarge)

I was invited to do a temporary artwork as part of “Art Park,” a residency program in Lewiston, New York, near Niagara Falls. There were artists working all over a large area of the park. We were building structures on the side of the gorge from timbers. I was working with 100-yard pieces of fabric for the piece, “Custom Road Slide.” To me, the most exciting thing was moving the fabric. We had a team, and my children came and helped. One person suggested that we climb the rocks and go up the incline, and then we just floated the fabric down.

There were subsequent pieces I did where the idea was to allow the fabrics to finally float. The most successful one was in Piedmont Park in Atlanta where we tied wire between trees and the wind moved through the fabric.

You knew instinctively if you worked all day and then went back to your hotel, there would be a wicked storm. So the thing to do is to wake up and go look in the morning. All my life I’ve loved Moby-Dick. I have seen the film a dozen times – every film version of it.

If you are concerned about whatever it is you want to do, you dream about it. You wake up in the morning and you’ve got a solution. You work it out. There is always tomorrow.

Jennifer Samet, Ph.D. is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer. She completed her dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center on Painterly Representation in New York: 1945-1975. She has lectured...

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