A Black Painter Who Found Aesthetic Liberty in the 1960s

Sam Gilliam “Green April” (1969) acrylic on canvas 98 x 271 x 3 7/8 inches (Photograph by Lee Thompson)
Sam Gilliam, “Green April” (1969), acrylic on canvas, 98 x 271 x 3 7/8 inches (all images courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, photo by Lee Thompson)

LOS ANGELES — At first sight of the Green April exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, it is fairly obvious that Sam Gilliam is a marvelous painter who is sensitive to color and hue, shade and saturation, and able to create vibrantly interstitial zones where an object is not quite itself and not yet something else. Looking at the eponymous “Green April” painting, you might see a forest of green bamboo, or a bed of seaweed, or an attempt at visually representing how these things are alike. Each painting of Gilliam’s is like a tidal occurrence, something naturally wafting to the shore of your vision and out again, but never quite still, never settled. I want to say the work is beautiful, literally full of beauty, but that descriptive does not do justice to this exhibition of paintings, many of which have never been seen outside of Gilliam’s studio. That’s what’s wonderful about this exhibition: it gives you so much to carry away with that you quickly run out of storage room. There’s the display of his painting innovations, such as the works with beveled edges or the draped paintings, plus the story of who Sam Gilliam is, which is almost as compelling as the work itself.

Installation view of Green April. All images courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery (Photograph by Brian Forrest)
Installation view of ‘Green April’ at David Kordansky Gallery (photo by Brian Forrest)

Gilliam created much of this work in the mid-1960s, and instead of brushing on paint — which had been done for centuries at that point — he poured acrylic paints onto canvas and then folded it over on itself while the paint was wet to create prismatic effects and a sense of space and dimensionality. Gilliam also stretched the canvas on a beveled frame, so that when the painting was hung it seemed to materialize out of the wall. Then in 1968 he created the “Drape” paintings, for which he similarly poured paint and folded and refolded the canvas, but also at times blew aluminum dust onto the painting while it was still wet, thus adding shimmer and shine. He hung these paintings, letting them droop like suspended fabric, treating the work not as surface or the canvas as substrate, but the whole as a material object that made painting more than a window of depiction.

“Leaf” (1970) acrylic on canvas; installation dimensions: 130 x 160 x 16 inches; flat dimensions: 120 x 240 inches (Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen)
Sam Gilliam, “Leaf” (1970), acrylic on canvas, installation dimensions: 130 x 160 x 16 inches; flat dimensions: 120 x 240 inches (photo by Fredrik Nilsen)
Detail of "Leaf"
Detail of Sam Gilliam’s “Leaf” (photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

These formal innovations were singular, which in today’s market is often a beneficial role to occupy. However, in his day, his work separated Gilliam from his peers, the Color Field painters and the Minimalists. Especially for a black artist making work that did not directly engage with the profoundly consequential social and political movements of the late ’60s, finding advocates to champion his practice was difficult. This was the height of the classic Civil Rights Movement, and here was an artist in Washington, DC making canvases of ethereal shades of color that imagined a freedom for stylistic exploration that had not quite arrived yet. Instead of making work about his lack of social and political freedom, or perhaps the felt need for it, he made aesthetic liberty the premise of his practice. But, until recently, he never found favor in the art establishment. According to Kurt Mueller, director of the Kordansky gallery, critics and curators just did not know what to do with Sam Gilliam.

Installation view of Green April. (Photograph by Brian Forrest)
Installation view of ‘Green April’ (photo by Brian Forrest)

While Gilliam has gained traction over the years, this exhibition, Mueller says, is still aiming for a resurgence of the artist. Gilliam was born in 1933, and many of his paintings have not been shown outside his studio for 45 years. It’s about time we see him.

Detail of "Green April"
Detail of “Green April” (photo by Lee Thompson)

Sam Gilliam’s Green April continues at David Kordansky (5130 W Edgewood Pl, Los Angeles) through July 16. 

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