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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’ 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.

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 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’ (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” (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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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

4 replies on “A Black Painter Who Found Aesthetic Liberty in the 1960s”

  1. While what is said in this review about the quality and aesthetic of Gilliam’s work is true – very little of the critical context is accurate – there is a considerable list of 70s black abstract painters – many of them now getting their due – Jack Witten, Robert Reed, and Stanley Whitney, etc. being the most visible. What is not pointed out is that these artists just did not fit the profile of what was expected of a black artist – and ironically they still don’t. Beyond that in the case of Gilliam l – his work like that of Allen Shields (who was white), Al Loving (black) and other painters (of both genders) who sought to find new formats for abstract painting, just didn’t fit into the critical model of historians when the period was summed up in the 80s to usher in PostModernism – These artists’ works stood outside the pre-occupations of Minimalism and Color-field and the death of painitng scenario that was the product of a reductivist logic- Yet, in Gilliam case he was identified with the Washington colorist, which gave us some very significant under-rated painters as Bob Downing and Leon Berkowitz. In the end I regret that in the case of this review – rather than there be an attempt to re-write the history of the period – we get the gallerist pitch for an overlooked master. Many artist have racks of paintings that have never seen the light of day for whatever reason – the real point in Gilliam’s case is that he was an innovative and adventurist artist who was sidelined because his work did not fit into the history that everyone had decided to write.

    1. Dear Saul,

      Thank you for commenting. I don’t think I understand your critique. I wrote in the above: “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.” Is this not another way of saying that he did not fit the profile of what was expected of a black artist? And I also wrote, “However, in his day, his work separated Gilliam from his peers, the Color Field painters and the Minimalists.” which is essentially that his work wasn’t taken up with those as you term them “pre-occupations”. More, I nowhere said he was a master. I said he was singular.

      Perhaps you are correct in that I didn’t make the first point forcefully enough, but I didn’t want to write that kind of review. I wanted to say what I said, that we need to see his work now, because it is utterly worth seeing.

      1. Perhaps I did not make this point clear enough
        “Beyond that in the case of Gilliam – his work like that of Allen
        Shields (who was white), Al Loving (black) and other painters (of both
        genders and races) who sought to find new formats for abstract painting, just
        didn’t fit into the critical model of historians who
        summed up in the 80s in a manner to usher in PostModernism – These artists’ (shortly identified as post-minimalist) stood outside the pre-occupations of Minimalism and Color-field and the
        death of painting scenario that was the product of a reductivist logic-thus while it is of importance to revive the career of an artist like Gilliam – it is more important that we re-evaluate the 70s – to show that Gilliam is not singular, but represents another as yet un-examined discourse within the history of abstract painting – for such practices as Gilliam had correspondence in the Supports/ Surfaces group in France and in some Neo-Concrete in Latin and South America and post-Zero artist in Europe

        1. Okay. This sounds like the history you want to write. I think you should write it and get it published.

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