Art

Basking in Sam Gilliam’s Endless Iterations

The artist — still brilliant and brimming with artistic talent — will celebrate his 86th birthday on November 30.

Sam Gilliam, “Double Merge” (1968), Installation view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. (© Sam Gilliam. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York)

BEACON, NY — Ascending and falling like mountain peaks, long and tall with delicate washes of pigment, Sam Gilliam’s “Double Merge” (1968) brings together two canvases with endless iterations.

Walking through the draped artwork — which hangs from the ceiling like a marionette — feels like swimming, or floating, through swathes of melting pastel shades. Depending on the angle from which you approach it, it seems like one long, connected canvas. But in reality, it is two 1968 paintings, both titled “Carousel II,” that have been brought together for the newly-christened “Double Merge.”

Sam Gilliam, “Double Merge” (1968), installation view (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Gilliam, who moved to Washington, DC as an adult by way of Louisville, Kentucky, is frequently associated with the Color Field painters of the Washington Color School. His career launched during a time when African American artists were often infatuated with and obliged to work with figuration, but his abstractions were in good company among the likes of Alma Thomas, Howardena Pindell, Frank Bowling, and Ed Clark. Regardless of figure and form (or lack thereof), the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements set the stage for the lives of these artists. In his paintings, Gilliam imbues the tragedy of Black death (some liken the peaks of his draperies to Klansman cloaks) and the kaleidoscopic potential of Black life.

“Double Merge,” in Gilliam’s signature style, calls to mind summer camp spin paintings and tie-dye. The combined works are Rorschach tests in rainbow hues; a cosmological laundry line with pastel dyes serendipitously merging and melding together, occasionally interrupted by more severe opaque splatters. The tent-like work, full of slow and sweeping motions, hangs in the balance of being whimsical and carnivalesque, but structurally and formally stunning.

Sam Gilliam, “Double Merge” (1968), installation view

Gilliam is best known for this technique; his defiance of the constrictive parameters of canvas stretchers yields works that are impossibly fluid, shifting, and changeable in their puckered folds. There are a million ways to look at and display them; these infinite works can be rehanged in unending fashions.

At Dia:Beacon, the gallery which houses “Double Merge” is quiet, long, and light-filled. A palpable sense of calmness hangs in the room. To stand directly underneath and gaze up at it, it overwhelms you with a sense of greatness and quietude. It is a visual meditation; it is art as therapy.

Sam Gilliam, “Double Merge” (1968), installation view

“Who is proud of the black artist in America?” Gilliam was once asked, in a 1973 interview with ARTnews.

“I am,” was his definitive response. “Even just the phrase black art is the best thing that has happened for the condition for black artists in America. It really calls attention to the number of major galleries in New York and museums around the world that had not shown, were not showing, were not willing to show any art by any black artist. Yet everyone has not come aboard, you know that. And there’s the same kind of tokenism as before.”

Sam Gilliam, “Double Merge” (1968), installation view

Spoken over four decades ago, Gilliam’s words have not lost their strength. While his “Carousel Change” (1970) is a centerpiece in the traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation — a group display that definitively maps out the contributions of Black artists in America from 1963-1983 — the scope of Gilliam’s career has not matched his innovation or contributions to abstraction, until recently. In 1972, Gilliam became the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. But it wasn’t until this July that he finally gained New York representation through mega-gallery Pace.

“I’m just getting started,” Gilliam told Jennifer Samet for Hyperallergic’s Beer with a Painter interview series just over three years ago. The artist — still brilliant and brimming with artistic talent — will celebrate his 86th birthday on November 30.

Sam Gilliam, “Double Merge” (1968), installation view

Sam Gilliam is on long-term view at Dia:Beacon (3 Beekman St, Beacon, NY). The display was organized by Courtney J. Martin, former Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Dia Art Foundation and present Director of the Yale Center for British Art.

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