“He makes works I can’t get next to and can’t get out of,” writes poet Fred Moten about the iconic DC-based artist Sam Gilliam. In an essay for the monograph accompanying Gilliam’s upcoming exhibition at Pace, Existed Existing — the artist’s first with the gallery — Moten describes his work as a “maelstrom, an irresistible whirlpool.” For six decades, Gilliam’s colors have swirled on canvases, his practice levitating above categorizations.
Starting November 6, Pace’s two Chelsea locations will present the artist’s large-scale canvases beside monochromatic paintings on Japanese washi paper, which are made by repeated drenchings in color to create deep saturation. Speaking to art historian Courtney J. Martin, Gilliam describes these works, perhaps coyly, as “nothing more than a print,” as “placeholders” of sorts. In the work and how he speaks about it, a sense of play exists inseparably from the artist’s rigor and stamina.
The show will also include a new series of parallelograms, pyramids, and circle works made from stained plywood and aluminum, which evolved from Gilliam’s exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2018. There he observed the city’s growing population of African immigrants, and was inspired to revisit ancient African architectural forms. Many of these works feel like portals, like reverberations — his new shapes conjure Kenneth Noland’s Concentric Circle Series (1958-61) and the textured triangle of Jack Whitten’s “Homage to Malcolm” (1970). Whitten (1938-2018) was a friend of Gilliam, and both artists featured in the recent survey Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.
Music is a continued presence in Gilliam’s work. In a new interview, he tells curator Hans Ulrich Obrist that “Music was that presence that established a reservoir of thought in me that allowed me to build, to enjoy, to be free.” The two speak of Coltrane and, of his process, Gilliam describes it less as folding; it’s more a matter of “orchestrating the canvas.” His dreamy 1971 painting “Lady Day” was inspired by the singer Billie Holiday and, in Existed Existing, Gilliam references jazz musician Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) in “Black Mozart/ORNETTE” (2019) and pays homage to Beyoncé in a large canvas. The work is part of Gilliam’s new suite of paintings, which range from six-by-eight feet to eight-by-twenty feet and also include tributes to the late Senator John Lewis and the athlete Serena Williams. These dense canvases, textured by studio debris, are marked by Gilliam’s movements as he wields color and surface with brush, knife, and rake.
“Keep moving,” Gilliam advises, and indeed his sustained practice follows his own directive in its evolution. While the artist tells Martin that his new work does not relate to his previous work, one can’t help but construct Gilliam’s art as relational. His deep constellations of color, music, and material always exert a tangible relationship to space and the body of the viewer. At Pace, Gilliam has created what he calls a “dance” between three new bodies of work on the ground and on the walls; the exhibition intentionally choreographs an installation that asserts freedom and openness. Indeed, Gilliam defines art as “possibility,” making it fitting that the relationships one sees and experiences in his work are not singular, but always expansive.
Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing opens November 6 at Pace Gallery (540 and 510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) and will remain on view through December 19.