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A MUST-READ PROFILE of Sam Gilliam published last week in The Washington Post, begins with a quote from the artist about him being “outlandishly famous.” The comment is meant to be facetious, but is actually not too far off base when one considers the recent trajectory of his practice weighed against periods of his career that garnered less attention.

Today, “Green April,” a critically lauded exhibition of his work is on view at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles. He is breaking records at auction. Two of the most important museums in the country have recently acquired his work. And, a landmark public art installation by Gilliam will debut when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in September.

Gilliam, 2014 Early on, Gilliam, 82, distanced himself from his figurative roots and embraced abstraction defined by his deft relationship with color. It was the 1960s and his recognition was tempered by expectations of what African American artists should be producing at the height of the civil rights era. Undaunted, Gilliam forged on. Associated with the Washington Color School, he distinguished himself by introducing innovative techniques to his work, including beveled canvases and draped paintings without stretcher frames.

In the Post article, Geoff Edgers writes:

    “There are theories in art, just like in music,” [Gilliam] explains. “You switch from Little Jimmy Dickens to Bob Dylan and Miles Davis to Art Blakey.”

    “Integrating of classical music and jazz, that’s the same thing you do in painting,” Gilliam continues. “From the floor to the wall. Hanging from the ceiling. You just restructure what you do in terms of its history.”

    Here he pauses and laughs.

    “That’ll get you in a lot of trouble.”

    Again, he’s joking but behind that joke is a kind of truth. “Trouble” may be a way of saying “less marketable.”

BORN IN TUPELO, MISS., Gilliam’s family moved to Kentucky when he was 9. He attended the University of Louisville where he earned a bachelor’s degree (1955) and MFA (1961). The following year he moved to Washington, D.C., where he still lives and works.

Despite the “trouble,” over the decades, he has been successful by any measure. “Carousel Form II,” one of his draped canvases, covered the September/October 1970 issue of Art in America, which featured an article titled “Black Art in America.” In 1972, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. He exhibited around the world, and his work was purchased by private collectors and museums. Later, health issues slowed his creativity and production. Then, Gilliam’s health matters were resolved and a few years ago, articles about his “rediscovery” and “comeback” began to appear.

The timing coincided with his representation by a new gallery. Gilliam and David Kordansky first met in 2012. The next year, Rashid Johnson, a rising art star who is also represented by Kordansky, curated “Hard-Edge Paintings 1963-1966,” an exhibition of Gilliam’s work at the Los Angeles gallery. More than four decades his junior, Johnson wanted to pay homage to his older counterpart. Then in 2014, Kordansky featured Gilliam’s work in the gallery’s booth at the Frieze New York art fair. Rather than new works, he presented paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“This was one of the ways we began to reshape his position within the art world,” Kordansky told the Post. “By simply retelling the story. It’s an incredible story, and you can’t devalue the story. The story is powerful enough to shape the perception of his work within the art world.”

“This was one of the ways we began to reshape his position within the art world. By simply retelling the story. It’s an incredible story, and you can’t devalue the story. The story is powerful enough to shape the perception of his work within the art world.” — David Kordansky, The Washington Post

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SAM GILLIAM, “Leaf,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas). | Photography by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery

 

TWO MAJOR MUSEUMS, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired Gilliam’s work in 2014. The Met now has two Gilliams, adding “Whirlirama,” to “Leah’s Renoir,” which the museum acquired in 1979. MoMA already owned four of his paintings, brought into the collection between 1969 and 1979, when it purchased “10/27/69.” The 1969 work is currently on view in the museum’s Painting and Sculpture II gallery.

Last year, Kordansky devoted its entire booth at Frieze Masters in London to Gilliam. According to Bloomberg News, six paintings were exhibited and three of them sold on the first day of the fair. Then in November 2015, Gilliam’s work “Empty,” a riot of color painted in 1972, sold at Christie’s New York for $317,000 (including fees). A career record for the artist, the lot not only exceeded auction expectations, it sold for more than 10 times the high estimate.

“Green April,” Gilliam’s solo exhibition at Kordansky is on view through Saturday.

According to the gallery, the show “focuses on works executed during a crucial period in the artist’s development, one in which he began to make the iconic Beveled-edge and Drape paintings for which he is best known. These works feature a number of striking formal advances, but their radicality also hinges upon the fact that they were made in dialogue with the profound social shifts that were taking place at the time. Most of the works on view have remained in Gilliam’s studio since their creation and have never before been exhibited.”

After more than half a century in Washington, it seems fitting that Gilliam’s latest work will be unveiled on the National Mall. The Post describes the installation at the Smithsonian’s African American museum as a 28-foot, five-paneled work that represents the latest shift in his practice. “The vibrant wooden panels [are] varnished as deliciously as Icelandic glaciers,” Edgers writes. CT

 

“Green April” is on view at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles through July 16.

 

IMAGES: Top, Installation view, SAM GILLIAM, “Green April,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas). | Photo by Brian Forrest; Above right, Sam Gilliam, 2014. | Photography by Stephen Frietch. Both courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
“Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” was published in 2005 to accompany an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that surveyed Sam Gilliam’s then four-decade career. Described as “the first in-depth book devoted to this major figure,” the volume includes forewords by Walter Hopps and Jacqueline Serwer, who was chief curator of the Corcoran at the time. Currently, she serves as chief curator a the Smithsonian’s forthcoming National Museum of Africa America History and Culture.

 

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Installation view of SAM GILLIAM, “Green April” at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (June 4-July 16, 2016). | Photography by Brian Forrest, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

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Installation view of SAM GILLIAM, “Green April” at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (June 4-July 16, 2016). | Photography by Brian Forrest, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

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Detail of SAM GILLIAM, “Leaf,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas). | Photography by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

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Installation view of SAM GILLIAM, “Green April” at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (June 4-July 16, 2016). | Photography by Brian Forrest, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

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Detail of SAM GILLIAM, “Green April,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas). | Photography by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

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Installation view, from left, SAM GILLIAM, “Change,” 1970, and “One On,” 1970 (both acrylic on canvas). | Photography by Brian Forrest. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

 

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Installation, “Rose Rising,” 1968 (acrylic on canvas). | Photography by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery