Sam Gilliam - Empty


FEATURED AMONG HIS CONTEMPORARIES, Sam Gilliam experienced a career milestone on Nov. 11. When his work “Empty,” a riot of color painted in 1972 (shown above), came up for auction, it not only exceeded expectations, it sold for more than 10 times the high estimate.

Lot No. 228 at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Morning Session in New York, the acrylic on canvas painting was estimated to sell for $18,000-$22,000. When the hammer dropped, the winning bid was a whopping $260,000 ($317,000 including fees), a career record for Gilliam’s work.

In a fall auction week that saw eight-figure records for the likes of Frank Stella (“Delaware Crossing,” 1961 at Sotheby’s for $12 million), Cy Twombly (“Untitled,” 1968 at Sotheby’s for $70.53 million), and Roy Lichtenstein (“Nurse,” 1964 at Christie’s for $95.4 million), Gilliam’s achievement barely registers. But in the winter of his career (Gilliam turns 82 on Nov. 30), it is an important moment in what has been upward trajectory for the African American artist over the past few years.

Gilliam’s achievement is an important moment in what has been upward trajectory for the artist over the past few years.

BORN IN TUPELO, MISS., Gilliam lives and works in Washington, D.C. Associated with the Washington Color School, Gilliam is known for his Color Field paintings and most notably for removing the stretcher supports from his color-washed, abstract canvases, creating draped, sculptural works with his paintings.

His work has been exhibited around the world, is represented in major museums, and graced the cover of the September/October 1970 edition of Art in America magazine. While well-regarded, Gilliam’s work is often described as “under-appreciated.” The Corcoran Gallery of Art mounted a Gilliam retrospective in 2005 that traveled to Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. In 2011, the Phillips Collection and the Katzen Arts Center at American University also exhibited his work.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when Gilliam joined David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, that the art market appreciation for his work began to take a marked turn. In 2013, Rashid Johnson another gallery artist who is in his 30s, asked Gilliam if he could curate an exhibition of his early works. The result was “Hard-Edged Paintings: 1963-1966,” Gilliam’s debut exhibition with the gallery.

It was a meaningful collaboration for both of the African American artists. “Exhibition curator Rashid Johnson has focused on this lesser-known period as a way of shedding light on the full scope of Gilliam’s achievement,” the Kordansky press release noted. “The exhibition is therefore an opportunity to see the early paintings of a major figure through the eyes of a young artist who himself has recently emerged as a leading voice of his generation.”

Since, the Wall Street Journal, W magazine, the New York Times T Magazine, and the Washington City Paper, among others, have written about Gilliam. In January, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Gilliam with State Department’s first-ever Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. In April, one of his works, a large floor painting executed using a “soak-stain” technique, marked a career record when it sold at Swann Galleries in New York for $197,000 (including fees), about three times the high estimate.

Last month, Kordansky devoted its entire booth at Frieze Masters in London to Gilliam. According to reporting by Bloomberg News, there were six paintings on view and three of them sold on the first day.

Now Gilliam has achieved a second career record in a year, surpassing the price garnered at Swann with the high value reached by “Empty.” Meanwhile, another painting by Gilliam appeared in the Christie’s sale on Nov. 11: “Opening,” a 1965 work executed in the same “hard-edged” style of the works featured in the Kordansky exhibition curated by Johnson. “Opening” sold for $161,000 (including fees), another remarkable showing given its high estimate was just $22,000. CT


TOP IMAGE: Lot 228: SAM GILLIAM, “Empty,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas). | Estimate $18,000-$22,000. Sold for $317,000 (including fees) at Christie’s New York on Nov. 11, 2015.


Described as the first in-depth book devoted to Gilliam’s practice, “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” was published to coincide with the career overview mounted by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005. The volume “explores four decades of work and establishes the artist’s place in the history of post-1960s art.”


sam gilliam - opening  - 1965
Lot 227: SAM GILLIAM, “Opening,” 1965 (acrylic on canvas). | Estimate $18,000-$22,000. Sold for $161,000 (including fees) at Christie’s New York on Nov. 11, 2015.


sam gilliam - 2378-94
Lot 94: SAM GILLIAM (1933 – ), “Untitled,” 1969 (acrylic on cotton canvas). | Estimate $40,000 – $60,000. Sold for $197,000 (including fees) at Swann Galleries in New York on April 2, 2015.


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