OVER THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, Sam Gilliam has been increasingly recognized as one of the most innovative and groundbreaking painters to emerge in second half of the 20th century. His lyrical, color-soaked abstractions expand the definition of painting.

Practicing for more than six decades, Gilliam has had relative success throughout his career, yet he has never been represented by a New York gallery. That changed today when Pace Gallery announced its representation of the pioneering painter. New York-based Pace is representing Gilliam in collaboration with David Kordansky, the Los Angeles gallery he joined in 2012.

Gilliam, 85, lives and works in Washington, D.C., where he became associated with the Washington Color School more than half a century ago. By the mid- to late-1960s, he was experimenting with his canvases, presenting them in innovative new ways that distinguished him from his peers.

First, Gilliam wrapped his canvases on top of frames, creating what have become known as his Beveled-Edge paintings. Then he developed another unique treatment, removing the canvases from the stretcher entirely. He displayed these Drape paintings as sculptural forms, dramatically draping them suspended from ceilings, along walls, and over sawhorses.

It was the height of the civil rights era when Gilliam embraced abstraction, a time when African American artists were expected to express themselves through representation and figuration.

Gilliam charted his own path. The inventions he sought with his Beveled-Edge and Drape paintings were about more than form and process. As Pace notes: “Moving beyond an aesthetic proposition, this was also a way of defining art’s role in a society undergoing dramatic social change.”

HE’S HAD A STORIED CAREER. “Carousel Form II” (1969), one of his Drape paintings, covered the September/October 1970 issue of Art in America, which featured an article titled “Black Art in America.”

In 1972, Gilliam was the first African American artist to show his work at the Venice Biennale, where he was featured in a group show organized by Walter Hopps in the American Pavilion. Gilliam returned to the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, when he was represented in the international exhibition curated by Christine Macel. He contributed “Yves Klein Blue,” a large-scale nylon Drape painting.

In the intervening years, major museums presented solo exhibitions. Gilliam was the subject of shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1971), the Studio Museum in Harlem (1982), Whitney Museum of American Art at the Philip Morris Branch in New York (1993); Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. (1996), the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (2005), and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (2011).

When the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in his hometown in 2016, the lobby featured “Yet Do I Marvel.” The 28-foot site-specific commission by Gilliam is composed of five varnished wood panels.

Last year, “The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973” at Kunstmuseum Basel was the artist’s first solo museum survey in Europe. The show gathered some of Gilliam’s most fascinating work from public and private collections, including his Martin Luther King Jr., series and Yves Klein Blue, the Drape painting that appeared in Venice.

“Sam Gilliam has been a radical and influential artist since his works first appeared on the scene in the mid-60s.”
— Pace Gallery Founder Arne Glimcher

BORN IN TUPELO, MISS., Gilliam attended the University of Louisville where he earned a bachelor’s degree (1955) and MFA (1961). The following year he moved to Washington, where he continues to paint and innovate. His recent works include large-scale paintings on paper and wood.

“Sam Gilliam has been a radical and influential artist since his works first appeared on the scene in the mid-60s,” Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, said in a statement.

“Inventing the path by which the canvas was freed of its support, he transformed the possibilities of picture making internationally. Draping the canvases in space, they invoke natural phenomena, like experiencing the Aurora Borealis…folded, tied, and clinging to the wall like giant butterflies—Sam is relentless in his search for beauty.”

On Aug. 10, the Dia Art Foundation is opening an exhibition of Gilliam’s early work from the 1960s and 1970s. The long-term display at Dia:Beacon in Beacon, N.Y., presents the artist’s work alongside the permanent collection. According to Dia’s description, “this presentation situates his practice in dialogue with that of his Minimal and Postminimal peers, such as Robert Ryman (1930-2019) and Anne Truitt (1921-2004), who, like Gilliam, considered painting in an expanded form.”

Ryman is a fellow Pace artist and Truitt was also based in Washington, where she and Gilliam taught at the nearby University of Maryland at College Park. Their time in the art department overlapped under the tenure of David Driskell, who served as chair from 1978-1983.

With nine locations in the United States, Europe, and Asia, Pace represents nearly 90 artists. Gilliam is joining a roster that includes renowned painters Ryman, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and acclaimed African American artists Adam Pendleton and Fred Wilson. CT

 

IMAGES: Top of page, SAM GILLIAM, “10/27/69,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas, installation dimensions variable, approximate installation dimensions: 140 x 185 x 16 inches / 355.6 x 469.9 x 40.6 cm). | Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen Studio; Above right, Sam Gilliam portrait. | Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photography by Fredrik Nilsen Studio

 

FIND MORE Pace Founder Arne Glimcher spoke to the New York Times about the gallery’s representation of Sam Gilliam

 

BOOKSHELF
“The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973” was published to accompany Sam Gilliam’s recent exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel, his first solo survey in Europe museum. The volume features contributions from artists Rashid Johnson and Lynette Yiadom Boakye, among others. “Sam Gilliam: 1967-1973” documents the arist’s 2017 exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, his first solo show in New York in 25 years. “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” coincide with his 2005 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a survey of the artist’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, Serwer is chief curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Africa America History and Culture.

 


SAM GILLIAM, “Green April,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas, 98 x 271 x 3 7/8 inches / 248.9 x 688.3 x 9.8 cm). | Collection of Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photography by Lee Thompson

 

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