At 87, groundbreaking American abstractionist Sam Gilliam has reached the pinnacle of his career with a spate of international exhibits and prices sometimes topping the million-dollar mark. Following a high-profile exhibit at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2018, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., will present a major retrospective in spring 2022. This past fall, the artist added the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to his long list of museum collections.
In October the museum announced the acquisition of “Mazda” (1970), an early drape painting featuring multiple folds of canvas in rich shades of red, purple and blue overlaid with streaks of bright yellow. Measuring more than 11 feet tall and 7.5 feet wide, the piece cascades symmetrically down the wall from a central hanger like a rainbow-hued cape.
Gilliam’s drape paintings were a major innovation within the sphere of the Washington Color School, a group of abstractionists known for their use of pouring and staining that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s in Washington, D.C. The original group, which included Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Gene Davis, quickly expanded with artists including Gilliam and Alma Thomas joining them in exhibitions.
Gilliam’s radical contribution was to abandon painting’s traditional canvas stretcher bars and rectilinear format in favor of pouring and staining color on unstretched canvas, which he suspended from gallery walls or ceilings.
Through the years, Gilliam’s draped works have been hailed for their “performative aspect” and for standing among the earliest examples of installation art. In a 1973 interview with “ARTnews,” the artist demonstrated his deep immersion in the issues of abstraction at that time, but also spoke of the importance of “things I saw in my own environment — such as clotheslines filled with clothes with so much weight that they had to be propped up.”
Gilliam’s introduction of his draped works occurred at a fraught time in American culture. “For an African American artist in the nation’s capital at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, this was not merely an aesthetic proposition,” notes an essay on the Pace Gallery website, “it was a way of defining art’s role in a society undergoing dramatic change.”
Before and after his creation of “Mazda,” Gilliam improvised endlessly on his staining and draping concept, animating entire rooms in full-size gallery installations, including one at Dia Beacon in Beacon, New York. He also effected dramatic transformations of entire buildings by draping their facades, as he did at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017. In “Carousel,” a 1969 piece in the collection of the Walker Art Center, the folds at rest in “Mazda” evidence an earlier life, unfurled like the wings of a bird in glorious flight across the ceiling.
Over the years, the workings of gravity combined with a gestural élan in presentation have been a constant in Gilliam’s production. And like the jazz he listens to in the studio, the work embodies a thoroughgoing rejection of rigidity and an embrace of improvisation.