ALTHOUGH the more-than-a-half-century career of abstract painter Sam Gilliam was universally recognized and expansive in its reach, his studio and home were in Washington, D.C., which the art world was late to recognize as a place for innovative art and shape-shifting artists. Despite the history surrounding the genesis and development of the Washington Color School—chronicles that include such luminaries as critic Clement Greenberg and painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland—the reputation of the nation’s capital for nurturing leading-edge visual artists pales in comparison to cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. And yet Sam Gilliam’s groundbreaking creations, from his draped canvases to his acrylic-laden structures, cannot be separated from the town that, until recently, was euphemistically referred to as Chocolate City, a setting with an idiosyncratic, generative mixture of bureaucratic precedent, cosmopolitan rapprochement, and African American artistry.
During a 1993 conversation with Adrian Piper, Gilliam conveyed that fundamental to his Washington-based practice was “a sense of the importance of process, of change, of the importance of difference itself, a freedom to take command and work from one’s own ideas.”1 That it was conceivable from this mid-Atlantic outpost to reconceive painting’s raw materials—woven fabric, hard and/or porous surfaces, latex media, and other liquid polymers—and transform them into something of consequence that would distinguish Gilliam and his work from the art world’s gravitations, circa 1969, toward sculpture, photography, and Conceptualism, was particularly noteworthy, especially at a moment when painting was widely considered antiquated. What emerged was a succession of multidimensional, paint-driven ideas: monumental, pigment-stained colloquies with space and the built environment; bevel-edged and polygonal forms thickly covered with unguent compounds; puzzle-like, post-Mondrian monochrome constructions; and high-gloss coated geometries evoking both Josef Albers’s Homages and Gilliam’s own mid-’60s Color Field paintings.
All of Gilliam’s art, in spite of its changes over decades, brought viewers into proximity to surfaces that, whether saturated, layered, or patterned vis-à-vis augmented pigments, underscored a material dimension and, ultimately, the artist’s aptitude for radically remaking painting. An infrequently discussed aspect of Gilliam’s abstractions is their connotative potential, where artworks’ titles, Gilliam’s painterly applications, or even particular colors might fly in the face of an assumed inscrutability. While Gilliam generally avoided overt references to implied narratives or topical subjects, he wasn’t completely removed from social realities in his artistic outlook, a state of consciousness that, living and working in a politically fraught, Black-majority city, he could not avoid. His answer to this conundrum between abstraction’s a priori reticence and its allusive possibilities was a deep dive into color, not as a scientific exercise or surrogate for social messaging, but as an improvisatory, expressive vehicle that under his and the art medium’s aegis could hold viewers’ attentions and transport them to ecstatic heights or emotional pits. Sam Gilliam’s career-long objective for the paint to be “part of the same space that we inhabit” is his indelible mark on modern art and the important legacy he leaves behind.2
Richard J. Powell is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University.
1. Adrian Piper, “Introduction,” New Observations no. 97 (September/October 1993, a special issue on the theme of color), 4.
2. Ibid, 2.