Sam Gilliam - New Now New York Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Provenance

    Hom Gallery, Washington D.C.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1989

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Before painting, there was jazz. I mean cool jazz. Coltrane. Ornette Coleman, the Ayler brothers, Miles Davis. It’s something that was important to my work, it was a constant. You listened while you were painting. It made you think that being young wasn’t so bad.” - Sam Gilliam

    Sam Gilliams’s So They Can, is a stellar example of the artist’s celebrated color-field paintings. Painted in 1966, this work marks a turning point in the development of the artist’s technique, in which he moved away from a strict linearity and towards a freer compositional structure. Treating his acrylic like watercolor and his canvas like paper, the materials coalesce into a united expressive element. Being recognized for his unparalleled depiction of abstract forms, Gilliam was honored a year later by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., with his first solo exhibition, signifying the breakout of his career.

    Displaying a full range of hues, So They Can exemplifies Gilliam’s adoration of color and ability to synchronize seemingly disparate pigments. The bright blues and vibrant yellows of the composition bleed together in the center to form a radiant green. This application of paint simultaneously exhibits both an effortless randomness and a refined control that conjures a sense of immediate action from within the canvas. As the rhythm of jazz music sways the listener, Gilliam’s composition fluidly guides its spectators throughout the work. The pools of luminous jewel tones of dark blue and deep orange catch the viewers’ eye, creating a tension between the corners of the canvas as they act dynamically to draw the viewers into the work.

    Associated with the Washington Color School but even more of a maverick, Gilliam pursued a deeply personal and more radical aesthetic. Directly related to, Light Fan, 1966, held in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., So They Can similarly displays the seminal transition from strict geometry to a more organic compositional structure. This shift towards a non-hierarchical composition of color and form became Gilliam’s signature style and culminated in his drape paintings, which abandon structure and line altogether. At a time when artists, particularly artists of color, were more or less expected to create politically oriented material, Gilliam consciously rejected to conform. He instead praised the idea that “art is at least as important as politics when it comes to creating new ways of thinking about society and moving it forward” (Johnathan P. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: a retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 11). By committing to radical abstract art and avoiding political content, Gilliam believed that he could have a more compelling role in society. Embodied in the expressive manifestation of its abstract aesthetic, So They Can carries limitless potential for conceptual experiences and interpretations.


So They Can

signed, titled and dated "So They CaN, "66" Sam Gilliam" on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 in. (91.4 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1966.

$120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for $125,000

Contact Specialist
Sam Mansour
Associate Specialist, Head of New Now Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1219

New Now

New York Auction 27 February 2019