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

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  • 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.

  • Artist Biography

    Sam Gilliam

    American • 1933

    “At Age 84, ‘Living Legend’ Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet” – so read the headline of a January 2, 2018 artnet article covering the all-time high of Sam Gilliam’s critical and market attention. More than 40 years years since Gilliam became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Bienniale in 1972, the abstract painter’s career has been catapulted to widespread acclaim. In 2016, a major new commission, Yet I Do Marvel, debuted in the lobby of the highly anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture in his hometown of Washington, DC, and in 2017 he made his return to the Venice Biennale with his brilliantly colored, unstretched canvas Yves Klein Blue that welcomed visitors to the Giardini’s main pavilion. Most recently, his work has been included in Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, the landmark exhibition organized by the Tate Modern, London, that will travel to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles after closing at the Brooklyn Museum in February 2019.

    Gilliam’s innovations from the late 1960s and early 1970s cemented his reputation as one of the most preeminent artists associated with the Washington Color School. Characteristically pushing his medium to its very limits, Gilliam experimented with color, process and materiality like earlier Color Field artists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, but took a radically different path in his dismantling of the canvas stretcher. He first rose to fame in the late 1960s with his drape paintings, which came out of his experiments with unsupported canvases – works he said were partly inspired by watching women hang laundry on clotheslines from his studio window in Washington, DC. In 1967, he began creating his slices, or bevelled-edge paintings, which saw him pour paint onto unstretched and unprimed canvases and then fold and crumple the fabric before stretching it on a frame. Since then, he has produced considerable bodies of work, ranging from geometric collage, etchings, watercolors, and quilted paintings to more recent forays into computer generated images and assemblage.

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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
[email protected]

New Now

New York Auction 27 February 2019