Sam Gilliam - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, May 19, 2022 | Phillips
  • "The whiteness of the painting makes it easier to see what’s there, makes the other colors more present and more dynamic. What you see and discover through the white surfaces of the paintings appears to be looking at you, peeking through this white finish."
    —Sam Gilliam

    Originally commissioned for the Pisces Club in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. by the former director of the Corcoran Gallery, Aldus Chapin, Sam Gilliam’s Shimmering Pisces, 1976, is a striking and monumental example of the artist’s renowned minimalist paintings, which reflect the artist’s “ongoing pursuit of the perfect white painting.”i Combining his advancements in brushless painting techniques from his previous bodies of work with a newfound interest in collage, Gilliam’s so-called white paintings are an extraordinary testament to the artist’s constant pursuit of innovation. Depicting a top layer of white acrylic and collage material, the rich background of bold colors underneath, stained into the canvas itself, only reveals itself upon close inspection. The white paintings feature a level of restraint that distinguishes them from Gilliam’s earlier work; while his soak-stained canvases of the 1960s were vivid and conspicuous, these works are understated and subtle.


    Sam Gilliam in his studio in the 1980s, Image: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images, Artwork: © Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Fields of Color


    Having moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962, Gilliam was influenced by the Washington Color School artists such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. In an effort to differentiate themselves from the New York School brand of Abstract Expressionism, the Washington Color School artists experimented with a variety of brushless painting techniques, including staining unprimed canvases with washes of color, and wrinkling and folding canvases before and after applying paint to them. Gilliam began experimenting with these techniques in the mid to late 1960s by pouring paint directly onto unstretched canvases to create stunning, abstract fields of color. Conceived in the early 1970s, the white paintings build upon these early explorations, while adding a new element: a layer of collage and acrylic impasto. Beginning with the same process—pouring paint onto an unstretched canvas and allowing the paint to stain the canvas—he then paints over the vibrant sub-layer of color with a thick, textured layer of white acrylic paint and pieces of canvas collage. The result is a backdrop of splendid colors hidden behind a textural layer of white. Concealing its vibrancy, the painting invites the viewer to look closely at the complexity of its layers and the harmonies created by the variety of color beneath the surface. Hiding behind the outer crust of snow-white, the rich, bold colors of the sub-stratum are more arresting than ever.


    Morris Louis, Alpha-Pi, 1960. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2022 Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Rights Administered by Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, All Rights Reserved


    Beveled-edge Paintings


    Stretched out over two custom supports with beveled edges, Shimmering Pisces extends out from the wall into the viewer’s space. Part of an experiment that began in 1967 and seen throughout the rest of Gilliam’s career, the beveled-edge paintings are considered a major contribution to the history of abstract and minimalist painting.ii The effect of the technique is that the works seem to simultaneously sink into the wall, and project out from it towards the viewer, acting as both painting and sculpture. The diptych nature of the present work emphasizes its three-dimensional elements. Whether hung side-by-side, or on top of one another, the two canvases in Shimmering Pisces transform any space they inhabit. Like his famous drape paintings, the beveled-edge paintings distinguish Gilliam from his Washington Color School contemporaries as a relentless innovator, pushing the boundaries of what abstract art can be. As Jonathan P. Binstock writes, “Gilliam has always remained open to the idea that abstraction’s potential, both visual and conceptual, is limitless.”iii


    i Jonathan P. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005, p. 104.
    ii Adrienne Edwards, “Sam Gilliam: Betwixt,” Sam Gilliam: 1967-1973, exh. cat., Mnuchin Gallery, New York, 2017, pp. 7-8.
    iii Jonathan P. Binstock, Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005, p. 15.

    • Provenance

      Aldus Chapin (commissioned for the Pisces Club, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1978


Shimmering Pisces

indistinctly inscribed on the reverse of the right canvas
acrylic and canvas collage on beveled edge canvas, diptych
each 48 x 90 in. (121.9 x 228.6 cm)
Executed circa 1975.

Full Cataloguing

$250,000 - 350,000 

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 19 May 2022