Sam Gilliam - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, May 19, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "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.

    • Condition Report

    • Description

      View our Conditions of Sale.

    • Provenance

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

    • 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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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 

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Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 19 May 2022