Sam Gilliam - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, November 12, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    “And what really shocked me is that I had never thought about sculpture at all…the interesting thing is that, since that point…I haven’t forgotten it. And that’s what led to the draped paintings; I mean, trying to produce a work that was about both painting and sculpture.” Sam Gilliam

    Sam Gilliam has consistently pushed the possibilities of painting and upended the hierarchy of medium on flat (rectangular) substrate to encompass more minimal, and more maximal, modes of expression. Perhaps seemingly incongruous at first glance, the arc of his oeuvre is best understood as a means by which Gilliam has explored how to make a painting which exists in more ways than simply plain paint on canvas - and after his encounter with Kenneth Noland also to exist at once purely as a painting and also as a sculpture. Blue from the seminal period of 1970 is a superb example of Gilliam’s creative power – a shaped canvas, but without the support of a stretcher, fully imbued with coloration that serves both as medium and message.

    By 1970, Gilliam had abandoned the hard-edged abstraction which had first garnered critical acclaim; gone beyond his Beveled paintings which served to solidly establish his interest in the sculptural nature of painting; and had arrived at the idea of the drape painting which perfectly embodied all that he was attempting to accomplish in his work. The performative nature of his style of minimalism and the manner in which these pieces fill the room, bring a wonderful maximalist quality to the work, and do so in an elegantly simple manner. Blue exists as a star-shaped canvas permeated with a rich chromatic array ranging from periwinkle blue to coral pink, intense vermilion and soft sunny yellow. The all-over composition is enveloping and defies a singular focal point. Unlike a drape which hangs from the ceiling, Blue is mounted to the wall and with its irregular cut-outs and rough edges self-evidences its creation by Gilliam’s hands. Whereas the flowing quality of the color defies, even denies, the artist’s hand, the physical, sculptural, nature of the composition reinvests the work with the artist’s presence.

    In the course of his over six-decade long career there has been perhaps only one other artist to so radically explore the nature of the medium in the same fashion as Gilliam. Frank Stella’s own evolution from hard-edged abstractionist to maximalist sculptor may seem as incongruous as Gilliam’s until one understands and acknowledges the common thread driving the practice. Gilliam, like Stella, was never satisfied to churn out repetitive works of the same nature, instead developing and exploring all of the various avenues on which his creative energies would alight. Blue, in its visual beauty, structural intrigue, and overall impressions perfectly encapsulates the best aspects of Gilliam’s practice.

  • 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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signed, titled and dated "Blue 1970 Sam Gilliam" on the reverse
acrylic on unstretched, shaped canvas
installation dimensions variable
flat 65 x 69 in. (165.1 x 175.3 cm.)

Executed in 1970.

$250,000 - 350,000 

Contact Specialist
John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th C. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 13 November 2019