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“The Music of Color: Sam Gilliam, 1967–1973” is on view this summer at Kunstmuseum Basel through September 30, 2018. The abstract painter, known for his colorful, draped canvases, has lived and worked in Washington, D.C., since 1962. The show focuses on his “Drape” painting series, which he started in 1968. To understand more about this period in Gilliam’s career, we spoke with the director of Kunstmuseum Basel, Josef Helfenstein, who curated the show with Jonathan Binstock.
WHITEWALLER: Why did you want to focus on the period 1967–1973? Of what importance is this period of time in the artist’s practice?
JOSEF HELFENSTEIN: These were the years during which Sam Gilliam created his most radical works and had his first major exhibitions. Gilliam’s first solo exhibition of “Beveled-Edge” paintings, or “Slice” paintings, as they are also called, was at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., in 1967. The exhibition effectively launched Gilliam’s career. In 1972 he was the first African-American painter to represent the U.S.A. at the Biennale in Venice. It was between 1967 and 1973 that Sam Gilliam
met the Washington-based painter Tom Downing, who encouraged him to pursue his painterly experiments. Even more important, he met the legendary curator Walter Hopps, who was responsible for the exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1969, where Gilliam showed his “Drape” paintings for the
WW: This period of time also includes his “Martin Luther King” series and “Jail Jungle” series. How did these bodies of work address social and political issues of the time in America?
JH: Sam Gilliam barely ever comments on the political dimension of his art, or on how his African-American heritage plays a role in his work. Following the 1968 race riots in Washington, D.C., his relationship to the civil rights movement became guarded. His participation in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington was his last open political.
By giving these particular works such telling titles as April 4, Red April, or Green April, however, Gilliam distinguished his art from the formalism of a typically politically unbound modernist aesthetic. Another
important cycle of works is closely related to this issue and to the lively discussion about the definition of African-American art, which took place in the 1960s and ’70s. A lesser-known, though enthralling example of the complex relationship between the discourse on black subjectivity and abstract art is
Gilliam’s “Jail Jungle” series, and the series’ culmination in the extraordinary Composed (formerly Dark as I Am) of 1968–74. These composite, mixed-media works are overtly biographical expressions, a provocative response to the debates surrounding African-American cultural identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The “Jail Jungle” series and Composed are some of the most provocative and poignant self-portraits of the era.
WW: Why are Gilliam’s “Drape” paintings so singular?
JH: After a short period of working in the hard-edge style of Noland and other painters in Washington, Gilliam started using and developing the formal vocabulary of Color Field painting he experienced in Washington to his own ends. First, he created the “Beveled-Edge” paintings: He would stain the canvas with layers of acrylic paint, fold it, and let it dry on the studio floor or hanging from a wall. The creases then created patterns, structures somewhere between chance and control that altered the composition. The edge of the stretcher frame is mostly beveled toward the viewer, creating the impression that the monumental paintings are levitating in front of the wall, giving them a three-dimensional, object-like quality. In 1968 Gilliam took his engagement with the relation between painting, sculpture, and the exhibition space a step further. For his “Drape” paintings, Gilliam decided to abolish the stretcher frame completely. The luminous, colorful draped canvasses are free to float and billow through space, reminiscent of theater curtains. Major “Drape” paintings are not only sculptural but also architectural in that they create immersive, painterly environments. Gilliam added a performative aspect to his painting: The “Drape” paintings change and adapt to each exhibition space with every new installation.