PRINT September 1970

Sam Gilliam: Certain Attitudes

THE PRESUMPTIVE CATEGORIES “PAINTING,” and “sculpture” do not apply to the recent works of Sam Gilliam; nor do such otherwise useful hybrid terms as “shaped canvas,” or “combines.” The word “situation” seems appropriate, carrying as it does connotations of place or locality and also of conditions and circumstances that are only metaphorically spatial.

Draping painted canvas out into the space of a room came out of necessity and after a long period of experimentation. The form did not arise from the desire to devise a new type of art object, but out of the pressures of deeply felt visual, kinetic, tactile emotional experience. For a time, Gilliam actually seems to have resisted the urge to let the paintings move:

“. . . . but the point was that there is a tradition involved that you could not [ignore]. You know it’s hard for a painter to think in terms of sculpture. And after pushing it back and forth, I got very romantic about Baroque, you know, you think about Rubens’ S-curves . . . and the structural problems. But then this whole thing just does not matter—I don’t really think about it that way. I didn’t really want to be a sculptor. [He didn’t wish to look at sculpture or painting in terms of translating one into the other.] . . . but it I could just stay with it, and just be very thoughtful and let it happen, let it come kind of new, then I wouldn’t have to worry. A sculptor was in here one day and he said, ‘Well, all bad painters eventually become sculptors,’ and that really made me mad. But it was good kidding. It was good in the sense that then I began to discuss it more.”

He had experimented with the color and space effects of folding and rolling small watercolors for several years, then “. . . the idea just occurred to me as I was finding with the watercolors, . . . why not just remove the support, why don’t I use the form, let the form. This in the sense of trying to believe in the mate rials or the kind of tool s that I actually use and let them excite the kinds of possibilities, and not to get too mental, you know, about what’s really going on. Just to sort of sit back and observe what you’re doing as much as you can, you know—just work and let things go. So that I got this whole kind of idea of really sitting back and looking at curtains . . . and with the one here [one of the large Carousels] of actually going to the top [of the painting] and kind of breaking the frame and [thus] getting into the shape. Suddenly I felt myself constructing kinds of traverse rods and actually hanging the paintings, so that all these problems of trying to structure and of letting them move and create the kind of forms I really wanted [could be worked out that way]."

The process became too cumbersome with its pieces of wood, hardware, etc., and in order to get past those limitations he began to hang the fabric from nails driven into the studio wall and from beams and posts, eventually utilizing all the space of the studio. Once with canvas not yet stretched he went into Rock Creek Park and experimented with situating fifteen foot lengths of painted canvas in meadows or unfurling them down rock faces.

The painting process established several years ago continues to be employed, that is, pouring, soaking, mopping, scrubbing fluid paint onto and into the surface of the canvas. With any one canvas this is apt to take several days with the fabric allowed to dry, to be folded and wet down again, to be rolled, to be folded again, to be rolled out and more paint worked into it, sometimes from close to the floor, sometimes from various heights on a ten foot ladder.

“I made some little kind of cut out things that sort of draped and began to do [other] kinds of things, so that I said if I can try to do simply what my real instincts in terms of painting really are then this is what the vocabulary is. That possibly some kind of sculpture, you know, is important to this—the fold in the beginning, for example, to transform something into planes, into a dimensional kind of thing and then to flatten it out, and really stretch it, wet it down and get it tight and to establish that kind of illusion that artists have always been able to visualize—that kind of shadow world, the kind of space that you understand distinctly that you can’t walk into. But here [with the draped works] is something that you can walk into if you know how to present it.”

When there had been about thirty experiments worked out in the studio, each one photographed in each of its manifold states with an old Polaroid camera, and each the result not only of action but also of long periods of contemplation and “just looking,” Walter Hopps saw them and thought it was time for Gilliam to start working the ideas out directly in the space of the Corcoran where they were to be shown last fall. There were three large spaces allotted and of these the most exciting and challenging to Gilliam was the atrium.

“I really had a room that was like no other room—a kind of transparent room, so that I had to offer it on all four sides and it was also possible to be above and see that, and below and see that. I worried about that, you know, really just how it was going to be. And I had them slowly raise it from the bottom, and I got underneath it and looked, then had them bring it down again and begin to tie the bottom and do other things with it. Then I had the idea of actually involving two paintings, one of them a Carousel and the other a kind of Baroque cascade. I began to tie them in, and letting things develop so that going down one plane you would look down into this open kind of thing, actually operating with the whole space, keeping it all going, creating the same kind of diagonal pass and movement that I’d thought of earlier.”

The result with the atrium situation as well as with works in the other rooms of the Corcoran was astounding. The ceilings in that Greek temple of art are some 30 feet high and when the walls are hung with easel paintings, even large ones, one tends to move slowly from one work to the next, the perception of the space horse-blindered to the shape of the work one happens to be seeing now. But Gilliam’s “Baroque” assertions staked out a claim on the entire territory in such a fashion that every visible and tactile and kinetic element was drawn into an ensemble of compelling force. The classic vastness of the Corcoran galleries and corridors functioned as a positive architectonic structure rather than as a recessive, relegated background. This effect did not simply have to do with scale, though that was bold enough; between monumentality and bombast lies the world of meanings. It had to do with the use of color, of shape, of optical space and tactile space, and above all with the reciprocity of these with one another and with the introspected color and space these gave rise to.

Reciprocity seems to be a key not only to the works but to the processes by which they come into being. “Let it happen,” and “allow this thing to work,” are Gilliam’s most reiterated phrases. It is clear also from conversation and from observation of the artist at work that all of it is allowed at the same time—that at any given moment the work is full in its present state, and redolent with future possibilities. Every ensemble is understood to be one of many optional situations. What was in the Corcoran, what was in the Baltimore Museum was one situation for each fabric, which with (not in, with) other spaces will become another situation, having in common the native shape and color of the fabric.

I watched him working in the studio with a piece just returned from a museum show:

“I dropped it back of the wall there and I’m planning to come out just a little bit somehow over here if I can. What I really want to do is shift back and contrast. It’s easy to see a crossover, this is back here, and go back behind that and establish another kind of relationship with the plane—and that’s something that just occurred to me, so I think I’ll do it just to see it. Then once I get through the whole top kind of thing, I’ll want to come back and re-examine some things in terms of the floor and some way, very much the way that it’s painted. I have to start over again here in the studio [as in contrast to the space in Chicago where the work had formerly been displayed] and move around here. And what I really do is to say that I’ll start with the yellow paint here and I’ll walk around and like actually through that painting, and over here I’ll stop and then establish another eve/of contrast starting over here. And that somehow these kinds of movements are still involved as I’ve seen the painting, as I painted it, and, you know, that I’ve seen it on the floor. And I’ll think about that, because there is a familiar kind of space there, and it’s just a matter of finding ways to reintroduce these kinds of things. That since I’m going around, and that I’m remembering how I really painted it or thought about it is that there are these kinds of movements here, . . . the skips, the hit and miss and actually pulling the lines out. And once this is done, I know it’s not going to be on the floor; it’s going to be suspended, so that I relate to certain kinds of movements by pulling up and even possibly taking some of the painting over on the pulley at the right point and pulling up and climbing up on the ladder and pouring [paint] down, and that’s one kind of movement, then contrasting this because of the floor. [It’s] parallel to a kind of floor plane here, and that since [the painting] is mostly going to fall is that . . . these point s here are actually pouring down. An interesting thing I’d like to see is where I re-establish other kinds of point s as opposed to seeing these angle out [the ones just completed at the top], is to see them just kind of glide along here, which very much reminds me of the thing that happens along the bottom where you’re working with a kind of linear thing that goes on through the entire canvas. Then I’d like to establish kinds of counter-relationships to that so that you have a kind of abundance of things you could possibly do, if it occurs to you, in the sense of working with it. But the idea is that in terms of playing with it is actually to become as descriptive as possible about how I see.1 I mean this is how I conceive of making this work . . .” [I had the impression that both senses of the phrase, “making this work” were intended.]

There is an intimate acquaintance worked out between the artist and his fabric, in which the nature of the cloth becomes known to him—he continually experiments with linens, silks, cottons—how a fabric takes color, how it expands and contracts, how it behaves wet, how it looks dry, how the texture affects the tonal values, how the weight prescribes forms, and what mechanical operations can be worked upon it.

"I have an idea of taking the paintings down and painting them on both sides, of doing one series of color possibilities here and one there, so that when this [surface ] comes over there where it is now blank in a kind of shallow fold like that, there’s a different altitude offered altogether . . . I had to find out how tough a surface I really had to have in order not to get some kind of bleeding or discoloring . . . and it becomes descriptive eve n in the way that the nails are placed. . . . And I would conceive of transferring some of this into other pieces of material that I can sew and tie and actually make this thing work in terms of color. And there’s another kind of thing: to use actual points of color [attachment points with colored heads]—make a real mark [at those points] that would call attention to certain other kinds of things, like this variation that is going on all over here—to contrast or to pull in other elements . . . . And I want to try to continue to get the kinds of lines that are in the paintings, cutting into them [with scissors ] and getting a kind of action along that edge. To use the knots, to draw on the wall and to take in a bigger kind of contrast now that these are all soft and kind of floppy and anti-form to find out some ways of getting a hard quality. That’s why to concentrate on sewing and cutting. That’s one way to go back and actually to put a line in here.

“It’s so surprising—one of the students . . . in my class really made things with a sewing machine . . . but I was too busy to sew and besides, ‘That’s a sissy occupation,’ I thought. But I did get interested . . . Ed [the student] was willing to sew and we’d get together and sew, and you know the thread would break. We didn’t have enough tension on the thread, and I said, ‘Forget it, we’re painters anyway,’ and I said, ‘If I could only hire a seamstress or relate to them freely.’ So I went to the library and got a lot of old kind of Baroque drapery patterns. And I thought it would be kind of interesting to give it to a guy, if he thought I wasn’t kidding, and let him sew all this kind of beautiful lacy thing, and that kind of good structure. But I thought I would have to establish more of a reference, because that’s such an expense to pay some guy to make a pair of curtains of a painting. . . . I’m basically looking for a good craftsman, but it’ll come in time. It becomes quite interesting as a possibility, as a hard line, and I repeat, that’s the reason for a kind of stitch, to have that possibility of seeing it just really stay there and work as a painting and also to have this kind of [spatial] advance and to be able to consider it from both points of view, and it’s just an idea that works of having the actual weight of the fabric itself establish a point. . . . And if it is well placed, it always falls back. It’s been changed, it’s been moved, it’s been, you know, observed in those other ways, but then it falls back because it’s flexible in the beginning, it’s changeable, and that becomes important. . . . If there is something I am positive about it is the fact that once it’s de-stretched or unstretched it has its own variability, which is one of the reasons then for exploring not one kind of constant, dramatic rhythmic structure, but of actually establishing the possibilities for a number of effects, then to see how that something, although it is one kind of thing, that definitely it establishes its own kind of unlimited, universal qualities depending on how I address myself to the problem.”

Gilliam has been interested in variation of natural and artificial light as affecting both the apparent forms and the color, of the way lighting systems in various spaces will affect the total situation.

“You learn a lot about museum spaces. It is a real kind of contrast to see a painting like this hanging in a kind of domed place or anything that establishes an architectural contrast. This is interesting. . . . In the Baltimore Museum which is a much shallower space than the Corcoran I want to get it high so that even basketball players can walk under it, but it’s going to be close, and I still want to have it look deep. I want to get it as close to the floor as possible and then to have channels that you can look up into. There’s the possibility of coming from the top of the pillars in this kind of colonnade structure and then to really blast light up there. And the point of playing with that, of lighting it up and seeing it in some kind of show—the forms I’ve been exploring—is that later on it becomes a part of the artistic thing that I want to do. . . . And I’d like to see—to do—a dance with them. There’s this guy I know who started out as a painter but he says he’d like to [help me] do that. And I said to him, ‘That’s interesting,’ because one of the things, say, in looking at the old kind of African dances was to watch how that the mask was simply a kind of relationship, say, to a kind of structure. And this again comes back to a kind of reference to a wet garment [referring to an earlier discussion about the ”wet drapery“ technique of the last century] and that it’s exciting to build from both sides. This kind of mask flopping up and down and seeing what would happen if you put fans on to lighten up the drapery, and to have them work either independently or with the dancers. But I don’t know if I want to think that way. It may be the same kind of thing . . . as . . . [the decision] I of whether or not to make the paintings on stretchers or to unstretch them. Maybe in time, maybe if I get enough work done in a certain direction it may be nice to do it even just once.”

Color may be the most intuitive aspect of the process and the work considered as a whole. While there is apt to be competent technical discussion of pigments and vehicles and further of the discoveries of such men as Albers, ltten, Noland, and Davis, the best clue to implications beyond this is found chiefly in Gilliam’s phrase, “. . . to establish certain kinds of attitudes . . .” This suggests that effects of simultaneous contrast, density, sheen, transparency, optically effected “space ” and temperature are used to bear meaning and to evoke meaningful response. To be simpler : the color is employed expressionistically. Whatever purely formal merit the fabrics have (and that is considerable) is secondary to the direct fundamental metaphors which elude verbal translation.

To apprehend Gilliam’s “certain attitudes” is to effect what may be the most crucial juncture and the most resonant union between the exterior situation and the “real” object, and the introspected or “ideal” object. It is to realize these as contrasting positions of a continuum rather than as contrasts of “real” and “unreal.” The experience reinforces the sense of the realness of the imagination. Although in one sense Gilliam’s situations are re-presentations of “certain attitudes” they are not vicarious symbols only, but material information highly correspondent to the state of awareness of the artist—a state whose intensity, intimacy and complexity necessitates an extended vocabulary of color, shape, texture, brightness, motion and place.

LeGrace G. Benson



1. Merleau-Ponty, “. . . painting celebrates no other enigma but that of visibility. It can be said that the human being is born at the instant when some thing that was only virtually visible, inside the mother’s body, becomes at one and the same time visible both for itself and for us. The painter’s vision is a continued birth.”