PRINT December 2019

Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam, Double Merge, 1968, acrylic on canvas. Installation view, Dia:Beacon, NY, 2019. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio.

LIKE A PAIR OF ENORMOUS PAINT-SOAKED WINGS, Sam Gilliam’s Double Merge, 1968, beckons viewers to enter into the fold. Consisting of two monumental swaths of raw canvas that have been stained, dyed, splattered, and encrusted with paint in a brilliant range of hues and then suspended from ceiling beams in an undulating, contiguous form, Double Merge is at once painting and sculpture, performance and installation, act and artifact. It is also an example of how Gilliam, a pioneer of postwar abstraction associated with the Washington Color School, expanded painting’s rectilinear frame and put pressure on its dialectic of surface and form. In the late 1960s, he experimented with alternative modes of presenting his exquisite stains, eventually arriving at his distinctive thickly beveled stretchers and, most famously, suspensions of immense pigment-streaked scrolls. In homage to the cascading drapery that has entranced painters since the Renaissance, Gilliam’s Double Merge, along with his other drape paintings, responds to the mimetic representation of fabric with an engagement with the liquidity of form. An ecstasy of color, the canvas ebbs and flows like a soft, supple skin.

Gilliam pushed past the modernist tension between Minimalism’s site-specific awareness of space and Greenbergian essentialism by letting it all hang. Along with other innovative black abstractionists, including Al Loving, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten, he is finally getting his due now that the institutions of American art are belatedly acknowledging that artists of color were indispensable to their heroic trajectories. Gilliam’s work, in particular, attests to the radical transformation of art that occurred in tandem with civil rights struggles and other liberation movements of the ’60s. Unfurling from our radical past into our uncertain present, where they have been hung anew as part of Dia’s collection of visionary Minimalist art, Gilliam’s scrolls dare us to abandon our preconceptions of how things must be. Decades before the contemporary obsession with painting’s woven unconscious, Gilliam revealed the medium’s repressed “double consciousness” as surface and structure.

Each of the skeins that make up Double Merge is titled Carousel II, as if the blur of colors streaming across the canvases might elicit the experience of spinning around and around at a fairground. The massive paintings do seem to be in motion, curtains in the midst of being drawn back from a theatrical stage. They underscore the medium’s performative potential. And like the mythical Oreads, who “had music written on scrolls, in all the colours of the rainbow,” Gilliam’s paintings soar toward divinity without ever forgetting their provenance on the studio floor. 

On long-term view. 

Ara Osterweil is a writer, painter, and professor of world cinema and cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal.