New York

Sam Gilliam

Carl Solway Gallery

The taste for thickly painted paintings is epidemic; I just wish I could discover the responsive audience’s reaction to it. Only other artists seem to catch it, and even among those you might think are immune, their surfaces are becoming clotted with malignant growths of paint. Some are more advanced, more extreme than others: Humphrey, Torreano, Gorchov and Sam Gilliam paint works which appear thicker, uglier, and more degenerative than Olitski’s or Bannard’s. But this “radicalness” just makes it less possible for us to get excited by another painting “move.” Painting “moves” are fabricated attempts to push forward while working in a discredited style. Abstract painting of this kind goes from one empty emphasis to the next, everyone involved moving en masse, but in no special direction. Where are they being exposed to it? Do they all go to school somewhere, peek in each other’s studios at night, and wind up with the same affliction, which they wish to pass on to us?

Gilliam’s paintings have those thick, slanted, bevelled-edged frames which create an illusion that the paint is actually thicker than it is. (This thickness also points up the objectness of painting, this being the most maddening and fruitless emphasis at the present time.) Rather than just underscoring “surface,” the angled edge makes it appear as if Gilliam started out with a flat, unstretched piece of duck, and built it up like a mesa. But this is wrong, because in certain places, the surface is scraped to reveal duck directly underneath, up off the wall. These figures are euphemistically referred to as “structure” but they are so overcome by the surrounding paint that they cease to function as anything. What one attends to is the unnameable texture, the weird blacks, the tarry surface. It looks less built up than eaten away. The question is, how was it done? But that’s a red herring: the technical considerations cannot be revealed when all is surface, all effect.

So what is the point? You couldn’t say that Gilliam’s paintings were enjoyable and pleasing objects; I don’t think they’d look good anywhere, and a whole room of them is downright depressing. Perhaps Gilliam and his like-minded colleagues became tired of being “lyrical,” and decided that an antidote dose of darkness, opacity, moodiness bordering on the neurotic, might be a new ideal (“tragic” abstract field painting?). But the symptoms remain the same, however uningratiating these painting seem: the artists avoid the pictorial, avoid a wide range of expression, avoid deviating from the program, avoid anything deeper than the surface, anything that might engage the mind.

Jeff Perrone