Long Term View
New York CityFLAG Art Foundation
Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper
June 6, 2019 – August 16, 2019
At its very core, the intrinsic value of art—which can be disruptive, unpredictable, and at the very least challenging—has tremendous transformative and healing incentives. Whether it occurs at the first encounter or over time, the implications for the viewer, be they formal or emotional, are simultaneously simple and complex, generous and demanding. Eluding easy categorizations has been at times disadvantageous to Sam Gilliam’s consistent visibility, perhaps due as much to our social and political context as to changes in aesthetic or taste. Gilliam has always done one thing throughout his career: be perpetually subversive by constantly erupting the delineating line that divides the visual world of painting from the world outside. By persisting in his pursuit of endless possibilities in expanding the language of abstraction, in his hand, the idiom of the so-called soak-stain technique and Color Field painting have been liberated into the realm of true invention and pleasure. On the occasion of Gilliam’s two exhibits, Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper at the FLAG Art Foundation and Sam Gilliam (early works from the 1960s and 1970s) on long-term view at Dia:Beacon, as well as joining Pace Gallery as his New York representation, Rail editor-at-large Tom McGlynn took a trip to visit the artist at his home/studio in Washington, D.C. The following is an edited version from a longer conversation that took place in the studio a few weeks ago.
Tom McGlynn (Rail): You went to the University of Louisville on a scholarship and graduated with a B.A. in fine art in 1955. Then, after having served in the U.S. Army for two years (1956 to 1958) you went back again to the University of Louisville for graduate school.
Sam Gilliam: That’s right. And before I was in the service, I was in the ROTC program (The Reserve Office Training Corps), and at that time you either stayed in the ROTC and were commissioned as an officer to do your service or left. I decided to go back into painting which meant that I was again eligible to be drafted. One of the good things about the University of Louisville was that most of the professors had come from Europe, and in particular Germany, as émigrés fleeing from Nazi Germany and World War II. For example, Edgard Pillet who was a Parisian designer, painter, sculptor, printmaker, and a tapestry designer, among other things, and Charles Crodel, a printmaker and very important stained glass window designer from the Bavarian State Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. I in fact did my thesis with Crodel, who even though he was known for his stained glass window design, conceptually believed more in drawing in regard to constructing planes and then building volumes. His method of teaching figure drawing was first, for example, to draw a silhouette and then determine the volume by layers of cross strokes, and that was within the tradition of drawing that I learned. I soon realized that a painter like Tintoretto did the same; creating flat back planes before moving—
Rail: The figures around on the plane, we can even think of Man Ray’s The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with her Shadows (1916) as a good example of synthetic cubism.
Gilliam: Yes, it’s so modern: there’re always blocks of back planes, and different pushes of colors on large areas, like the sky, against small areas, like the draperies’ elongated figure, and so on, which together is what makes an interactive composition. One of the jobs I had as a student was to show slides for all the teachers and their classes, which gave me a choice of which class to actually focus on, and the best program at the university at the time was that of the Baroque period. If you study a specific period, the professor most often offers you the positive views of what he thinks, and any that are opposite would be considered negative. In other words, once he gets done explaining what not to do, that’s exactly what you’re going to do. [Laughter] For example when I came to Washington, most artists were interested in Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952), which was soaked and stained, right after Pollock’s black and white paintings, but the limit was there were only so many things that they could have worked out for their own needs and growth. And then if they were following [Kenneth] Noland at the time, Noland himself always says, “They don’t do anything else other than follow me,” which is not good for either Noland or his followers, but what it did do: it forced him to do various things so they couldn’t even keep up. Never mind following him.
Rail: Noland even made paintings with an illusionistic texture in some later instances.
Gilliam: He did several types of textures. He also created geometric structures by shaping the canvas to accommodate them, and then by moving these structures across to all the edges the canvas visually came apart. That was something I found interesting. He once said to me, “There’s no difference between painting and sculpture.” Noland had actually worked with David Smith, and then later with Anthony Caro. In fact both Noland and Caro had sent me the pieces that they had collaborated on. One was called Prairie (1967), which was on the floor and could be moved in different directions. I realized he was developing a concept, then optimizing variations on a theme. That was the good thing. In the ’60s in Washington, D.C. most of the artists had come to certain limits where if one was doing circles, one was doing stripes, then the third person was really out of luck because they’d be limited to not following the other two. The person that interested me the most at the time was Tom Downing.
Rail: A very interesting artist. I saw an excellent small survey of his work at Yares Art last year, which was a real discovery for me.
Gilliam: He did verticals, he did squares, and all kinds of shaped paintings. He did small dot paintings, with endless configurations, and so on.
Rail: You’ve referred elsewhere to Downing and Howard Mehring in particular as painters in Washington who were engaged in ways of seeing painting as environmental. But it sounds like Noland was doing this intentionally too, breaking apart the space of the canvas as if it were sculptural—
Gilliam: Or kind of structural, large-scale at least, six feet square. Howard did cut-outs, he would actually use a T shape, and then he would drop it right in the middle at the bottom, so half on one side and half on the other would radiate, from what was cropped, to the whole wall. Sometimes he would use flat and solid colors, other times he would flick the paint on the surface to make texture, and various things like that.
Rail: Downing was the first artist you met in Washington, and you two became pretty close friends?
Rail: Did Noland know Downing as well?
Gilliam: No, they didn’t like each other, and that was a good thing because Noland was here once at a party, and I asked him why he didn’t like Tom. He said “He’s not original.” So that gave me a clue. But of course Noland’s real opposition personally was Jules Olitski, which became a bit of a contention, because of Greenberg, who wrote well about Noland early on and then later said “Olitski’s better.”
Rail: Greenberg, like Napoleon, maintaining control by playing his field marshals against each other.
Gilliam: Right, and Noland of course didn’t believe in any of that, and he didn’t pay attention to Greenberg or Olitski any longer. But that’s good for an artist. What you do is you find your own thing that you’re interested in. Donald Judd, he likes Rogier van der Weyden. I prefer Jan van Eyck, or if you’re looking for something else, El Greco. I’ll find something else in Dürer.
Rail: I’d like to follow up on Dürer, since in a 1973 interview in Art News you also mention your interest in his work. Is it the way he constructed his drapery in the late Gothic/early Renaissance manner, a constructed hanging-rhetorical gravity that interested you? And with van Eyck there is a similar feel for such gravitationally-constructed forms. There’s a certain syntax to early Renaissance drapery. Perhaps this is too direct a correlation to your painting pieces and their translation into environmental drapery?
Gilliam: Well it’s not that direct. It’s more when you realize that you’re at a wall, you’re building geometric shapes, and with the draping you decide to go parallel to the wall to smooth out the painting.
Rail: So it’s a lateral move?
Gilliam: A lateral move, and of course, this can be observed in Barnett Newman. That dynamic of using several paintings in a series, side by side, or making a painting parallel to the space of the wall, and then cutting it, as Newman did with his vertical lines.
Rail: So it’s not a traditional Renaissance perspectival space, but more of a lateral shallow space.
Gilliam: It’s really something Michelangelo failed to achieve himself and so referred back to Giotto, and Giotto is simply painting flat against the wall. Giotto is therefore much more modern than Michelangelo is. All that Michelangelo actually does is set up a framing structure around the figure. Take, for instance, the figure of Jonah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling being framed in the middle. But he pushes back and moves beyond the frame.
Rail: Whereas Giotto’s figures are painted integral to the plane. In that respect one may say your idea of space is the opposite or certainly different than Noland’s, who earlier on had an iconic “figure” focused on the center, quite similar to Michelangelo’s The Prophet Jonah (1508–1521). His target though seems more symbolic as opposed to your idea of a phenomenologically integrated plane, as in Giotto’s spatial conception.
Gilliam: But Noland became the model for what really began to happen in Washington in the ’60s. Not only does he do the target, he does the chevron, and how he arrives at it is two parallel bars going one way, and then he joins them together so that if they go vertical, it moves back. What you do is that you make a structure and superimpose a sheet and continue to, if it’s vertical and diagonal, you place a vertical rectangle over it, and you construct the space that is between the two of them, and that was very important to both Tom Downing and Howard Mehring.
Rail: Were they friends?
Gilliam: Oh no, the beauty of most artists is that they don’t like each other. [Laughter] That forces them to be different. And in a small environment like Washington, D.C., there were too many younger artists who began to follow the Greenbergian formalist doctrine, which eventually all fell apart. After that the option was Stella who began to paint the “Black Paintings” (between 1958–1960). Then he made the “Protractor” paintings (1967–1971).
Rail: Yes, another big influence at the time.
Gilliam: He made square paintings first, then followed with circle paintings. So actually he gives you a continuation.
Rail: Of that lateral move, spatializing painting outside its “frame”?
Gilliam: Yes. And then of course he wrote about painting into sculpture.
Rail: Which was his Charles Eliot Norton Lecture at Harvard; and that lecture became the book Working Space, published later in 1986.
Gilliam: Right. And in my memory of discussions with Noland, I recall he really appreciated David Smith, and David Smith had become interested as a sculptor in the way that painting sets up this frontal, planar structure. Smith also referred to certain sorts of drawings that he found in Egyptian tombs in which there were nothing but grids. Structured grids—
Rail: They’re pretty flat, yet the figures do “dance” across the plane—
Gilliam: Right but they’re also set in boxes, they’re just boxes pushed against each other. Much like cartoon drawings.
Rail: Well speaking of the grid, do you think that your early diagonal paintings or Noland’s move to deploy the chevron was kind of anti-grid? As opposed to say, Carl Andre’s or Sol Lewitt’s grid structures?
Gilliam: No, it depends on how you find the variation.
Rail: Right, but it’s an asymmetrical relationship to the grid rather than a Leonardo space grid. In comparing LeWitt and Andre to Noland, the asymmetry of the chevron can be seen as more mobile in its diagonals.
Gilliam: It is mobile, but exactly because he made it on a rectangle, a rectangular horizontal, or he pushes it vertical. To me, it’s a part of painting totally.
Rail: Is it that kind of mobility and of “painting totally,” whether or not it has to do with pushing away from the grid, or going towards it, the goal that preceded your leap in taking your canvases off the stretcher? By doing so you’ve unequivocally made the canvas itself more mobile.
Gilliam: Right, and what happens when you do that and it comes time to show is that you find there is a difference between a small gallery space and those large gallery spaces that are 30 feet wide and 15 feet high and 60 feet—there was such an opportunity when Walter Hopps came to Washington and he moved from a smaller gallery to becoming a chief curator at the Corcoran. And the very first thing he did was to remove the large elevators in the center of the building, so that artists he invited had the possibility of building in that entire space. One of the exhibits was Scale as Content (1967), from which Tony Smith’s large piece Smoke was commissioned.
Rail: Interesting, since Smith began as an architect, moved through painting and then arrived at environmental sculpture. I studied at Hunter College in graduate school with one of Smith’s assistants on that piece, the painter Bob Swain.
Gilliam: Yes, I remember meeting Bob Swain. I also remember Tony, Bob, and others had an interesting time constructing and leveling that piece. Tony came down and knocked it into level because it was leaning.
Rail: Regarding Hopps, he had come to the Corcoran from LA, where among other things he managed the seminal Ferus Gallery and then went on to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). At Ferus he was showing artists like Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz. In a talk you did with Paul Davis at the Menil collection not long ago you mentioned that when Hopps came to Washington he wasn’t a big fan of color field painting. Do you think that’s because he came from the west coast and that scene was less influenced by what was happening by post-painterly abstraction in New York and Washington? A little more loose out there, as in “West Coast Funk” or… what’s your perception of that?
Gilliam: Well, I wouldn’t trust Walter to really follow the Greenberg line, because one of the books that he brought to me was a book on [Robert] Rauschenberg, which was an indication that he liked Rauschenberg better than he liked anybody else.
Rail: That would seem to go along with his taste for assemblage in Kienholtz and Berman among others he championed at Ferus.
Gilliam: Well “Funk” was between Ed and Nancy [Kienholz], [Wallace] Berman and Jay DeFeo, among other couples. During that period of time, artists were more collaborative, more interactive than any other time.
Rail: I find it so interesting that Hopps brings such an interactive aesthetic to Washington and then winds up commissioning all of these really bold installations at the Corcoran. And this was close after a time when you said artists like Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler had a large influence in Washington, as in Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea.
Gilliam: Well Frankenthaler’s is not really the idea of painting that I would follow. Because Noland, Downing, and even Louis began to work with strong rectangular, vertical, horizontals, and so on, and the fact they were interested in what David Smith was doing in the “Cubi” series (1963-65) where he began to make sculptures out of cubes, rectangular solids and cylinders with spheroidal or flat endcaps, and stack them up in various configurations. This is how information gets translated between artists. There’s the artist Stephen Antonakos for instance, who did neon, but when he saw Dan Flavin who put neon behind a plane and the light is spread into the wall, he changed and allowed his forms and shapes to be more free, less constrained, which you can say the same of [Constantin] Brâncuși, who positions some of his work architecturally.
Rail: So that it becomes an environmental situation.
Gilliam: Right, and the only requirement or construct for a modern painting is to keep it flat—work within the plane of the wall until you run into somebody else who works with the corner of the room, like Robert Morris.
Rail: You did exactly that by draping and hanging your canvases. You brought them into a sculptural realm which also implied an environmental one.
Gilliam: I gave it a chance—to use large solid forms like architecture coming from the wall, like in the series I called the “Carousels”, beginning in the late ’60s, which hang from the ceiling and imitate just a big circular movement.
Rail: And with those “Carousel” pieces you have these hanging points of tension that operate as focal points that are intently distributed.
Gilliam: Yes. It was Walter’s [Hopps] idea to take a photograph of the paintings, because once you have the photograph of the painting, you could turn it upside down and you could build the piece from that perspective––where the points are at the bottom, in tension with the floor. Possibility of transition is something I’m deeply interested in.
Rail: This seems a perfect transition point for what you are currently installing at Dia:Beacon, I talked to Jessica Morgan, the director at Dia, and she mentioned that you were going to be showing Carousel II, from 1969, however you’re planning on doing a new variation of it.
Gilliam: Right, the wall is 80 feet and I’m showing two paintings from that series. One is more horizontal and swings to the center of the room. The other one starts at the wall, against the wall. At this point, depending on what happens with the rafters, it allows you to come from the wall, circle, and go back so that you have this opposition space and feeling of realistic space because there are passages away from a plane, diagonal cutting off one direction, and then there’s another that goes back in the other direction.
Rail: So again an environmental situation.
Gilliam: Right, you activate movement within the space.
Rail: Jessica also mentioned that, there will be an interesting interaction between Warhol’s “Shadows” series (1978–79) and your paintings which are going to be up concurrently and even within sight of works by your former cohort from the Washington Color School, Anne Truitt.
Gilliam: Well, every installation at Dia:Beacon is in some way in dialogue with the other ones. It’s really an interactive kind of experience as a whole.
Rail: I recently came across Emanuel Levinas’s idea of a “mobile axis of being,” which came from a passage of his essay on the subject of transcendence in the poetry of Paul Celan. I felt it spoke so well of your work.
Gilliam: I also admire [Eadweard] Muybridge’s photographic studies of humans and animals in motion, and [Salvador] Dalí’s irrational orthogonals along with the ideas of soft versus hard edges, surfaces, and so on.
Rail: Similar to how the tension points where these distributed points of focus are built up in your installation.
Gilliam: Like in old Victorian buildings they put an ornate drop ceiling that was suspended from a metal grid. That grid gave you the ability to clamp the plaster details, and arrange them back and forth, or however you liked.
Rail: Yes, it was called black iron.
Gilliam: Or the gridded strapping. Something related happened at the Corcoran when Walter did an Al Held show, especially with some of his large black and white geometric paintings, they had to raise the painting above in order to stand over the balcony. In the studio you don’t have to be right. I mean you can be different, so I think that seeing that painting fitted into the installation was most interesting. I think Walter pointed that out when he saw David Smith’s place at Bolton Landing right after Smith had died, he noticed that he had collected a lot of farm equipment. Pitchforks, graters, and structures that might have been used for windmills, mill pumps, and things like that. And he imagined that Smith had intended to stack those things and make a tall version of a sculpture. We all have these kind of observations that you become aware of, where artists actually get their inspiration from specific situations and things. Someone did take a lot of big old tanks and paint them red and push them vertically.
Rail: Alexander Lieberman?
Gilliam: Yes, artists like Lieberman started going to places where one could weld and extend scale. There is a different introduction into what is possible for a painter or for an artist. And that was where Stella became very important because if you went to that foundry when he was working, a lot of times you’d see that he structured things by simply creating a platform and a vertical thing and then dropping it.
Rail: So the situations inspired the work. In 1972 you found yourself in the situation of being the American representative at the Venice Biennale. That was Walter’s doing?
Gilliam: Yes, at the time he had just been fired from the Corcoran and went on to work for the de Menils in Houston.
Rail: Just prior to Venice, in 1971, you were involved with a show in conjunction with the de Menils in the Fifth Ward of Houston, in an old theater called The Deluxe Show. It was what would now be termed a “pop-up” show, in a non-institutional space. Greenberg was involved, and Noland was involved…
Gilliam: It was mainly artists represented by André Emmerich at the time who came down, including Noland. Greenberg was there for the installation of the show. It was myself and some other painters and the sculptors that were influenced by Anthony Caro, that is, Caro’s work around the time he left Bennington College and went to York University in Canada, ’73 or ’74, and much of his work then was displayed on a field, so that you got interactive metal arcs with squares lying on the ground.
Rail: So it’s sculpture literally in the extended field.
Gilliam: Right, and this was around the time when artists began to fold paper and zip and cut, and so on. They began to resort back to simple forms of origami.
Rail: Was that what prompted you to make models for the larger installations?
Gilliam: Yes, that was what actually what did happen with the installation at Corcoran in ’69––I took my model, my inspiration, from a specific situation and space for the whole show. I was in the process of renovating a house and on the third floor bathroom I made curtains hanging from a flat oval. I thought I could replicate something like that in the atrium space of the Corcoran.
Rail: So it was capricious and playful. And Hopps seems to have encouraged and supported this kind attitude!
Gilliam: Yes, you know one of Walter’s other projects was to prove that the Watts Towers in LA need not be torn down because those towers were actually stable as they were built, even though they seemed spontaneous, “capricious” like you say. He suggested that even a locomotive couldn’t pull those things down.
Rail: Another situation you responded to with interesting results was your first one-person show in New York at the Byron Gallery, in 1968. You were presented with a 30 foot wall, so you decided to make a 30 foot painting with the playful title Sock-It-To-Me.
Rail: Shockingly, the gallerist turned the lights off at the opening because he was angry at your thinking-on-your feet gesture of installing what he deemed to be unsaleable work.
Gilliam: Charles [Byron] just made a big gesture about it, but he did turn the lights back on eventually during the opening.
Rail: When I heard this happened it made me think immediately of an off-the-cuff statement by Thelonius Monk from the film Straight No Chaser (1988). It was a television reporter, during the 1960s eruption of the Black Power movement, asking Monk what he thought Black Power was. And he simply says “That’s when the lights go out.” A perfectly mobile answer, like an answer that cannot pin you down to a binary sound bite but takes on a transcendent quality. This is similar I think to the mobility of your work too, the transcendent mobility of the work that it doesn’t offer any pat answer: it responds to situations and the situations change and they morph to them. Like your new work that I’m just now seeing in your studio here. It’s very solid, hard-edged and geometric, and with very clearly delineated colors, it’s moving to yet another place and space. I was also thinking about alchemy in terms of how Monk answered the question, not so much in relation to his music but kind of tangentially related to his music. The way he answered the question by leaving his answer open to interpretation.
Gilliam: Art comes from the idea of inversion, from the change you want to make to what you see and wherever you find it. What was also great about Monk is that he would take that angular and wry melody or progression at the beginning, I would just say a small note, and he repeated it in such a way that all the unused spaces between became activated. Miles Davis, on the other hand, often turned his back to his band and to his audience in order to act as a conductor, as he focused on a particular section of the band where the composition took on a different kind of structure.
Rail: That idea of a different kind of thinking and art conducting art and how a rhythmic figure is repeated and then transformed. In your work while there is the formal “conduction,” it also invites the viewer to inhabit the environment much more differently than, say, the traditionally stretched canvas.
Gilliam: Yes, and my installations are specific to each space. In one piece you can see from underneath, in another piece it mediates with the corner, which is similar to how [Vladimir] Tatlin would make a piece that responded to corner and the wall itself.
Rail: Considering specific contexts makes me think of another installation, Gone Fishing, that you did at the Phillips Collection in 2011 related to an Arthur Dove painting there, The Flour Mill (1938). You’ve previously discussed that installation in a very interesting way. You said that the spiral staircase, which is a very strong modernist corkscrew, was like a Duchampian situation that you were intentionally paying your homage to what you termed Dove’s “emotional abstraction” off of.
Gilliam. The place that I had to work was in a stairwell from the second floor to the third floor. Needless to say, it was a difficult space to work with. I had to work with a strain and then dramatically hang things down with strings. As you can see in my studio here with it’s intentionally structured spaces, the architectural “windows” I had designed and built here against the entrance wall, that I do consider sculptural structure as situations and what really happens when your body becomes a movable armature in relation to any given space.
Rail: That refers again to Monk saying Black Power is when you turn the lights out. Similarly, you flip that formal and loaded question that’s supposed to have a certain propriety to it and turn it into something that is more mobile and fluid. Anyone else would otherwise think that the lights being turned off at their opening is a disastrous situation. But you actually flipped it and turned it into part of the experiential dynamic.
Gilliam: Funny enough it was exactly that which was written later in the newspaper. And the light, if you considered the blinking light off and on––you can take advantage both of how you work in the studio and how you can construct work within the less controllable space of the gallery. Actually, I’m mostly motivated by formal concerns such as the issue of scale, which is to me both practical and psychological. If you have a 75 foot piece of canvas––one which makes up the “Carousel” series as an example––you can work to have it circle from the top and then also parallel to wall. You can make the piece that anchors in once space and come across to the corner of another space. So it all becomes the continuation of a certain parallel architecture with the viewer to the space. You can find this similar viewing experience in Canaletto’s “Views of Venice” series where the architecture moves and the perspectives shift according to his imagination, not what appears in front of him. This lateral and distributing focus and flexibility is similarly applied to Tintoretto’s compositions.
Rail: And their specific intervals in between.
Gilliam: Yes, that’s what makes him so important to me.
Rail: The works on paper that you recently showed at the FLAG Art Foundation, the way they were installed in a symmetrical row against the black wall also alluded to a certain architectural structure, similar to the windows in your studio. They’re relatively flat compared to some of your more sculptural works and their color is quite complex. But one thing I noticed was that your palette with this series tended towards an expanded chromatic range.
Gilliam: Technically they combine solid and transparent paints that can be poured, and this has a specific chromatic effect. Also, like how in origami, be it a paper airplane or a boat, and so on, you need to fold it to make the form. In my case, I’d first pour the colors onto Japanese Washi paper, then I’d fold them vertically with irregular intervals, which once unfolded, would yield two kinds of structural elements that are a reverse of each other. Quite similar to the result of what we’d get from a Rorschach technique, I’d also get all kinds of unexpected blending effects, partly because I sometimes use strong and opaque colors and then other times a diluted solution of color, and all transition colors in between are accidental results.
Rail: Also, were they made on the floor? And were they painted solely with acrylic paints?
Gilliam: They were made on a big table top, and painted with acrylic and transparent inks. But mostly acrylics and the fact of acrylics means that you have a clean surface. So you can easily unfold the paper after a certain time. Since acrylic dries so quickly if you’re not mindful of its drying time, the paper gets stuck between the folds, which destroys the paint.
Rail: Yet your newest pieces (in the studio) don’t blend, color wise, like this series. They tend toward hard-edged geometry emphasized with monochromatic surfaces. They are not made of expanded chroma in fluid, blending like much of your previous work. Each one of them seems to have one color emphasizing a specific form like the green, blue, red.
Gilliam: These are much more completely structured pieces.
Rail: And they are less allusive. Considering the veils of colors you typically get with your staining and mixes. These newer pieces are much more a “what you see is what you see” kind of situation. It seems like a completely new direction.
Gilliam: Yes, well sometimes in order to stay alive, it helps to keep mobile. [Laughter]