‘Gilliam’ deconstructs notions of figural representation

What does talking about something without the actual presence of the subject look like? What does it mean to represent race without representation? Can space be talked about by the precise lack of it? These are some of the questions that I had while looking at Sam Gilliam’s 1972 work Situation VI-Pisces 4 in the Williams College Museum of Art [WCMA]’s latest exhibition, Sam Gilliam In Dialogue.

Born in 1933, Sam Gilliam is an American artist whose works have been described as belonging to Abstract Expressionism and Lyrical Abstraction. He is known as the first artist to introduce the concept of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars. He works with stretched, draped and wrapped canvases as well as sculptural, 3-D elements.

Now 84 years-old, Sam Gilliam lives in Washington, D.C., where he has resided for more than 50 years. Although he has been practicing as an artist for more than half a century, Gilliam has recently been repopularized and rediscovered in the art world. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was first known as part of the Washington Color School, a group of D.C.-based artists who developed a form of abstract art known as Color Field painting, which involves pouring layers of acrylic paint onto unprimed canvases and letting it soak in. The result is an unruffled surface of both flatness and depth. Today, Gilliam still works with color, although in a much different way.

Hanging in the WCMA exhibition, Gilliam’s piece Situation VI-Pisces 4 is a signature drape work of gigantic scale. According to the exhibition’s gallery description, the piece was acquired with “no specific instructions for installation … the work can be suspended in multiple ways, generating innovative, site-specific dialogues with the people and works of art surrounding it.” In the spirit of Gilliam’s experimental practice, this exhibition will be re-installed in the gallery space three separate times to reflect different interpretations.

At first, this experimental and abstract work caught me off guard. I could not understand how Gilliam’s conceptual, geometric and lyrical work was also a way to address systemic racism and bigotry. I was used to seeing social realist works of art done by artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, who depict the black figure directly in their works. However, Gilliam gained the success that he did in the 1970s precisely because his work stepped away from the direct representations of black figures in art; Gilliam became a mentor and a trailblazer who challenged the canonical narrative that black American artists can only exist in terms of figural representation. In fact, Gilliam’s more abstract works allowed for a more fluid understanding and deconstruction of the confining characteristics of gender and race.

In context with Gilliam’s piece, a few other artists’ works are also included in the exhibition as a way to introduce more conversations about the categories of race, representation, gender and artistic practice. A few of these artists include David Hammons, Barkely L. Hendricks and Kara Walker. Seeing these pieces and the ways that these artists have approached the impact of race and identity in their works allowed for an even more layered understanding of Gilliam’s piece. Perhaps the reason why my eyes kept gravitating towards his piece in the gallery was because the non-figural and abstract drape piece was charged with such a heavy and difficult history. With so many colors and ideas seeming to burst out of the canvas, there was no easy or simple way to look at the piece.

Gilliam is seen as a pioneer of sorts for his concept of the Color Field and for his politically-charged, non-figurative works. Nevertheless, there are still many parallels to be made between Gilliam and other artists. For example, like many other artists, process is important to Gilliam. He once said in an interview with W Magazine that his favorite color to use in his pieces is purple. He elaborated: “the purples, the blues. Purple colors have a depth. It’s just a romantic color. It’s royal. I used to never use greens; I used to be a great yellow person.” These small explanations for how and why an artist chooses to execute a piece the way they do become part of the bigger picture and allow for a more nuanced understanding of the artist’s role in the piece.

It seems right to end this piece on Sam Gilliam not by stating a moment of clarity, but by instigating a conversation. As Gilliam himself is quoted to have said in 1969, “What we should be talking about is the quality of aesthetic experiences available to persons within the black community and raising the level of this quality,” he said. “But let’s not forget about what has gone before; let’s not forget about black history – it’s erroneous to pre-suppose that a person who doesn’t follow a certain philosophy [of representation] all the way doesn’t care about [their] race or [their] kids.”

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