Washington artist Sam Gilliam was in Southern California recently to christen his solo exhibition at Santa Monica’s Koplin Gallery (through Saturday). He is one of the last surviving members of the school of Washington color painters, a vigorous abstractionist.
Gilliam, 57, was born in Tupelo, Miss., the seventh of eight children. His father loaded freight in a railroad roundhouse. His mother was a teacher who was eager that her children better themselves.
Gilliam’s largest painted constructions now sell for $50,000, and most everything moves. He’s received numerous public commissions back home and holds five honorary doctorates. He taught for 20 years but now can live by his work, despite having three daughters in graduate school. He remembers when life wasn’t so good.
“In 1963 there just was not going to be any Christmas we were so broke. But then a man rang the bell and bought four paintings for $2,400. We had the tallest tree and the biggest turkey we could find.”
His present work bristles with aluminum rings that jut from surfaces thickly and colorfully painted, then combed with a carpet rake. It is impossible to look at them and not think of Frank Stella’s big painting-cum-sculpture reliefs.
Gilliam shrugs off the comparison. He is grizzled and relaxed in a sweater whose colors recall his roots as a stain painter. “I’m aware of Stella, but I’m also aware of other artists, including performance artists. I have my own history. My painting has always leaned toward sculpture.” The only clue the work gives to the art’s roots in the black experience are references in titles drawn from the writings of Ralph Ellison, such as “Around a Circular Dining Room Table.”
“The entire show examines a new way of relating to the audience and to historical concepts,” Gilliam says. “It intends to be universal and oblique. When Ellison writes of Romare Bearden he refers to him as descended from Africa, Rembrandt and Vermeer. It is not just the natal culture that counts but the culture you grew up in.”
Surprisingly, Gilliam started his artistic life as a figurative Expressionist painting black subjects. As a 26-year-old student he was turned around by stain painter Thomas Downing, a student of Kenneth Noland. Gilliam refers repeatedly to his mentor, who clearly changed the direction of his life.
“He teased me away from figurative painting and pushed me toward abstraction. My figurative work was self-conscious and spiritual. It was full of a lot of things Tom didn’t think painting should concern itself with. If it was to be spiritual at all, Tom thought it should be a more universal spirituality. I think this work alludes to the figure in a way that reaches out to the audience.
“Tom asked why I wasn’t taking the chance to make real art. He made me aware of 75 years of modern art history I’d ignored.
“Another time he said, ‘I’m as black as you.’ Black people don’t believe anyone else can feel their agony, but anyone can. Tom was married with two kids but he was also gay. He was very sad. He couldn’t follow Noland to success, so he tried to help others who could. He died around 1971. . . .”
Gilliam’s account of the era of the Washington color painters--all white save himself--is tinged with tragedy. Washington may be the world’s most powerful political capital, but Gilliam sees it as a small artistic province. Its years as a contemporary-art Camelot were brief. Noland, its most noted surviving master, moved to New York. The others--Morris Louis, Gene Davis and Downing--all died. Gilliam stayed in D.C. largely to keep his family together. Now he and his wife are separated. The man seems a bit abandoned.
“I think somehow they died of the depression that comes to neglected artists. The limitation imposed on me by being a black artist was almost killing. I kept thinking that if I were white I’d have had much more.”
In general he sees the lot of the black artist much improved. “We’re able to integrate into other social situations now and have a sense of other things happening outside our own concerns. With the issues of obscenity and women artists in the air, we can talk about the harm that happens to someone else. It’s a better way of expressing our common humanity.
“There are young and old black artists succeeding, from Martin Puryear to Mel Edwards, Betye Saar and Tyrone Mitchell. Black galleries of every persuasion are attracting a new black audience to art. Black museums like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Afro-American Museum here have been very helpful.”
But is there a black art?
He chuckles. “Frankly, I think there’s only art.”