Sam Gilliam gets his hands dirty with 'Green April' at David Kordansky Gallery

“Green April,” Sam Gilliam’s exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, is a revelation.

The artist’s originality is on bare-naked display. So is the shape-shifting mutability of the materials he uses: acrylic paint, canvas and stretcher bars. In Gilliam’s hands, these elements come together in ways that make you think differently about what art does in the world and what we mean when we say an artist is a genius.

Gilliam made the five paintings in “Green April” in 1968, 1969 and 1970. All are big. All are tough. All are messy.

In the studio, Gilliam let things rip. He poured buckets of paint onto huge swaths of raw canvas and then folded them over and rumpled them up — again and again. Working wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry, he used various parts of each canvas to print the mirror image on another part.

The results resemble loosely patterned shapes and spaces that seem to be generating themselves. It’s thrilling to witness such creation, especially when it happens in works that are as down-to-earth as a house painter’s dropcloths.

At the same time, Gilliam’s paintings are inviting, nuanced and graceful. Supple and lovely, they are a pleasure to get lost in and an even greater pleasure to recall in the mind’s eye.

They come in two formats: tautly stretched over beveled edges or affixed to the wall so the canvas drapes and cascades from a fist-sized knot high overhead.

Sam Gilliam, "Leaf," 1970, acrylic on canvas, 130 by 160 by 16 inches
Sam Gilliam, "Leaf," 1970, acrylic on canvas, 130 by 160 by 16 inches (Fredrik Nilsen / Sam Gilliam / David Kordansky Gallery)

The beveled edges of “Rose Rising,” “Change” and the nearly 23-foot-long “Green April” create a smooth transition from wall to canvas. This gives them an architectural presence. They also call photography to mind. Ghostly images of tree trunks haunt these evocative abstractions. Their silvery shadows are magical.

Similarly, “Leaf” and “One On” scramble the features that usually distinguish painting from sculpture, abstraction from representation, art from life.

Unpretentious brilliance enlivens the 82-year-old’s second solo show in Los Angeles. His art is all about getting one’s hands dirty and discovering the wonders of the here and now.

Such grit and humility never get old. Whether that makes his works timeless depends upon your point of view. That is genius — at its user-friendly best.


David Kordansky Gallery, 5130 W. Edgewood Place, Los Angeles. Through July 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. (323) 935-3030,

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