Sam Gilliam’s most celebrated accomplishment — the suspended painting — made its debut at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in September 1969. While other artists like Richard Tuttle and William T. Wiley were also experimenting with the unstreched canvas during the same period, Gilliam’s sculptural approach was revolutionary in that it repositioned the viewer’s relationship with the painting to include the object as well as the space around it, blurring the boundary between painting, sculpture, and architecture for the first time. Hanging from ceilings and walls but also from freestanding objects like sawhorses, Gilliam’s “drapes” left the wall behind to create physical environments that redefined the conceptual and aesthetic boundaries of abstract painting.
In spite of his early hard-edged paintings and soak stain techniques — passed down from Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis — much of Gilliam’s prototypical work may appear antithetical to color field painting, even though he is generally considered a latter generation Washington Color School artist. His preference for fluid stains over geometric forms emphasizes the element of chance and produces soft color transitions that are less common in geometric abstraction. And his sculptural approach, which pushed the painting off the wall, is more representative of what came after color field, and particularly relevant to contemporary modes of working.
With Close to Trees, his exhibition currently on display at the American University Museum in Washington, DC, Sam Gilliam continues his fluid engagement with the over-sized suspended canvas, re-purposing materials and methods to produce a site-specific installation that harkens to his groundbreaking work of the 1970s. We caught up with the artist to talk about his current work at AU.
MS: Can you tell me about the title of the installation? Is it in reference to the shape and configuration of the drapes? How do the rest of the elements in the installation play into this concept?
SG: The title, Close to Trees, refers to the factor of movement in art, e.g. the floor, or the essence of spirit or use of the mid-plane in painting to be so close one can reach and touch.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that your suspended paintings are open ended and dynamic, changing in shape as they are re-purposed from one site to another. Can you tell me more about this dynamism?
It is important that the making of the work has the rule of drama. However, when that certain drama (in the space) fails as made, be careful, it’s still the most important fulcrum. I realize that it’s necessary to allow for the process of change. However, nothing is open ended; I appreciate the idea of a work being specific, yet causing a dynamic, e.g. Velasquez; “Les Maninas”, or Pollack’s “The Gate”. I go through the object I am making to sense the presence of things (Duchamp).
One of the elements in your work at the AU Museum — the squares made of stained fabric — are reminiscent of your installation at the Mint Museum of Art. Can you tell me about the differences in the way you chose to install those elements at AU versus at MMA?
Both The Mint Museum and the American University installations are ceiling built pieces. In The Mint Museum’s piece, titled “The Illustrious Kites Made in Boxing Styles”, “Boxing Style” is a poem, a wind. “Close to Trees” at the Katzen Center refers to love and Monet’s painting of Camille.
Are the drapes that you are using for your installation at AU repurposed from other works? In other words, have we seen these same drapes take other shapes in previous venues? Or were they painted and produced specifically for Close to Trees?
Between art and myself there is always a period of a beginning and a manifestation of the works continuation. The stitched element is fixed in tradition as a metaphor for forms, color, and being stretched or draped canvas. The reference to art-made is here. I don’t debate, I use either sculptural or painterly presence to make ideas or words in art.
In Velasquez’s, “Surrender at La Breda,” or Titian’s, “The Rape of Europa”, the ideas start and stop within paintings’ space. Making a form in 2011 is a way of recreating within Art what Art needs before an audience.
Minimalism is an Abstract Expressionism because they both deal with trying to debate and resolve the presence as form. It’s not a matter of choosing, it’s a matter of guts in the body of the whole. Someone said before I installed the AU piece that I should “let people enter the work”. So, I stand in the center of the large suspended work and, “lead and allow.”