There’s a current small regional exhibition that reveals the large impact and cautionary story of an influential American artist who — while not from New Jersey — can be found in the collections of three of central New Jersey’s largest museums.
The exhibition is “Three American Painters: David Diao, Sam Gilliam, Sal Sirugo,” on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick through December 31.
The artist in question is Sam Gilliam, a now 83-year-old artist who embraced abstract expressionism and advanced it beyond the frame — literally — by creating sculpture-like paintings.
As the Zimmerli curators write, Gilliam first gained critical attention as one of the Washington color school painters. That was a group of artists in 1950s Washington, D.C., who used painting or staining fields of color on large canvases. Other artists included Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Hilda Thorpe.
The Princeton University Art Museum, which owns the 1970 acrylic work “Elephanta,” calls Gilliam’s work “the intersection of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Draping, hanging, and folding became some of his primary techniques and they radicalized painting. Monumental in scale, ‘Elephanta’ immerses viewers in a rhythmic and carefully choreographed play of color and form. Gilliam emerged as an important African-American artist at a time when artists of color were underrepresented in galleries and museums and under-appreciated by critics.”
He also encountered problems “because he was a black artist whose work, paradoxically, didn’t look black enough.”
That is history now. In addition to being included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and others, Gilliam was commissioned to create a work for the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“He’s been categorized as an abstract expressionist and color field painter, but he prefers to not stick with one style,” says a note from the New Jersey State Museum, which owns two of his works, including the large and prominently placed “Cobalt Twirl,” 1977.
While that work is in a traditional frame, one of his sculptural murals — “Trenton Makes Skies Waters Spinning Wheels Red Blue” — can be found a few blocks away in an unexpected location: the dining room of the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton.
That 7-by-60-foot work made with acrylic, steel, aluminum, and canvas was commissioned in 1983 through the New Jersey Percent for Art Program, then managed by current Grounds For Sculpture chief curator, Tom Moran.
“It turned out the real way of supporting myself was by doing (public art) commissions,” says Gilliam in a past interview. “I would make paintings, but we couldn’t sell them.”
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Gilliam received his B.A. and M.A. in painting from the University of Louisville in Kentucky and served as an art instructor for the Washington D.C. school district.
Gilliam told an interviewer “I was number seven in a family of eight children. Play was the biggest thing that went on with the six kids still at home. I wanted to be a cartoonist. It was the time of Dick Tracy. All through school, if you finished lessons early, your teacher would let you draw at an extra table or in an extra notebook. One of my mother’s friends pointed out that when we played in the front yard, every other child was running around making noise, and I was quiet. I was drawing. She suggested to my mother, ‘If you keep that kid filled with paper, you won’t have any trouble with him.’”
He added: “I decided I wanted to be an artist, and I was determined.” His path included college, military service in postwar Japan, and a move to Washington, D.C., where he taught and married his first wife, a journalist.
He also became part of the Washington art circle and was creating works that critics called “magisterial,” “enormously important,” and “one of those watermarks by which the art community measures its evolution.” And he became one of the first artists to receive an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Shows followed at the Whitney, MoMA, and the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 72. He also was commissioned for installation work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum.
In an NEA archival interview, Gilliam talked about his process and influences. “[Art] involves a lot of thinking, and figuring out where to start. Then figuring out what the next step is, step by step. There’s not a sight, an idea of where the end is. There’s just the beginning. Of course, I’d actually say that your ideas come from the art collective, those artists that you’ve always been interested in and figuring out what they would do in those situations. That’s what an artist is anyway. He’s just a single member of a collective, the whole generation that went before. Many of the abstract expressionists like Pollock, de Kooning, Kline. David Smith. Mark Rothko. Barnett Newman. Clyfford Still. Georgia O’Keeffe.
“[The idea for draping canvases] came about 1969 when I had a chance to do a show at the Corcoran [Gallery of Art], and there were three of us that were going to do the show. And we were just going to use the space of the rooms rather than putting individual paintings in. Using the large spaces meant that I reincorporated the idea of how many of the Washington Color Field painters’ paintings were painted off the stretcher and then put on the stretcher. So I simply made mine bigger and eliminated the stretchers.”
While all careers are subject to the vicissitudes, Gilliam went from very high to very low, as indicated in the 2015 Guardian article “Searching for Sam Gilliam: the 81-year-old art genius saved from oblivion.”
The opening is a shocker: “Sam Gilliam was living in obscurity and his money was running out. He was nearing 80, his health was bad, and he had no pension. But there was one thing he still had, one thing he had never given up on: the studio near his apartment in Washington.”
Meanwhile on the other side of the country, an Los Angeles gallerist “with a taste for artists who are off the radar” and an artist interested in the role of race in American culture, bonded over drinks and a love for Gilliam’s work. They both “believed Gilliam had been written out of art history because he was a black artist whose work didn’t look black enough. It made his art hard to classify. Not to mention the fact that his palette — all acid greens and hot pinks — seemed so ahead of his time.”
The two made the trek to the studio where Gilliam stored his work and was still creating. The two developed a series of shows that connected him to a new generation of curators and art buyers and re-connected him with major institutions.
“Sam stayed constant — it was the world that turned. Finally, he popped back into focus,” says a MoMA curator.
Gilliam says of the change of fortune: “It was like a light in a dark place. I did cry — at the idea that I might make some money and guarantee myself a future. It really caught me off guard.”
And the small exhibition at the Zimmerli helps keep the lives of artists like Gilliam on view — and in the public’s eye.
Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Free. 848-932-7237 or zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Suggested admission $5. 609-292-6464 or www.state.nj.us/state/museum.
Princeton University Art Museum. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.