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Kunstmuseum Basel opens Sam Gilliam's first institutional solo exhibition in Europe
Often monumental and colorfully expressive, Sam Gilliam’s works mount a creative challenge to the traditional boundaries between painting, sculpture, and architecture and prompt a fruitful artistic and theoretical debate on these divisions. Photo: Julian Salinas.

BASEL.- In The Music of Color, the Kunstmuseum Basel mounts the American artist Sam Gilliam’s (b. 1933) first institutional solo exhibition in Europe. The international team of curators has chosen to focus on the years between 1967 and 1973, the period of greatest creative radicalism in Gilliam’s oeuvre; in 1972, he was the first African-American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. A focused selection of forty-five works from international private and public collections introduces visitors to the unique art of an influential painter who is still largely unknown to European audiences. The exhibition also opens up fresh perspectives on the history of abstract painting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Often monumental and colorfully expressive, Sam Gilliam’s works mount a creative challenge to the traditional boundaries between painting, sculpture, and architecture and prompt a fruitful artistic and theoretical debate on these divisions. Responding to the architectural context in the Kunstmuseum’s Neubau, the artist thoroughly redesigned several works for the presentation in the museum's galleries.

After moving to Washington, D.C. in 1962, Gilliam came into contact with color field painting, and so art historians often associate him with the Washington Color School. Yet rather than follow in the footsteps of Mark Rothko, Louis Morris, and Kenneth Noland, Gilliam soon charted his own course. The wide spectrum of his creative practice between 1967 and 1973 and his groundbreaking achievements are illustrated by two central groups of works: the Slices (or beveled-edge paintings) and the Drapes (or drape paintings).

In 1967, Gilliam started work on the beveled-edge paintings: he poured highly diluted acrylic paint directly onto the unprimed canvas, which he then folded and creased before the paint dried and subsequently stretched over a beveled frame to lend the painting sculptural depth and an objectlike quality. Despite their considerable dimensions, the works seem to float several inches in front of the wall. The chance patterns and lines that emerged as the paint dried—“slices of color,” in Gilliam’s phrase—form contingent structures. The gestural application of color serves as an index of the creative process and the materiality of canvas and paint, yet without referring to the painter himself. In this respect, Gilliam’s work devises an interesting alternative to contemporary positions in minimalism and Pop art which sought to eliminate the gestural-expressive trace of the artist’s hand that was the hallmark of abstract expressionism.

The Drapes, which Gilliam began making in 1968, are his most radical creative innovation. He still worked with highly diluted acrylic paint and raw canvases, but no longer mounted the works on stretcher frames. In a wide variety of shapes and formats, the Drapes flutter in the middle of the room, flow down walls, or gather in corners, not unlike curtains, pieces of apparel, or sails. This practice let Gilliam expand the scope of his painterly engagement with space, using the ceiling, floor, and walls of the gallery as a stage for his art and creating novel aesthetic experiences. Freed from the frame, the Drapes manifest themselves afresh with each new installation, activating the exhibition space in a virtually architectonic performance. Some of them play with figurative elements; others exhibit floral or anthropomorphic shapes.

The Music of Color also probes the political and cultural-historical dimension of Gilliam’s oeuvre. While the artist himself rarely comments on political issues, selections from the so-called Martin Luther King and Jail Jungle series on display in the exhibition reflect the 1968 race riots. The work titled Composed (formerly) Dark as I am (1968–1974), meanwhile, is an ironic allusion to the highly polarized debate over black art and the part black artists played in abstract painting in 1960s and 1970s America.

The exhibition is the Basel debut of Rondo (1971), which was acquired for the Kunstmuseum Basel’s collection in 2017 thanks to the generous support of the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft’s Arnold Rüdlinger Fonds. Outstanding works on loan from international private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., round out the presentation.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the book The Music of Color, Sam Gilliam 1967–1973 has been released by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König. The volume will include contributions by Josef Helfenstein, Jonathan Binstock, Sam Gilliam, Rashid Johnson, and Lynette Yiadom Boakye.

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