Exhibition at Pace Gallery features new works by Sam Gilliam

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Exhibition at Pace Gallery features new works by Sam Gilliam
Installation view of Sam Gilliam 12/F, H Queen’s. 80 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong. July 22 – September 2, 2021. Photography courtesy of Pace Gallery.

HONG KONG.- Pace is presenting an exhibition of Sam Gilliam’s paintings in Hong Kong. Following its launch at Pace’s newly expanded space in Seoul, this presentation continues to mark the artist’s debut in Asia. The Hong Kong exhibition, which opened at Pace’s space in the H Queen’s building on July 22, features new works by Gilliam.

Gilliam, who is now in his eighties, is widely considered one of the great innovators in postwar American painting. He emerged from the Washington, D.C. scene in the mid-1960s with works that elaborated upon and disrupted the ethos of Color Field painting and expanded the frontiers of Abstract Expressionism. A noted activist and aficionado of American jazz music, Gilliam extended the possibilities of picture making in a society undergoing dramatic change.

All of the paintings in the exhibition were created by the artist in 2021. These pieces build on a body of beveled edge abstract paintings that Gilliam has been continuously developing since the 1960s. Gilliam’s early approach to painting built upon the staining technique that was adopted by Washington School colorists in the late 1950s and early ’60s, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. At this time, Gilliam began experimenting with different techniques and materials, staining and pouring paint and other materials directly onto the canvas while folding and crumpling its wet surface to create variegated compositions with luminous color and depth.

In 1966 he began to work with acrylic on unprimed canvases, later stretched on specially made beveled edge frames. The beveled frame – often as deep as six inches – offered an illusion of flatness that disguised the physical depth of each work. The paintings appeared to float, or emerge from the wall itself, creating a three dimensional relationship beyond the surface of the canvas. Gilliam’s early beveled edge canvases explored the phenomenology of space through painterly means. During this same period of radical experimentation, Gilliam also began to work with draped or freely suspended canvases. Extending the dynamic presence of radiant polychromic color fields into the gallery, the Drape paintings marked a groundbreaking moment in the history of American abstract art and deepened Gilliam’s exploration of dimensionality.

The new paintings on view in this exhibition reflect Gilliam’s ongoing experimentation with beveled edge canvases. With acute attention to surface, alchemy and volume, these paintings offer a rich constellation of texture, materials, and sublime composition. Gilliam’s approach to abstract expression is profound and energetic, often involving folding, soaking, and staining the canvas before applying thick layers of paint mixed with materials such as pure pigment, sawdust, tin shot and other detritus from the studio floor. Using rakes, steel brushes and other tools, Gilliam then exposes layers of color glowing below like fire coming through volcanic ash.

In his most recent work, Gilliam has made radical changes with the introduction of new materials and techniques. In his layering process, he builds up surfaces by draping thin pieces of fabric on top of the collage and debris. Like an archaeologist, he then digs into the surfaces to reveal layers of color glowing below like fire coming through volcanic ash. Always an alchemist, Gilliam’s paintings take us to a new concept of space as form.

The dizzying magic of Gilliam’s paintings is the result of chance and response, as much as design. Dexterously reacting to the movement of paint and the compositions that emerge at every stage in his process, Gilliam likens his approach to abstraction to the improvisational tenets of jazz music, a grounding presence in the artist’s life and a strong influence on his creative output. He cites jazz saxophonist John Coltrane as an influence on his approach to painting: “It’s time that matters: listening and realizing what happened with the music, my experience of sound established these references in painting.” 1

1 Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Sam Gilliam: Existed Existing, 2020, page 47.

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