Sam Gilliam: Watercolors

Pace Gallery , Geneva, Switzerland
21 Jan 2021 - 19 Mar 2021

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2020, watercolor on washi, 39-1/2

Sam Gilliam, Untitled, 2020, watercolor on washi, 39-1/2" × 71-1/2" (100.3 cm × 181.6 cm), paper © Sam Gilliam / 2020 Artists Rights Society

Since the early 1960s, Gilliam has been creating richly colored abstract compositions using watercolors on Japanese washi, a traditional type of paper made from inner fibres of plants. The watercolors featured in the exhibition extend the artist’s ongoing exploration of color and form into a palpable entity: a physical, textural presence that reaches beyond painting’s two-dimensional surface. This exhibition marks Gilliam’s third solo exhibition with the gallery, following a presentation at Pace in New York and Palm Beach.

Watercolors follows The Music of Color, an exhibition of Gilliam’s work presented at Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland, in 2018 and curated by Jonathan Binstock and Josef Helfenstein. His work was also included in Pattern, Decoration & Crime presented at Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO), Geneva in 2018-19.

The techniques that Gilliam has explored in watercolor—staining, folding, and otherwise distressing the surface of the paper—have exerted a powerful effect on his artistic practice as a whole. While in graduate school, a professor encouraged Gilliam to experiment with watercolors on paper as a way of mitigating a sense of control in his painting. Several years later, for an exhibition at the Adams-Morgan Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1963, Gilliam chose a single watercolor to be included in the show, marking the moment that he began to seriously consider the importance of the medium in his artistic practice.

His early approach to watercolor expanded upon the staining technique that was adopted on canvas by several other artists from the Washington Color School in the late 1950s and early ’60s, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. As Gilliam’s practice matured, his watercolors continued to play a powerful role in shaping his own approach to the canvas, opening up a new sense of freedom and an embrace of abstraction. Since that time, Gilliam has pushed the chromatic and textural possibilities of watercolors with unprecedented verve. His works saturate the paper support with luminous pigment and transform the composition into an object, rather than an image.

In a recent interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artist shared of his process with watercolors: “You go with the flow, and you don’t have to play just for the accidental aspect. You can learn to do deliberate things; you establish your references on the page… the real thing is not to have control of what happens, just to set it into motion. It’s not to be exact so they can arrive at something.”

In Gilliam’s most recent watercolors, color and support are inseparable: the paper becomes the color rather than simply serving as a conveyer or carrier for it. Like his draped canvases, a sense of depth in the creases and folds of the fabric is echoed in the composition of each watercolor painting. Vertical washes of color on each flattened surface create the illusion of folds or pleats within rich and rhythmic planes of light and dark that bleed and overlap.

Like much of Gilliam’s work, both chance and choice play an important role, as the application of watercolor is inherently more unruly than that of other types of paint, bleeding into the fibers of the paper and remaining resistant to the careful control that is possible with oil or acrylic on canvas. This chance echoes the artist’s love of jazz, with its improvisatory ethos and spontaneity.

Sam Gilliam is one 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 School painting.
A series of formal breakthroughs would soon result in his canonical Drape paintings, which expanded upon the tenets of Abstract Expressionism in entirely new ways. Suspending stretcherless lengths of painted canvas from the walls or ceilings of exhibition spaces, Gilliam transformed his medium and the contexts in which it was viewed.