Sam Gilliam took a step most people didn’t understand was possible

When painter Sam Gilliam passed away last weekend at the age of 88, he left behind groundbreaking works of art, notably his palettes smeared with florals of color that forever changed the way the world perceived painting. But he also left a more personal legacy: his influence on fellow artists and friends.

Sculptor Melvin Edwards, 85, has been friends with Gilliam for more than 50 years, and formed a powerful trio with painter William T. Williams. Edwards and Gilliam owned each other’s business and questioned each other endlessly about the process, sometimes talking three or four times a day.

“We always asked Why “The other one did something a certain way,” said Edwards, probably best known for his Lynch Fragments and Barbed Wire series. “But that was the nature of Sam’s job: He’s always questioned space.”

Just two days after Gilliam’s death, Edwards and Johnson spoke about how he handled his life and work, his decision to stay in Washington, D.C., and his success in being his best critic, in a conversation that was edited and condensed.

How do you now view Sam’s signature move – yanking the fabric off the wall and rolling it, which he said was inspired in part by the laundry hanging on clotheslines?

Melvin Edwards Sam was a wonderful painter who was curious and experimental. He didn’t start thinking about the surface art made with Sam – but he took a step most people didn’t understand was possible. Sam took the step. He was seen the right way by some people who were paying attention to this sort of thing, and they immediately blessed him.

Fellow artists are often very quick to recognize the implications for style and potential significance. One of the first things I did was hanging elements of steel and chains. When Wissam and I showed up together at the Studio Museum in Harlem [in a landmark 1969 show], I was making my first piece of barbed wire, some attached to the wall, some were hanging. It was almost a given that we were taking steps.

So there were these swirls and echoes between the two of you, right?

Edwards Look, this is all visual art, not about marking. It is either up, down, left or right. For me and most artists, like having a baby. When you have sex you don’t think about what to call the baby.

Rashid, what are your entry points into Sam’s business?

Rashid Johnson There is a lot, but the most important is its relationship to improvisation, and its ability to respond in real time with gestures, mark-making, and decision-making in a way that is in line with America’s greatest art form and its most ambitious innovation: jazz music. We talked about it. Just watching Sam explore with an honest and rooted sense of self. This extreme was associated with improvisation and innovation.

What innovations in particular?

Johnson Its edges are to me as ambitious a creation as loosening the canvas from a stretcher. [Gilliam’s “Beveled-Edge” or “Slice” paintings, a series that began in the late 1960s, were made on beveled-edge stretchers that projected off the wall.] I think there is something really important about this business.

Mel, do you agree?

Edwards You didn’t have to know which way things would go with Sam. The pieces were supported in a number of ways. For example, in the last show in PES [featuring Edwards and Williams]The saws he used were perfect tin for Sam, spreading his work horizontally. It had a human scale, while the other pieces in that gallery took us straight to the ceiling.

Sam was very competitive, and he was talking about wanting to win the art game – artists don’t really talk that way now.

Johnson Part of this is generation. Older artists are more willing to recognize the competitive spirit. It is different from today. I have such respect for this thinking. There is beauty in trying to win. Even if there is no direct deduction.

He was a tennis player, probably related to a desire to compete.

Edwards When we spoke a couple of months ago, she teased Sam about him being a tennis player. Our friend William was a track and wide jump athlete, and football was my primary sport in high school. We were all physical people who understood physical dynamics. I don’t mean that he translated our work one-on-one, but I mean the sensitivity to three dimensions.

You spoke, Rachid, of a black artist’s decision in the 1960s and 1970s to work abstractly and not directly depict blackness in representational or symbolic terms – and how that lives for you.

Johnson This was a decision, and it would be foolish to pretend that this is not true. Sam and artists like Sam, who chose abstraction as a vehicle and saw it as a way forward, were aware of the fact that they did not include the black body and the objective fears of blacks. Thank these people. It wasn’t always rewarding in typical ways.

Sam remained in Washington, and had no consistent representation at the New York Picture Gallery, the center of the art world, until late in his life. How did that affect his career?

Edwards He had his independence which was at the core of his personality anyway.

When He interviewed him in 2018. Asked if his being black had hindered his career, he answered yes and no, not interested in removing the contradiction.

Johnson Honestly, I love it, and I see a lot of truth in both answers. White Western history often does a great job of centering itself. For me, as a young artist, Sam Gilliam was important. Mill, Ed Clark, William T. Williams, these have been heroes to me. The fact that they were not ambitiously represented in some cultural institutions was not an obstacle to my worldview.

Edwards People think that the things written about white people are what we should aspire to be important. The art world has its ways of looking at things and it has its ways of educating us so that we often limit our thinking. Sam, after all, wasn’t limited to those things.

I know it was shortly after his death, but what was his main legacy?

Johnson I feel happy about the life he lived and excited about the impact he has had on so many of us. For me, these cycles in his life and career – the fact that he kept working and kept making things that not only complemented his legacy, but added to it. I know some people will cite his early accomplishments, but I think in the past three years he has provided us with what may be as ambitious a job as he ever did, frankly. This part is important. This guy really lasted.

Edwards I’m just glad Sam was Sam, doing what he felt he wanted to do. He always held that position. You can fill in the entire New York Times with just Sam, and forget the rest. This is my sentimental opinion of my friend. He was glad his business got more attention and more funding came his way, but it was a hell of a struggle. He always wanted to do the work, and he did it until he couldn’t.

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