Sam Gilliam: “Green April,” at David Kordansky

Los Angeles

"One On," 1970, Sam Gilliam
“One On,” 1970, Sam Gilliam, Acrylic on canvas, dimensions variable
approximate installation dimensions: 112″ x 80″
Photo: courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

It’s hard to imagine that five paintings could leave one so convinced they have been missing out on something-or rather, someone-quite extraordinary, but the current exhibition on view at David Kordansky does just that. The artist responsible is African-American painter Sam Gilliam and the exhibition, titled “Green April,” features works dating from 1968-1970, including two examples of his frameless “drape” paintings and three “slice” paintings, in which the canvas is stretched over a beveled frame. After initial recognition-including a 1969 exhibition curated by Walter Hopps at the Corcoran Art Gallery-the artist seemed in danger of falling into relative obscurity. The past decade, however, has witnessed a revived interest in the octogenarian’s oeuvre, perhaps sparked by a 2006 retrospective also held at the Corcoran. More recently, Gilliam’s earlier abstract paintings were the subject of the Washington, DC-based artist’s first solo at Kordansky in 2013, “Hard-Edge Paintings 1963-1966,” curated by contemporary art star Rashid Johnson. This exhibition highlighted the hard-edged technique often associated with the Washington Color School and more familiar names, including Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Thomas Downing- whom Gilliam credits with first challenging him to abandon his earlier figurative style. This decision ultimately led the artist on a different course from many of the black artists of his generation.

The current exhibition firmly re-establishes the Mississippi-born artist as both innovator and as a master colorist. In these works, the artist began folding the canvases on itself, while still wet with acrylic paint, allowing the element of chance to take the colors in unanticipated directions. The previously controlled handling of paint is further unleashed as the artist flung sprays of paint across the surface, combining the color-field style with its gestural predecessors. The sculptural implications of the drape paintings are subdued as each, One On and Leaf (both 1970), are hung against the wall so that they fan out at the base. Undulating folds of polychromatic canvas reveal the frayed edges and layered stains seeping through to the reverse side of the canvas. The largest work on view, Green April (1969), spans over 24 feet with the beveled frame projecting almost four inches from the wall. A symphony of lavenders, mint greens and pale blues coalesce across the surface; the meditative quality sharply contrasts with the high-keyed color palette of the two other slice paintings, Rose Rising (1968) and Change (1970). The latter challenging any notion of abstraction’s “formal remove” from societal concerns as layers of carnivalesque colors cavort under sprays of blood-red paint scattered across the canvas; a haunting post-painterly memento mori.