Sam Gilliam’s Harmony is an important early canvas by one of the key figures in postwar American painting. It both illuminates his roots in the Washington Color School and opens avenues for exploring the formative ideas and influences that characterized the beginnings of his career. Painted in 1965, at a moment when American politics and culture were undergoing a series of seismic shifts, Harmony provides a window into the creative energy and experimental ethos that have been present throughout every phase of Sam Gilliam’s development as an artist.
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With its clear connection to the geometric vocabulary that predominated among painters in Washington, D.C. at the time, Harmony nonetheless contains a number of moves that telegraph other kinds of thinking and making. Some of these become most apparent when comparing them to analogous modes of formal investigation in other art forms. Chief among these is the improvisational openness of jazz, which Gilliam has often cited as an inspiration, and which was often in a state of dynamic transformation in the mid-1960s. As Gilliam has shown time and again throughout the decades, familiar genres provide unexpected potential for innovation when treated not as ends in and of themselves, but as points of departure.
Harmony is notable for the precision and activating nature of its color relationships, a Gilliam hallmark no matter the scale, medium, or compositional style. Even at this early date—and even while employing an orderly, hard-edged visual syntax—his penchant for channeling the force and beauty of the natural world are on full display. This is all the more remarkable given that the Magna acrylic resin paints that he and the other Washington Color School painters were using were very much the products of modern, postwar industry. While the free-flowing compositions that would come on the heels of Gilliam’s hard-edge period might seem at first glance to be more overtly “natural” in their rhythms and textures, the optical subtleties in Harmony put a clear emphasis on phenomena of sight, the mechanics of the eye, and the relationship between the human mind and body and the environments they observe and inhabit.
“Actually the whole history of art is as rhythmic as it is visual.”
— Sam Gilliam
In 1964, the year before he executed Harmony, the seminal (and still widely debated) group exhibition “Post-Painterly Abstraction” opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Curated by Clement Greenberg, the show would come to characterize an approach to painting that still represents one of the medium’s abiding archetypes. While Greenberg himself cautioned against allowing his thesis to rigidify into over-broad, dogmatic principles, the works in the show had certain defining features in common. There was a strong emphasis on color, which was foregrounded through the use of what Greenberg described in the catalogue essay as “geometrical regularity.”
If the “painterliness” of abstract expressionism, which had defined the avant-garde of American painting during the previous few decades—and which had congealed, in the case of many artists, into a rote manner that contradicted its supposed emphasis on freedom—privileged compositions in which the energetic movement of pigment was the key factor, the “post-painterly” artists were attempting to bring the focus to the pigment itself. What Greenberg called their “relatively anonymous execution” was a means to achieving this end, as well as a response to the expressionist compulsion to make and record one’s mark.
Several artists associated with Washington, D.C. were included in the show, reflecting the prevalence of this brand of abstraction among the city’s tight-knit avant-garde, a fact that local curators and critics were acknowledging around the same time by grouping these painters under the rubric of the Washington Color School. While its unofficial members did share certain philosophies and technical methodologies—including a tendency to downplay the presence of the hand—it was a heterogeneous collection of personalities whose points of agreement were offset by divergent lines of inquiry, opinion, and ideology.
Many of the questions these artists were posing through and around their work were in fact directly related to painterliness, and therefore contrary to the guiding principles of Greenberg’s show. The painter Thomas Downing, whom Gilliam has often cited as an important influence and colleague, countered the notion that his compositions were the result of a reductionist, let alone anonymous, spirit. In an excerpt from a conversation with curator Jonathan Binstock that appeared in the monograph accompanying his 2005 retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Gilliam observed:
“[Downing] was one of the first persons that… let me know that Washington Color School painting wasn’t about what was being written by Greenberg… Tom would interestingly tell you that it was only about seeing; and then later he would tell you that it was only about color; or that it was only about the music of color; or the way that you could structure color. And then later he would say that it was like pop art.”
Such openness and intentionally slippery rejection of categorization do more than counteract the supposed terms of post-painterliness. They are indicative of a different understanding of how art evolves and why artists try new (or old) things. In this schema, each painting is not the end of a process, but a snapshot of a moment in time; style is subject to change, even dramatically, as materials, context, or mindset demand.
Harmony, when observed closely, is a case in point. While its geometric regularity and saturated hues place it squarely within the overarching stylistic range of the Color School, its slight irregularities of paint application reveal it to be anything but anonymous. Aided by its warm palette, the work is a decidedly human creation that makes cunning use of its vertical orientation to move the eye up and down, and from left to right and back again, in ways that also evoke the movement of the entire body. The vivid particularity of Gilliam’s touch becomes apparent when comparing Harmony to paintings by another Color School artist like Howard Mehring, whose stripes fill the picture plane in a different, perhaps more tense, fashion. Already Gilliam seemed to be aware of the canvas as something that has air around it, both in the physical and metaphysical senses of the word.
“Washington is a town of emblems. The American flag, or really all sorts of flags are displayed everywhere. Many of the flags of nations were displayed in a building that was semicircular near the State Department. There would be flags on staffs the width of an entire window. Visually and literally, I think that was really a source of painting.”
— Sam Gilliam
The iconic designs of flags, with which Gilliam had meaningful reckonings not only in Washington, where they were situated on seemingly every building, but also during his brief stint in the Army in the 1950s, are reminders that abstract art always has concrete connections to the social and cultural milieu in which it is made and shown. In other words, abstraction is not about a kind of image-making or style, but is rather a kind of attitude according to which an artist responds to the world. Harmony can be read with these facets in mind—again, not only as a pure, Greenbergian act of formalism, but as a document of the artist’s relatedness to memories and experiences as well as his materials and his medium’s history.
Furthermore, Harmony was painted during a tumultuous and transformational moment in American civic life; Washington, D.C. was a focal point of the civil rights movement, which reached a crescendo in the mid-1960s. As an engaged citizen, Gilliam saw and continues to see his art as a forum for the free expression of ideas and impulses whose intersection with the broader political reality is no less direct for being non-objective or non-representational. His take on abstraction requires his full participation, and is a bodily proposition as much as it is a mental one. This would become more and more apparent as his work continued to morph in the years that followed and his installation-based Drape paintings began to occupy architectural space in radical ways.
The intensity of mid-60s America gave rise to revolutionary changes throughout the arts. Cross-pollination was inevitable. Gilliam has frequently mentioned, for instance, the decisive role that his love of jazz has played in the development of his own thought and work. While the connections between various periods of Gilliam's career and the pioneering mutability of a musician like Miles Davis deserves its own study, simply considering some of the jazz albums that were released in 1965 illuminates the collective currents that made a painting like Harmony possible. They include Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Archie Shepp’s Fire Music, and Horace Silver’s Song For My Father, each of which emerged from a different temperamental corner of the jazz universe.
But John Coltrane’s canonical and deeply affecting A Love Supreme is undoubtedly the most indelible and far-reaching jazz record released that year. With its openly spiritual emphasis and searing intensity, the four-part, album-length suite embraces the full spectrum of human experience from ecstasy to pain. The traditional jazz quartet becomes an elastic vehicle for extended exploration as each of its members is granted the space to move freely within broad but clearly defined parameters. Widely seen as the culmination of certain movements in jazz and the inception of others, A Love Supreme also serves as a threshold, beyond which a number of musicians, including Coltrane himself, would pursue ever more open vistas of pure sound. [Click below to listen to "Part 1: Acknowledgement," A Love Supreme, John Coltrane (1965).]
Seen in this light, Harmony and Gilliam’s other Hard-edge paintings represent more than an engaging contribution to the chorus of voices that made up the the Washington Color School; they constitute, rather, a concentrated moment of traditionally identifiable structure before the expressive lyricism of the Beveled-edge and Drape paintings catapulted Gilliam into another realm altogether. Components, a less well-known record by the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson recorded in 1965 and released in 1966, provides an interesting analogue for the kind of artistic statement that symbolizes its creator’s past and future alike. One side of the album contains relatively straight-ahead, if angular, compositions that retain connections to bebop; the other is freer, with the musicians playing independently of traditional song structures. [Click below to listen to "Movement," Components, Bobby Hutcherson (1966).]
Hutcherson’s willingness to release an album that contained two very different, if related and equally current, styles of music also provides a lens through which to consider the fearlessness with which Gilliam has experimented with markedly disparate formal strategies and even divergent materials not just throughout his career, but at any given moment. In this respect, he has become only more radical throughout the years, assembling a repertoire of often highly contrasting moves that he employs seemingly at will, producing series of works with accordingly contrasting qualities.
A case in point: over the last few years, though he has conducted extended investigations of the Drape typology and maintained his long-standing interest in watercolor and paintings on paper—as evinced by the concurrent exhibition of large-scale works at Art Basel OVR:2020, on view through September 26, 2020 —he has also produced a number of powerful paintings that signal a return to hard-edged geometric imagery. Made by pouring richly saturated acrylic paints onto wood supports, works like Yet Do I Marvel (Countee Cullen) (2016), installed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C., and Homage to the Square (2016-2017) synthesize the immersive monochromatic fields of color and lapidary power of early works like Harmony with the expansiveness of the Drape installations and the lyrical materiality of the Beveled-edge paintings. Gilliam’s commitment to exploring the possibilities of hard-edged compositions extends to paper too: one of his most ambitious statements of the last few years is a five-part, monumental acrylic painting on paper entitled Primary Anthem (2019) in which he emphasizes the spatial potential of large, thick sheets of paper and rich hues to create an installation-scale masterwork that is iconic at a distance and intimately tactile up close.
While Harmony undoubtedly tells a story about the post-painterly scene that made Washington a crucial part of postwar American art historical discourse, seen in retrospect it is even more important as a document of the risk-taking painterliness that has served as a guiding force in Gilliam’s work since its inception, and that was championed by legendary curator Walter Hopps. It was Hopps who, in the 1960s, helped forge connections between many different kinds of artists working not only in established art world centers like New York, but then-outposts like Washington and Los Angeles; his eye for maverick artmaking, regardless of style or medium, and his knack for making adventurous projects happen, would provide opportunities for figures like Gilliam to realize the full breadth of their visions. This “other” Washington story has come to seem the more prescient one with the passage of time, and it is in this context that Harmony comes into true focus as a crucial part of the trajectory of an artist whom Hopps called, in his foreword to Gilliam’s 2005 Corcoran catalogue, “one of the most innovative and finest contemporary abstract painters America has produced.”
In 2022, Sam Gilliam (b. 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi; lives and works in Washington, D.C.) will be the subject of a career-spanning retrospective exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. In addition to a long-term solo show that opened last year at Dia:Beacon, New York, a solo survey exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2018), and a traveling retrospective organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2005), he has also presented solo shows at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (2011), the Speed Memorial Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (1996), the Whitney Museum of American Art, Philip Morris Branch, New York (1993), The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (1982), and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1971), among many other institutions.
Recent group exhibitions include Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983, which originated at the Tate Modern (2017), traveled to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas (2018), Brooklyn Museum (2018), The Broad, Los Angeles (2019), de Young Museum, San Francisco (2019), and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2020); Viva Arte Viva, 57th Venice Biennale (2017); Not New Now, Marrakech Biennale 6, Morocco (2016); and Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2014). Gilliam’s work is included in over fifty public collections, including those of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark; Tate Modern, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
To learn more about Sam Gilliam, please view these articles from WSJ., ArtReview, the New York Times, Bloomberg.com, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as this essay by Jonathan Binstock from the artist's 2005 retrospective exhibition catalogue.
Lead banner portrait: Sam Gilliam at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, Photo by John Gossage
Harmony images: main views by Brandon Webster; still and video detail views by Lee Thompson
Exhibition installation view: Sam Gilliam: Hard Edge Paintings 1963 -1996, curated by Rashid Johnson, March 28 – May 11, 2013, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Photo by Fredrik Nilsen Studio
Banner portrait: Sam Gilliam at The De Luxe Show, De Luxe Theater, Menil Foundation, Houston, Texas, 1971
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