Sam Gilliam on the Physical Activity of Discovery

For his debut exhibitions at Pace Gallery in Seoul and Hong Kong, the colourfield artist presents a suite of new paintings that continues his investigations into colour and form

BY Sam Gilliam AND Terence Trouillot in Interviews | 18 AUG 21

Terence Trouillot: You showed a suite of new works at Pace Gallery’s new outpost in Seoul this summer, which has just toured to Hong Kong. Is this the first time you’ve exhibited in Asia? In a video interview you did earlier this year with Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, he refers to your new works as ‘white paintings’. Yet, these tableaux are full of colour in the underpainting – which is revealed through the action of literally moving the paint on the canvas with a rake – while the overpainting is done with white acrylic. I wonder if this series is, in some ways, a conversation with monochromatic painting and artists such as Kazimir Malevich or Robert Ryman?

SG: Not so much Malevich. The whiteness of the painting makes it easier to see what’s there, makes the other colours more present and more dynamic. What you see and discover through the white surfaces of the paintings appears to be looking at you, peeking through this white finish.

TT: For your inaugural show last autumn at Pace New York, ‘Existed Existing’, you showed these beautiful, large, monochromatic paintings on Japanese washi paper. Can you speak about those works in relation to the new ‘white paintings’?

Sam Gilliam Moon Tide , 2021 acrylic, sawdust, encaustic, on wood panel, mounted in wood frame 60" × 60" × 4" (152.4 cm × 152.4 cm × 10.2 cm
Sam Gilliam, Moon Tide, 2021, acrylic, sawdust, encaustic on wood panel, mounted in wood frame, 152 × 152 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Pace Gallery, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong

SG: The directness of the elements of painting that are in the washi gives it depth and scale; the simplicity of the colour in these works is a means of organizing seeing in a very different way.

TT: I was interested in your use of detritus on the surface of your work: sawdust, scraps of wood from your sculptures, etc. Can you talk a little bit about this newfound process and some of the materials you’re using in these more recent works?

SG: The sawdust came from the fabrication of the pyramid sculptures for ‘Existed Existing’ and became quite useful: it helped dry the paint during the process of making the ‘white paintings’. Then I added other things, such as pieces of scrap wood for texture, or very shiny beads which give a contrast to that dryness. It all carries through to the surface of the work, so the canvas serves as a container for both paint and objects.


New work by Sam Gilliam, 2020.
New work by Sam Gilliam, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Pace Gallery, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong

TT: The new works in this show, and in ‘Existed Existing’, have seen an incredible resurgence of energy and a return to the bevel-edge canvas. Can you speak to what inspired you to get back into this productive zone and to work again with an aesthetic you first adopted in the 1960s?

SG: In a way, the show at Pace New York was the first show of painting I’d done in a long time. Before that, I was working on fabric and canvas – folding, dropping, hanging it in space – sometimes using other elements such as wood beams and sawhorses. This was my first return to stretchered canvas. I was also inspired by the structure of the pyramid sculptures and the softness of the washi paintings: I just wanted to get back into the studio and paint more.

TT: The new works seem more minimalist – a kind of stripping down to the bare essentials.

SG: These works are meant to give the viewer a sense of the multiplicity of the space – how high, how wide – and, since the sculptures have wheels and are mobile, you feel that you could go around them or through them, as some have slight openings where parts of the sculpture can move from left to right. The show is physical; the spaces are large. When you enter the room, you have many ways of seeing the work.

Sam Gilliam No Change , 2021 acrylic on canvas, bevel - edge 48" × 48" × 3 - 1/4" (121.9 cm × 121.9 cm × 8.3 cm
Sam Gilliam, No Change, 2021, acrylic on canvas, bevel-edge, 122 × 122 cm × 8 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Pace Gallery, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong

TT: Aside from your paintings being so consciously about colour, I’ve always seen them as operating in conversation with sculpture. How does the sculptural enter your paintings?

SG: First of all, to say that the work exists as one thing or the other is false. The work occurs in various ways. There is no difference between painting and sculpture. The dynamics of presenting objects within the space of a room are the same. The paintings might be 2 × 2.5 metres or 2.5 × 6 metres. From the myriad colours to the light reflected in the metal beads to the dullness of the sawdust, the multiplicity of interactions in these works encourages viewers to abandon static looking for the physical activity of discovery.

Sam Gilliam’ is on view at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong, through 2 September 2021.

Main image: ‘Sam Gilliam’, 2021, exhibition view, Pace Gallery, Seoul. Courtesy: the artist and Pace Gallery, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong

Thumbnail image: Portrait of the artist. Courtesy: the artist and Pace Gallery, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi) is 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 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.

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.