June 25, 2018

FREE FORM

The revolutionary, ground-breaking work of Sam Gilliam

Amidst the Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, and Pollocks, the Dallas Museum of Art’s contemporary galleries hold a lesser-known piece of equal daring: Sam Gilliam’s Leaf. A painted canvas, hung without a frame—its large folds add a sculptural dimension with a dramatic and improvisational feel.

Created in 1970, it is part of the artist’s “Drape” series, in which Gilliam painted large canvases and—eschewing the wooden stretchers that give traditional paintings their rectangular shape—freed them from structure. It’s a radical move the painter developed roughly four decades ago and has returned to in recent years with pieces such as his monumental Yves Klein Blue shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

Leaf joined the museum’s private collection last year thanks to a gift from The Joule’s proprietor, Tim Headington. “This acquisition will be an invaluable resource for the collection and our audiences,” said Agustín Arteaga, the DMA’s Eugene McDermott Director. “As the DMA’s first work by Gilliam, Leaf allows the exploration of more nuanced histories within the galleries and collection, and advances our commitment to expanding art historical narratives.”

Sam Gilliam's Leaf at the DMA
Sam Gilliam’s Leaf at the DMA, part of his experimental “Drape” series

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933 and grew up in Kentucky, but he’s spent most of his life in Washington, D.C., where he’s worked as an artist since 1962. Associated with the major movement known as Color Field painting, Gilliam explores vibrant color harmonies to express emotional states and transcendent experiences.

He also contributes to the Color Field tradition of experimenting with new techniques and materials in abstract painting. His “Drape” series was an especially exciting breakthrough, as he transformed the painting into a multidimensional object. Over the decades of his career, Gilliam has continued to experiment with form and structure, making paintings with cut-outs, hinges, and quilted layers.

As Gilliam turns 85 this year, his legacy continues to grow. In addition to the Venice Biennale, he’s been featured in group exhibitions and solo shows in galleries from Los Angeles to New York. Prominent museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art  in New York, and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art have all acquired his work in recent years. He was also commissioned to create an original work for the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a fitting honor for a painter who came into his own during the civil rights movement and lived to see the country’s first African-American president.

A major exhibition of Gilliam’s work, “The Music of Color,” opens at Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland this summer, spotlighting him on the international stage. Largely forgotten through the ’80s and ’90s, Gilliam has been rediscovered as an innovative voice in American art. The freshness of his color choices and his challenges to established techniques resonate now more than ever. —Michelle Padgett

The Details: Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 North Harwood Street