Born in Tupelo, MS in 1933, Sam Gilliam was raised in Louisville, KY. Moving to Washington DC in 1962, he quickly made his name as part of the capitol art scene. Producing minimal, non-representational paintings—reductive geometric arrangements of lines and planes of color—his early work rhymed with that of Washington School colorists like Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, and Morris Louis. Like his peers, in these compositions, Gilliam elevated the two-dimensional to assert riotous, intelligent optical pleasures within the confines of flatness.
In 1967, Gilliam radically shifted his approach and began to make Beveled-EdgePaintings like Looming (1967). In these first works, he stretched canvas onto beveled-edged frames so that the painting’s appear to float in front of the wall and into the gallery space. During this period, he also embraced a different approach to painting, itself, setting his brush aside to soak raw canvas in diluted acrylics, allowing colors to run and bleed. From there, he improvised a sequence of actions—folding, hanging, shaking, etc.—designed to create unexpected compositional effects. Gilliam’s process allowed him to construct paintings that synthesized the luminous stains of Helen Frankenthaler, the drip-driven dynamism of Jackson Pollock, the gestural intensity of Willem de Kooning, and the reverberating color of Mark Rothko.
Embracing the chromatic potential of abstraction, Gilliam’s practice positioned him at the forefront of post-painterly abstraction, yet his work from this period has an inherent political bent to it. Reveling in the unfettered freedom of color and process, Looming upholds the idea that free expression, itself, is a form of engaged citizenship. Indeed, Gilliam fiercely defended himself from criticism from artists and intellectuals associated with the Black Arts Movement who accused him that his art did not directly reference Black culture and liberation. As he eloquently argued, “the expressive act of making a mark and hanging it in space is always political. My work is as political as it is formal.” As a result, Looming subtly addresses sociopolitical issues through an emotive Color Field idiom, imbuing formalism with a radical spontaneity that pushes the language of abstract painting forward.
Championing a non-hierarchical understanding of color and form, Looming foregrounds an improvisational compositional approach that mirrors that of jazz. In a 1984 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, Gilliam explains, “We used to talk about Coltrane. That Coltrane worked the whole sheet; he didn’t bother to stop at bars and notes and clefs and various things, he just played the whole sheet at once.” Similarly, in Looming, Gilliam “plays” the entire canvas, filling every inch with staccato bursts and legato fields of pigment.