Sam Gilliam is an African American painter associated with the so-called Washington Color School, a movement that began in Washington, DC. It was led primarily by six core Abstract Expressionist artists during the 1950s through the 1970s, including Asheville native Kenneth Noland. Gilliam is also known as one of the great innovators of post-World War II American painting, consistently expanding the vocabulary of abstraction. His hallmark “drape paintings,” which consist of stained fabric or paper resembling tie-dye, are regarded as a major milestone in the development of American art.
In Wall Circle I, Gilliam challenges the very notion of what a painting can be. He uses painting, cutting, folding, and draping to create a structured form. It was one of the very first works I was struck by when I started my job at the Museum. The work hangs elegantly at the entrance of the exhibition Intersections in American Art, and I still find myself stopping directly in front of the work and pausing to admire it for longer than I realize. The painting has a striking, larger than life, three-dimensional quality. The colors are vivid, with the pastels at the top slowly mixing with the primary colors towards the bottom, and—my favorite—bursts of neon green speckled throughout. The canvas is draped gracefully but appears durable. When examined closely, the stitching around the edges appears crisp and masterful. Intentional placement of the folds allows for gravity to dictate the fabric’s movement, morphing into something poetic as I imagine a figure dancing in the breeze. In turn, the canvas becomes anthropomorphic, suggestive of a head, neck, and torso. The scale of the work is incredibly difficult to capture in a photograph; as I stand beneath it in the SECU Collection Hall, I feel ultimately small and unremarkable in comparison, but in the moment, I also feel at peace with that notion.
~ Contributed by Devon Fero, communications & external affairs assistant