SAM GILLIAM b. 1933
Mars at Angles, 1978
Acrylic on polypropylene, 232 X 186" (589.28 X 472.44 cm.)
Signed, on reverse
Museum purchase, 989-0-106
After receiving a Master's degree in painting from the University of Louisville, where he spent his childhood, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C. in 1962, where Jackson Pollock's legacy was very much alive. From the mid-1950s Morris Louis had been engaged in an adventure inspired by Jackson Pollock's innovative techniques. Louis worked with huge lengths of canvas spread on the floor from wall to wall, pouring acrylic paints, folding over his canvases and staining forms, in a spontaneous process. Around him in Washington gathered several younger artists, including Sam Gilliam, who soon entered into the new spirit. Toward the late 1960s, he, too, abandoned stretchers and frames, and began to work with poured surfaces. From the beginning, in this new experimental mode, Gilliam displayed immense vitality. His colors seethed on the canvas, and his ability to control large formats was obvious. It soon became apparent to Gilliam that, having freed himself from the quadrilateral plane of traditional painting, he could move at will into three-dimensional space. With the aid of new materials, such as polypropylene, Gilliam was able to bring his billowing images off the wall, or stand them, sometimes on wooden armatures, as though they were sculptures. But in fact, Gilliam's images are always envisioned as paintings, albeit paintings that like topological descriptions could be enfolded, draped, or given virtual cavities and real cavities, depending on his pictorial intention. By 1967 he had achieved sufficient mastery of his new techniques to be offered a one-man exhibition at the Phillips Gallery, Washington, D.C.
During the next decade, Gilliam not only extended his work to the installation of large, flexible painted canvases in outdoor settings, but had begun to think of his paintings as occupying specific spaces. Certain exhibitions during the 1970s were conceived as installations for the museum or gallery spaces he was offered. When he exhibited at the J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, in 1976, one of his most perceptive critics, Walter Hopps, marveled at the "delicate balance between improvisation and structure and a sense of chaos controlled."
Like the early Russian master Vladimir Tatlin, Gilliam was keenly aware of the spatial advantages of the triangular form implicit in corners, or, as the title of this work suggests, angles. In Mars at Angles, he takes full advantage of the shadowy space secreted behind his painting. The gorgeous panoply of color cascading from a single point in the ceiling, and attached at the two angles of the walls, suggests a hidden axis in the very depths of the corner. The flow of Gilliam's drapes, so suggestive of a Renaissance baldacchino, a canopy of richly woven fabric, seems free of the composer's intention, but in fact, is carefully controlled to offer structural coherence. There are hidden geometric axes and diagonals here that are quite as explicitly structural as a painting by one of the great Renaissance masters of drapery, such as the Venetian, Paolo Veronese. Despite its three-dimensional aspect, this work is fundamentally a painting, in which earlier conventions are revitalized in a free experimental spirit.