Painter Sam Gilliam died last weekend at the age of 88, leaving behind seminal works of art, notably his draped canvases covered in colorful flowers that forever changed the world’s perception of The way the painting is conceived. But he also left a more personal legacy: his influence on other artists and friends.
85-year-old sculptor Melvin Edwards, Gilliam’s friend for more than 50 years, formed a close trio with painter William T. Williams. Edwards and Gilliam owned each other’s work and asked each other endlessly about the process, sometimes three or four times a day.
“We’ve been asking why The other does something in a way,” says Edwards, probably best known for his “Lynch Shards” and barbed wire series. “But that’s the nature of Sam’s work: it’s always questioning space. “
Two days after Gilliam’s death, Edwards and Johnson spoke in edited and condensed conversations about how they handled his life and work, his decision to stay in Washington, D.C., and his success as his best critic.
What do you think of Sam’s signature move now – taking the canvas off the wall and hanging it, which he says was partly inspired by the clothes on the clothesline?
Melvin Edwards Sam is a very good painter, he is curious and experimental. Thinking about making surface art didn’t start with Sam – but he took steps that most people don’t understand. Sam took a step. Seen the right way by some people who follow this kind of thing and they immediately blessed it.
Often, other artists are quick to recognize the implications and possible implications of style. One of the first things I did involved hanging elements of steel and chain.When Sam and I showed up at the Studio Museum in Harlem [in a landmark 1969 show], I am making my first piece of barbed wire, some against the wall and some hanging. We almost take it for granted that we are all taking measures.
So you have these swirls and echoes between you, right??
Edwards Look, it’s all visual art, not labels. It’s up or down or left or right. For me and most artists, it’s like having a baby. When you have sex, you don’t think about what name you name your child.
Rashid, what is the entry point of Sam’s work for you?
Rasheed Johnson There are many, but most important is his relationship to improvisation, his ability to respond to gestures, markings and decisions in real time in a way that fits America’s greatest art form and most ambitious innovation: jazz music. We talked about this. Just watching Sam explore with honesty and a radical sense of self. This kind of radicalism goes hand in hand with improvisation and innovation.
What are the specific innovations?
Johnson To me, his bevel was an ambitious innovation, like a canvas handcrafted from a stretcher. [Gilliam’s “Beveled-Edge” or “Slice” paintings, a series that began in the late 1960s, were made on beveled-edge stretchers that projected off the wall.] I think there is something very important about this work.
Mel, do you agree?
Edwards You don’t have to know which way Sam is going. These works are supported in various ways.For example, in the recent Pace show [featuring Edwards and Williams], the sawhorse he uses is the perfect foil for Sam to spread his work horizontally. It has a human scale, and the other pieces in that show take us straight to the ceiling.
Sam is competitive and talks about wanting to win art competitions – artists really don’t talk like that now.
Johnson Some of them are passed down from generation to generation. Older artists are more willing to acknowledge the competitive spirit. Unlike today. I have a lot of respect for that kind of thinking. There is beauty in trying to win. Even without a direct opponent.
He’s a tennis player, maybe that has something to do with the drive to compete.
Edwards When we talked two months ago, I made fun of Sam being a tennis player. Our friend William was a track and long jumper, and football was my main sport in high school. All of us are physical people who understand physical dynamics. I don’t mean it translates one-to-one with our work, but I mean sensitivity to three dimensions.
Rashid, you talked about a black artist’s decision in the 1960s and 1970s to work abstractly, rather than portray black people directly in figurative or figurative terms — and how that came to you.
Johnson It’s a decision, and pretending it’s not really a stupid errand. Artists like Sam and Sam, who chose abstraction as a vehicle and saw it as a way forward, were equally aware of the fact that they did not include black bodies and subject black concerns. I thank those people. It doesn’t always pay off in the typical way.
Sam remained in Washington until later in life when he had a steady gallery representation in New York, the center of the art world. How has this affected his career?
Edwards He has his independence, which is at the heart of his personality anyway.
When I Interviewed him in 2018 Ask him if being black has hindered his career, his answer is yes, no, he has no interest in clearing up conflicts.
Johnson Honestly, I like it, and I see a lot of truth in both answers. White Western history often does a good job of centralizing itself. For me, as a young artist, Sam Gilliam is important. Mel, Ed Clark, William T. Williams, these are heroes to me. The fact that they are not as ambitiously represented in some cultural institutions does not hinder the way I see the world.
Edwards People think writing about white people is something we have to aspire to. The art world has its way of looking at things and its way of educating us, so we often limit our thinking. Ultimately, Sam is not limited by these things.
I know it was shortly after his death, but what was his main legacy?
Johnson I am so happy for his life and excited about the impact he has had on so many of us. To me, it’s the cycle of his life and career – in fact, he continues to work and continue to create things that not only complement his legacy, but add to it. I know some will cite his early breakthroughs, but honestly I think over the past three years he has given us work that is probably as ambitious as he has ever been. That part is important. This guy really keeps going.
Edwards I’m glad Sam is Sam and does what he wants. He has always maintained this attitude. You can fill up the entire New York Times with just Sam and forget about the rest. This is how I feel about my friends emotionally. He’s glad his work is getting more attention, and more funding has come with it, but it’s been an uphill struggle. He’s always wanted to do this job, and he’s never been able to.