All posts in “Abstract Expressionism”

Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.
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Object of the Week: Dark Figures with Green

Two historical moments, remembered well, can bring us to a fuller appreciation of Lester Johnson’s Dark Figures with Green.

When you next come to Seattle Art Museum and stand in front of Johnson’s ominous painting, if you situate yourself in the right spot, you can catch a glimpse of Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change (1947) in your peripheral view. Maybe the connection will be immediately clear to you, or maybe not, but Johnson’s way of aggressively scratching out figures in a dark and contained palette grew out of the expressive freedom pioneered by Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist school. Lester Johnson’s paintings of the 1950s and ‘60s picked up that mode of creating and took it in a different direction. Johnson was about economy: working to create an impact with limited means. Dark Figures with Green looms over us and says “Look what can I do with only this.” Black. Brown. Green. Three figures. Rough. Heavy.

In February of 1966, the influential art critic Harold Rosenberg put eloquent words to what Lester Johnson was doing:

To respond to Lester Johnson’s work is to respond to painting, rather than to technical minutiae, or to art history, to the social environment, to a tickle of the optical nerve. With painting undergoing an annual revolution of de-definition (Is it theatre? the display business? an illustrated lecture? science fiction?) to paint amounts to imposing arbitrary restrictions on painting. An artist who is satisfied to apply pigment to a flat surface is likely to appear slow and intellectually unadventurous . . . .

Johnson has chosen to build his art upon Action Painting through tightening its procedures. An heir of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Hofmann, Guston, he emphasizes an essential principle of their work continually obscured by the clichés of art journalism: that an action is not a letting go, a surrender to instantaneity, except as a ruse. Painting that is an action is a struggle against limits, those within the artist himself, those which he finds in the situation of art, those which he deliberately sets up on the canvas. Mere stroking and slopping of paint resulted in tiresome caricatures of Action Painting that marked its phase of mass acceptance.

Johnson has had the insight to go in a direction opposite to looseness. Distrusting the easy effect obtainable through color, texture, and non-representational shapes, he followed a course analogous to that of de Kooning in his ‘women’ paintings and of Guston in the compositions of the past four years, both of whom brought into play as a counterforce to spontaneity the more or less felt presence of objects and the human figure.1

Johnson was a painter exploring what he could achieve by putting more restrictions on himself than most would do, because adding those restrictions clarified and highlighted his creativity in solving the problem. He was a painter, part of a school of abstract artists, who took away color, texture, and abstract forms from his own toolbox. The things he’s able to accomplish with what’s left—just the figure and a few tones—are impressive. Imagine a great right-handed pitcher like Felix Hernandez announcing he’s decided to start throwing with his left arm, just to see how well he could do—or if Russell Wilson held a presser to tell everyone that he’s done running when he plays quarterback; it’s only standing still from here on out. It’s kind of like that. Rosenberg describes Lester Johnson’s achievement this way: “[He] divined that the freedom of the artist is best served by establishing the boundaries that will most effectively challenge his capacity to act.”2

In September and October of 1983 Dark Figures with Green hung in a timely exhibition of Lester Johnson’s early work at New York City’s Zabriskie Gallery. The show, Lester Johnson: The Early Paintings 1957-1967, was a hit. Johnson’s pithy, powerful statements brought him a posthumous moment. SAM curator Bruce Guenther was there to select Dark Figures with Green from among the pictures. Zabriskie Gallery wrote to Guenther on November 17 about the frenzy of interest in Johnson’s work from other parties:

Bring some folks with you to see Seattle’s Lester Johnson, so you can impress them with the story of the Abstract Expressionist who refused abstraction, and the museum who plucked one of his paintings out of New York when the Met and the Whitney were climbing over one another to get a hold of one.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Harold Rosenberg, “Lester Johnson: The Image as Counterforce,” Art News 64 (February, 1966): 10, 48-49, 64-65.
2 Rosenberg, “The Image as Counterforce.”
Image: Dark Figures with Green, 1967, Lester Johnson (American, 1919-2010), oil on canvas, 73 x 48 3/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 84.1, © Lester Johnson.
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SAMart: Sea Change

Abstract Expressionism was a dynamic fusion of Surrealism and Abstraction, seeking to awaken in the viewer—and in the artist as well—a deeper, often physical, response to the work. Large scale, edge-to-edge compositions and rich colors fill the eyes with often unified fields that are connected by movement and the traces of the brush.

 Sea Change is from a breakthrough group of early “transitional” works that Jackson Pollock made in 1947, which led away from figuration toward a fully abstract application of his drip technique. Its title comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and lends extra narrative content to the composition, suggesting an impending meteorological event.

Installation view, Modern and Contemporary art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown, 2011.
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