The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is currently presenting RECOLLECT: Sam Gilliam, an exhibition reflecting on the innovative work of Gilliam, the internationally recognized artist and his impact on the development of Madison’s creative culture.
The Mississippi-born Gilliam was an abstract artist originally associated with the Washington Color School of the late 1950s and 1960s, according to a press release from MMoCA, and was later recognized as the first artist to remove the wooden stretcher bars that determined the shape of his paintings, thereby allowing his vivid, color-stained canvases to hang, billow, and swing through space. One of Gilliam’s early works, Carousel (1970), a colorful 67-foot-long draped canvas that hangs suspended from the ceiling, received its first museum show in 1971 at the Madison Art Center, the precursor of MMoCA. The show was inspired by the then-small but relevant collection of Don Eiler, who had moved to Madison from Washington, D.C., where he first saw a Gilliam artwork.
During the intensity of the Black Power Movement, and subsequently the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s, Gilliam’s work did not project a specific Black aesthetic that was common and emerging amongst other Black artists of the time period. Artists like Gilliam who aligned with this movement became known for staining their canvases with color so as to emphasize a painting’s two-dimensionality. Gilliam’s color-field artwork remains at the center of many conversations that discuss what “Black art” is and what it can be.
Keith Morrison, an African American art critic of the 1980s, shares his ideas of the subtle Black aesthetic reverberating in Gilliam’s work. “I feel that aspects of Gilliam’s work relate to Africanness in ways that have been overlooked,” Morrison says. “When I first saw Gilliam’s drapes, I was reminded of childhood in the most African parts of the West Indies. Gilliam’s color, with its brilliance and many-faceted hues, inescapably reminds one of the bright colors of African and African-American clothes and designs.”
Gilliam’s association with Madison-based artists, African-American literaturists, and cultural institutions continued from 1972 until his death, at age 88, in 2022. The artist traveled to Madison every summer for over 40 years, serving as an artist-in-residence at UW-Madison and working often with Tandem Press. Sandra Adell, a University of Madison African-American studies professor and author, shares her experiences owning a Gilliam piece, telling Madison365, “I was amazed when I found out he [Sam Gilliam] was working in Madison…the story about the piece I’ve got is very abstract, and it’s very dark, it’s just like lines and things, titled “Chehaw,” and it makes a reference to Ralph Ellison’s short story ‘The Little Man at Chehaw station.’
RECOLLECT: Sam Gilliam invites visitors to celebrate the connections found in his art and through his art. Guided by stories shared by those who knew Gilliam, the exhibition is a meditation on individual and highly personal ties to the artist and his works. The exhibition opened on Aug. 10 and goes until March 3, 2024. Admission to MMoCA’s galleries is always free.