Carousel State

Sam Gilliam American

Not on view

Liberating the canvas from its stretcher, straddling the wall and three dimensions in space, Gilliam explored the material and chromatic possibilities of a traditional painting support in Carousel State. Among a series of works by Gilliam initially termed "sculptural paintings" or "suspended paintings," the moniker "drape paintings" has now come to be most associated with the works. The series began in 1968, garnering the artist much acclaim (they were featured in the U.S. Pavilion at the 36th Venice Biennial in 1972) and remain among his best-known works. Gilliam said of this series: "The liquidity of the colors was reinforced by the fluidity of the canvas. Paint and surface took on an added, third-dimensional reality. Now the canvas was not only the means to, but a primary part of, the object. The suspended paintings began by celebrating the working process and ended with the involvement of the wall, the floor, and the ceiling. The year 1968 was one of revelation and determination—something was in the air, and it was in that spirit that I did the drape paintings." [1] Dating to the first year of making such works, Carousel State reflects this new and significant direction in Gilliam’s oeuvre.

Painterly passages ranging from dense accumulations of pigment that bleed into one another, to more watery translucent stretches of color, the acrylic paints were applied on unprimed canvas, leaving visible areas of raw unpainted canvas, thereby deliberately engaging the ground as part of the composition. The wet-on-wet application of paint was achieved by dripping, spreading brushing, staining, splashing, pressing and also through the process of binding the canvas at regular intervals. Areas across the canvas are emphasized by aluminum powder sprinkled into stained pools of drying paint. The cumulative effect of these approaches to the canvas result in a chromatically brilliant and formally complex surface. In the fully realized piece, the vividly colored surface is transformed into a sculptural relief through the pleating and suspension of the canvas. In his early approaches to color, Gilliam’s work resonated with other Washington D.C. color field artists such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, while in his later approaches to process, and materiality, Gilliam’s practice relates to the process art and post minimalist practices of the 1970s, including the works of Melvin Edwards, Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris. His drape paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s epitomize this combination of color, process and material.

Carousel State’s monumental scale and the kaleidoscopic effect of bright pinks, deep purples and blues, forest greens and fiery yellows evokes the carnivalesque, and in form and spirit recalls the shimmering lights, dizzying forms, and dazzling colors of a carousel in motion. Gilliam saw this as part of his "Carousel" series, which references both the circus carousel and also the slide carousel (a former staple of art history lecture rooms and artists’ archives) with its flickering projections of lights and colors that merge and change.

Gilliam grew up in Louisville, Kentucky (coincidentally near a fairground with a circus) and saw his Southern roots in his work. "These paintings are closely related to my feeling of having been born in a certain region. A vast array of southern artists are abstract. The abstract form or abstract collage is just as southern as the literal images that we know… Artists like Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns are both southern in origin, but they are not connected to the South in terms of surface or image, as most persons you would deem southern are. In much the same way, blues connects itself to jazz. Blues songs relate to the experiences that you find within the South. When you deal with the South, you deal with images of sights, of sounds, and of literature. I think of these images in terms of abstractions, and of black literature and its roots without the particulars of single issues and images."[2] Thus, in an era of heightened civil rights activism, Gilliam channeled his revolutionary energy toward a radical approach to painting and the production of some of the most important abstract art of the 1960s.

[1] Annie Gawlak. "Solids and Veils." Art Journal 50, no. 1 (1991), p. 10.
[2] William Ferris, "Sam Gilliam: 1933–." In The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 203, 204.

Carousel State, Sam Gilliam (American, born Tupelo, Mississippi, 1933–2022 Washington, D.C.), Acrylic and aluminum powder on canvas

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