At Age 85, Living Legend Sam Gilliam Is Enjoying His Greatest Renaissance Yet
The market for Sam Gilliam’s work is stronger than ever. Just do not call it a comeback.
Critical and market attention for the abstract painter Sam Gilliam is at an all-time high. But longtime collectors and………
fans of the artist-who have watched him rack up accolades for at least five decades-consistently, and perhaps a bit defensively, caution against the word “comeback.”
Whatever you call it, Gilliam has enjoyed an unprecedented level of attention in recent years. The 85-year-old artist represented the US at the Venice Biennale way back in 1972; he was the first African American artist to do so. But his market has slow to catch up until now.
“This is his greatest renaissance yet,” says Jonathan Binstock, who reviewed Gilliam’s retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art about a decade ago. “He’s had a couple of them at the very least.” Binstock is currently preparing another major Gilliam show, “The Music of Color,” at the Kunstmuseum Basel, scheduled to open ahead of Art Basel in June.
Eleven or Gilliam’s top 20 auction results were set in 2017. All of them have been set since 2013. And the three highest auction prices ever paid for his work in quick succession this past fall. His current record is $ 684,500 for Rays (1971), a large acrylic on canvas that smashed its presale estimate of $ 100,000-150,000 at Sotheby’s in late September.
Nevertheless, Gilliam’s auction prices were still lagging behind many of his peers (who, not coincidentally, happen to be white). Fellow Washington Color School painter Morris Louis’s auction record is $ 3.6 million; Kenneth Noland’s is $ 3.3 million.
A Late Renaissance
If it feels like you’ve been seeing Gilliam’s work everywhere lately, it’s because you have been. Forty-five years after Gilliam first represented the US at the Venice Biennale, he returned to the city this summer. His brilliantly colored unstretched canvas Yves Klein Blue (2017) exuberantly welcomed visitors to Giardini’s main pavilion.
In 2016, a major new commission, Yet I Do Marvel, was hung in the lobby of the highly anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture in his hometown of Washington, DC.
In London, Gilliam’s work figured prominently in the Tate Modern exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” (which opens at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas next month) and in Pace Gallery’s recent group show of Washington. Color School painters.
Meanwhile, in New York, Mnuchin Gallery mounted a presentation of his early paintings from 1967 to 1973. Surprisingly, it was the artist’s first solo show in the city for more than three decades.
Gilliam’s career is long, “says Binstock, who is now the director of the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester. “As with many artists, there’s a cycle. There is a process of growth or expansion and then perhaps a cooling or retrenching period. It’s hard to be the focus of everyone’s attention incessantly. ”
A Long Time Coming
Gilliam’s late-breaking commercial success comes despite-or perhaps because he is a conventional path for most of his life.
He did things his own way, Binstock says, “by not signing on with a gallery; by selling out of the studio; by abstract art when abstract painting was unfashionable; and by making abstract painting when art is in the black art that was in line with the political cause. In other words, he actually did not want it to be in order to become successful. ”
Indeed, for years, Gilliam showed only with smaller galleries: Marsha Mateyka in Washington, DC, and the now-shuttered Gallery Darthea Speyer in Paris. (It was, or course, also major gallery representation.) However, Gilliam had his first show with Los Angeles power dealer David Kordansky.
The gallerist was introduced to Gilliam through the contemporary art star Rashid Johnson, who organized a show of his work at the gallery in 2013. It was quickly followed by Frysian New York (2014) and Frieze Masters (2015), another show at the gallery (2016), and an accompanying monograph (2017). Yet another solo show is on the schedule for 2018.
During this period, Gilliam’s prices have risen dramatically. As recently as three years ago, John McCord, a specialist in Phillips’s 20th Century and contemporary art department, said. “Now, you’d see that work would bring about $ 100,000 or $ 150,000.”
Prices for classic drape or beveled edge paintings from the late ’60s and early’ 70s-Gilliam’s most sought-after work-can be significantly higher on the private market, ranging from $ 350,000 to just shy of $ 1 million, sources say.
A Market Finding Its Footing
Nigel Freeman, the director of the African American fine art department at Swann Galleries in New York, agrees that the market for Gilliam is “at an all-time high” following an acceleration over the past two years.
But some believe the work is still undervalued, particularly “when you consider how seminal some of the 1960s and ’70s paintings are,” McCord says. He notes that Gilliam’s auction prices have consistently outperformed relatively conservative estimates, a sign that the market is still finding its footing.
Indeed, Gilliam’s current record of $684,500 was more than four-and-a-half times its high estimate. His second- and third-highest prices, also achieved this past fall, vastly eclipsed expectations too. A 1970 drape painting, which sold for $370,000 at Freeman’s Philadelphia, was estimated to sell for a mere $50,000–80,000, while a 1970 abstract painting sold for $332,400 at Weschler’s in Maryland, more than double its low estimate of $150,000.
The Birth of the Drape Painting
Gilliam first rose to fame in the late 1960s with his drape paintings, which came out of his experiments with unsupported canvases. He said the works were partly inspired by watching women hang laundry on clotheslines from his studio window in Washington, DC.
He began to drape and suspend large paint-stained canvases, imparting an innovative sculptural element to the works. “These are the biggest contributors to the history of art,” says Rajaratnam or Mnuchin.
The other particularly sought after body of work is Gilliam’s “beveled-edge” or “slice” paintings, which he created in 1967. The works’ edges extend from the wall to the viewer.
Both series “highlight his interest in pushing the traditional boundaries of painting and creating innovative tools that alter our perception of the picture plane,” says Dunham Townend, head of the modern art department at Freeman’s, where the $ 370,000 drape painting sold last month .
Rajaratnam notes that Gilliam has influential to younger artists who similarly blur painting and sculpture, from David Hammons to Oscar Murillo. “People are only realizing the huge debt that is owed to Gilliam,” she says.