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Interview with Sam Gilliam by Kenneth V. Young

Sam Gilliam (left), 1976, Courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Kenneth Victor Young (right) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, c. 1973

In Memory of Two from Louisville

YOUNG: When you came to Washington and you had your first show, where was that first show?

GILLIAM: It was in Adams Morgan at the Adams Morgan Gallery. They were primarily a series of watercolors, and one large painting which we put in the window...I approached this person, as a Southerner is prone to do, and said, "How do you like my show?" And he didn't say anything. He said, "Well, I'd really tell you. I didn't come in because of the one in the window. I came in for the little watercolors." I said, "Well, how do you feel about them?" He said, "Man, you're scared." And I said, "What do you mean, that I'm scared?" He said, "In those big paintings, you're real scared. In these little ones, you pretty hot." This was Tom [Downing].

[Later,] I walked into his studio and there was this huge painting of nothing but dots. And he said, "Now that's painting!" the bottom of the steps, on the way out, I said, "If he calls that painting, he's crazy." ...[However,] the more I tried to do figurative painting - little watercolors and things like this - I began to wonder, "What is it that this person gets out of painting those dots?" And it worried me so that I called him and invited him out for a drink so we could discuss it. And he said, "You are an o-o-o-ld man to be so young." He said, "These dots are the same thing that [Thelonius] Monk is doing."


GILLIAM: ...[T]his is the thing that actually happened upon moving to Washington; we realized in the transition that in being exposed to the National Gallery or the Phillips or the early Smithsonian, and seeing the shock and meeting kind of the intellect of persons like Tom Downing, who had worked with both Louis and Noland and other people, we felt that we read what was going on...[S]omeone finally said, "Where is this Louisville?" which really was to mean, "Where was this kind of incubator that you became what was suggested as such kind of advanced persons?" [...] [T]he spirit of Louisville in consolidation somehow met at least a certain sort of spirit and a challenge in Washington.


GILLIAM: ...[W]hatever was spinning on that disc in the early '60s by way of music gave us all something to talk about and something actually literally to share. It...became an oddity when some of us, in the early '60s, used to hang out in Georgetown more than we hung out on 14th Street; and if we hung out on 14th Street, we hung out with some white artists who wanted to come to 14th Street or who wanted to come to 11th Street to hear Monk or Mal or Chico, in that sense, and who would sit there with his eyes closed and say, "I lo-o-o-ve the space that he's painting in." And before you knew it, there were paintings that were being titled after Thelonius or Mal much in the same sort of rhythm that you really felt you were doing the same sort of thing. In many ways, by the music we were being challenged to see and challenged for the proof that Dizzy asked for; and that you were going beyond in many ways the sort of the verbal into what was that real kind of control that is at least the wholeness that comes from at least a certain kind of combination of whole-body expression.


YOUNG: Let's talk a little about technique. From the Louisville paintings, I know you were using oil. What were your considerations in using that medium and how did that medium differ to using acrylic when you came to Washington?

GILLIAM: ...I had come to really looking, really thinking about acrylics, the sense of the drawing, and really wanting to get to at least the chroma of Noland or Frankenthaler and things like this, really seeing the sense of, not tactility, but the illusion of Pollock. When I started acrylics, I realized that in the same way as in painting with watercolors, you work the surface of the paper, the whiteness of the paper through transparency. It wasn't so much having a work that was hand-controlled, you simply let it go, you didn't say "Whoa!"

YOUNG: In a way that acrylics presented a sense of immediacy that was similar to playing music, wouldn't you say?

GILLIAM: Yeah, but playing music in a certain sense that - we used to talk about Coltrane - that Coltrane worked at the whole sheet, he didn't bother to stop at bars and notes and clefs and various things, he just played the whole sheet at once. I think that's very important, because the spatial and the total attitude of the picture depends upon at least the feeling of planarity that is determined at least by the edge as a whole...[in addition,] the kind of markings or the addition of other sorts of color information opened up that plane, so there's a kind of instantaneous action of many factors acting as a whole but they were all very, very simply defined...