A group of people stand in a museum gallery, all with their attentions on a speaker on the left, who has a medium dark skin tone, long curly brown hair, and is wearing a black face mask and a bright, ankle length red dress, who seems to be mid-sentence.
Above: Event for “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” 2021, Speed Art Museum.

This is grief work. Imagination work.
Allison Glenn remembers Sam Gilliam


Essay
Allison Glenn


If you are concerned about whatever it is you want to do, you dream about it.  You wake up in the morning and you’ve got a solution. You work it out. There is always tomorrow.
-Sam Gilliam1


Breathe in slowly from your belly.
The deepest breath, up through your chest.
Hold.
Imagine a new world.
Exhale.
Imagine a new world rooted in liberation. You can just be.
You are entitled to rest.
We are enough.
Keep breathing.
Keep resting.
Thank you for living.
You are enough now.
-Trisha Hersey, The Nap Ministry2


In early 2021, I was sitting in a parking lot in Arkansas, speaking on my cell phone with Sam Gilliam’s studio manager, about my ideas to suspend Carosel Form II (1969) from the ceiling of the Speed Art Museum’s 1927 building. Featured on the cover of Art in America (September/October 1970), accompanied by an article titled “Black Art in America”, Carousel Form II is one of only eight monumental drape paintings the artist has created. Since the work had been donated by the artist to the Speed Art Museum in 2013, the painting had never been fully suspended from the ceiling without any wall-bound elements.

By employing abstraction, Sam Gilliam simultaneously refused the boundaries of the canvas as well as the expectations of representation that were inherent to the discourse around Black artistic production during the 1960s. It was this pure potentiality of his vision that drew me to including the painting in Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Art Museum last year. The decision was largely due to the unique space that Gilliam’s painting practice has occupied. Created during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Carousel Form II can be seen as a protest in itself. The opportunity to include this work in the exhibition came with my desire to suspend it from the ceiling of the galleries; to approach the painting as if it was a sculpture; ultimately speaking to the slippage between painting and sculpture that Gilliam’s works is deeply invested in exploring.

The imprints of time and space on the body are imbued within the fields of colorful acrylic paint applied onto the large drapes of fabric that comprise Carousel Form II. It occupied the gallery space with a sense of possibility and radicality that engaged with the body on multiple registers.

The parabolic drape created through the suspension of the canvas created a formal dialogue with many of the works, including the photographs of long braided hair in Lorna Simpson’s Same (1991), which was hung in close proximity. The drape of both Gilliam’s painting and Hank Willis Thomas’s 15,433 (2019) (2021) and 19,281 (2020) (2021) was evocative of the heaviness of the place and time that we were working within. Thomas’ flags are part of an ongoing, annual series that Thomas calls his “Fallen Stars” series, where the appropriation of the iconography of the American Flag (multiple white stars sewn onto a deep blue textile) represents each person murdered by gun violence in the United States in the year the flag was created.

Conceptually, the languid drape acted as a framing device for Alisha Wormsley’s There Are Black People in the Future. I imagined that a young person, or person of any age, would walk into the galleries, and be drawn toward this brightly colored suspended form. I do believe in the power and impact of an embodied experience with art and the affect that emerges from an engagement with Gilliam’s draped canvas. Perhaps this viewer would sit underneath the painting, enveloped by it’s colorful brilliance while reading Wormsley’s text as a series of sentence fragments

There Are Black People
In the Future
Black People In the Future
Are There Black People In the Future

while listening to the guided meditation by Trisha Hersey of The Nap Ministry

This is grief work.
Imagination work.
You are enough.
Rest is a sacred act.
Grieving is a sacred act.
Your body is sacred.
Our bodies are a site of liberation. Wherever our bodies are, we can find rest. Breathe. Breathe deeper.
Inhale. Hold for four seconds. And slowly exhale. Keep breathing.
Thank you for living.
Thank you for resisting.
Thank you for thriving.
Thank you for resting.
You are not what white supremacy told you. It is a lie.
You can rest.
You are entitled to rest.
You are enough now.
We are all connected.
There is a quiet freedom in your heart. There is a quiet freedom in your rest.
You can just be.
You are enough.
Our grief is a healing force.
Our rest is a healing force.
Keep breathing.
Keep living.
Rest is a meticulous love practice.
Our collective rest will save us.
Our collective imagining has saved us.
Rest is your divine right.
Rest is a divine right.
Rest is a human right.
You are enough.
This is a moment of care.
This is a moment to listen.
This is a moment to grieve.
This is a moment to lament.
And may a soft space to rest open up in your heart. May deep rest come to us always.
Hold on. Hold On.
You are enough.
The systems cannot have you.
Declare the systems cannot have us.
In our living, we are divine.
In our death, we are divine.
The end is just the beginning.
You can soften.
You can rest.
Our radical community care will save us.
Our deep connected care has saved us.
Keep connecting.
Keep breathing.
Breathe in slowly from your belly.
The deepest breath, up through your chest.
Hold.
Imagine a new world.
Exhale.
Imagine a new world rooted in liberation. You can just be.
You are entitled to rest.
We are enough.
Keep breathing.
Keep resting.
Thank you for living.
You are enough now.
Rest.
Silence is a sound.
Slowing down is our divine right.
This is a pause.
A moment of care.
A moment of deep imagination.
A moment to rest.

Sam Gilliam is the kind of artist you return to again and again. His radically defiant painting practice is one that is untethered to tradition. If I am honest, I’d been thinking about Gilliam’s work for years. I’ll never forget the first time I saw archival images of Seahorses (1975)—Gilliam’s massive, painted canvases—cascading from the exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1975, Gilliam adorned the eastern facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s neoclassical building with three 30 x 90 foot paintings. While working toward an outdoor sculpture exhibition at Crystal Bridges that would aim to move painting beyond the confines of the pictorial plane and into the expanded field, I first came across Gilliam’s 1975 PMA installation. These paintings were suspended from the exterior of the museum, unprotected from the elements. Defiant in form, material, and installation, these large draped canvases register as radical in 2022.

For me, Sam’s paintings would always be about protest and resistance, passion and form, light, shape, color. About leaning in, pushing boundaries, and taking up space. This unabashed freedom allowed for an expansive approach to painting, and perhaps life. Is there a greater lesson that an artist, or artwork, can provide? It was a dream to be able to engage with just a small part of his incredible career, and one that I will carry with me forever.
A white wall displaying four artworks with a sculpture in the foreground. From left to right, there are two photos in light wood frames on the wall, followed by a photograph printed on fabric and draped on the wall, and then another framed photo. The sculpture is a plate carrier vest with patches embroidered with white text, resting on a wood stand.Wide shot of a museum gallery with contemporary art on display. in the foreground is a tie-dye like painted canvas without a frame, which is hung from above out of view and drapes down, partially obscuring the rest of the room which has two floor standing sculptures and a row of photos on a black painted wall.

View of “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” 2021, Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY. Foreground, from left: Theaster Gates, Alls my life I has to fight, 2019; Terry Adkins, Muffled Drums (from Darkwater), 2003; Sam Gilliam, Carousel Form II, 1969. Photo: Bill Roughen.


A deep view of a museum hallway lined with beige marble columns and white several marble statues, at the end of which is a darkened room, illuminated only by the glow of a small painting that depicts Breonna Taylor, a young woman with medium dark skin tone, medium length wavy brown hair, and who wears long flowing blue dress against a matching blue background.
View of “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” 2021, Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY. Center: Amy Sherald, Breonna Taylor, 2020. Photo: Xavier Burrell.


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Notes:
  1. Jennifer Samet, “Beer With a Painter: Sam Gilliam,” Hyperallergic, March 19, 2016, https://hyperallergic.com/284543/beer-with-a-painter-sam-gilliam/.
  2. Trisha Hersey, “Meditation for Breonna,” Promise Witness Remembrance, https://speedmuseum.cdn.prismic.io/speedmuseum/de6053a6-d1c4-4e5f-9737-1a9da2d40460_Nap+Ministry+Transcript.pdf and https://www.promisewitnessremembrance.org/education-and-resources/
  3. Sam Gilliam:  November 30, 1933-June 25, 2022

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10.8.22

Allison Glenn is a curator and writer deeply invested in working closely with artists to develop ideas, artworks, and exhibitions that respond to and transform our understanding of the world. She is Senior Curator at New York’s Public Art Fund. Glenn’s curatorial work focuses on the intersection of art and publics, through public art, biennials, special projects, and major new commissions by leading contemporary artists.

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