When painter Sam Gilliam died last weekend at the age of 88, he left behind some pioneering works of art, in particular his draped canvases stained with color flowers that forever changed the way people the world would design a painting. But he also left a more personal legacy: his impact on fellow artists and friends.
Sculptor Melvin Edwards, 85, had been a friend of Gilliam’s for more than 50 years, forming a tight trio with painter William T. Williams. Edwards and Gilliam took ownership of each other’s work and constantly questioned the process, sometimes talking to each other three or four times a day.
“We always asked Why the other had done something a certain way,” said Edwards, perhaps best known for his “Lynch Fragments” and barbed wire series. “But that was the nature of Sam’s work. : he always questioned the space.”
Just two days after Gilliam’s death, Edwards and Johnson opened up about how they deal with his life and work, his decision to stay in Washington, D.C., and his success at being his own best critic, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed.
How do you see Sam’s signature move now – removing the canvas from the wall and draping it, which he says was partly inspired by laundry hanging on clotheslines?
MELVIN EDWARDS Sam was a very good painter who was curious and experimental. Thinking about the surfaces on which art was created didn’t start with Sam – but he took a step that most people didn’t understand was possible. Sam took the plunge. He was seen in the right way by some people who paid attention to this kind of thing, and they immediately blessed him.
Often other artists recognize the implications of style and possible meaning quite quickly. One of the first things I did involved steel hanging elements and chains. When Sam and I showed together at the Studio Museum in Harlem [in a landmark 1969 show], I was making the first of my pieces of barbed wire, some of which were attached to the wall, some of which were hanging. And we almost took it for granted that we were both taking action.
So there were these swirls and echoes between you, weren’t there?
EDWARDS Listen, it’s all visual art, it’s not about labeling. It’s either up, or down, or left, or right. For me and most artists, it’s like having a baby. When you have sex, you don’t think about what name you’ll give the baby.
Rashid, what were the entry points for you with Sam’s work?
RASHID JOHNSON There are many, but the most significant is its relationship to improvisation, its ability to respond in real time through gesture, marking and decision-making in a way that matches the greater art form. and America’s most ambitious innovation: jazz. music. We talked about it. Just watch Sam explore with an honest and radical sense of self. This radicalism was attached to improvisation and innovation.
Which innovations in particular?
JOHNSON Its bevels are for me an innovation as ambitious as the franking of the fabric of the frame. [Gilliam’s “Beveled-Edge” or “Slice” paintings, a series that began in the late 1960s, were made on beveled-edge stretchers that projected off the wall.] I think there’s something really meaningful about this work.
Mel, are you okay?
EDWARDS You didn’t need to know which direction it was going to go with Sam. The plays were supported in various ways. For example, during the recent show at Pace [featuring Edwards and Williams], the trestles he used were a perfect foil for Sam, spreading his work horizontally. It was on a human scale, whereas the other pieces in this exhibition took us straight to the ceiling.
Sam was pretty competitive, talking about wanting to win the art game – artists don’t really talk that way anymore.
JOHNSON Part of this is generational. Older artists are more willing to admit the spirit of competition. It is different from today. I have so much respect for that way of thinking. There’s a beauty to trying to win. Even if there is no direct opponent.
He was a tennis player, and maybe that had to do with wanting to compete.
EDWARDS When we spoke two months ago, I teased Sam about being a tennis player. Our friend William was a track athlete and a wide jumper, and football was my main sport in high school. We were all physical people who understood physical dynamics. I don’t mean it translated directly into our work, but I do mean the sensitivity to three dimensions.
Rashid, you talked about a black artist’s decision in the 1960s and 1970s to work abstractly and not directly depict blackness in representational or representational terms – and how that lives on for you.
JOHNSON It was a decision, and it’s a mistake to pretend it’s not true. Sam and artists like Sam, who chose abstraction as a vehicle and saw it as a way forward, were equally aware that they did not include the black body and black thematic concerns. I thank these people. It wasn’t always rewarding in the usual way.
Sam remained in Washington, and he did not have a consistent gallery representation in New York, the center of the art world, until the end of his life. How has this affected his career?
EDWARDS He had his independence, which was central to his personality anyway.
When I interviewed him in 2018 and asked him if being black had held his career back, he said yes and no, and he wasn’t interested in cleaning up the contradiction.
JOHNSON Honestly, I love this and see a lot of truth in both answers. White Western history often does an excellent job of centering. For me, as a young artist, Sam Gilliam was important. Mel, Ed Clark, William T. Williams, they were heroes to me. And the fact that they are not represented so ambitiously in certain cultural institutions has not hampered my vision of the world.
EDWARDS People think that things written about white people are what we have to aspire to be meaningful. The art world has its ways of looking at things and has its ways of educating us so that often we limit our thinking. Sam, in the end, wasn’t limited by that sort of thing.
I know it’s so soon after his passing, but what is his key legacy?
JOHNSON I feel happy with the life he has lived and excited about the impact he has had on so many of us. For me, it’s the cycles of his life and his career – the fact that he continued to work and do things that not only complemented his legacy, but added to it. I know some people will cite his early breakthroughs, but I think over the last three years he’s given us what may be as big a job as he’s ever done, honestly. This part matters. This guy really went on.
EDWARDS I’m just happy that Sam was Sam, doing what he felt he wanted to do. He always kept this attitude. You could fill the whole New York Times with just Sam, and forget the rest. This is my emotional view of my friend. He was glad his work got more attention and more funding flowed in, but it was a hell of a fight. He always wanted to do the job, and he did it until he couldn’t.