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October 09, 2023

Acquisition: Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam, "Yellow Edge"

Sam Gilliam
Yellow Edge, 1972
acrylic on canvas
overall: 139.7 x 114.3 cm (55 x 45 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Elinor K. Farquhar

American artist Sam Gilliam (1933–2022) was associated with the Washington Color School, a group of Washington, DC-area abstract artists focused on color field painting from the 1950s to the 1970s. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Yellow Edge (1972), an example of Gilliam’s revolutionary beveled-edge Slice paintings. The work was given to the National Gallery by Elinor K. Farquhar. Yellow Edge exemplifies Gilliam’s innovations in process and display from the 1960s and 1970s and his predilection for bright hues, which are seen in much of his 1970s work.

Gilliam came to Washington, DC, in 1962 and joined the second generation of Washington Color School painters. Like the first generation of the group, which included Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Gilliam was interested in the expressive qualities of color. By applying acrylic paint to unprimed canvas, his work took on an organic, intuitive quality. As he became more interested in process and the ways he could manipulate his materials, Gilliam developed more innovative techniques that allowed the materials to manipulate themselves.

Throughout the 1970s, Gilliam would alternate making his celebrated Drape paintings with his Slice paintings, in which he stretched canvas over beveled-edge frames. The Slice paintings protrude from the wall so that they are encountered, rather than simply seen, by the viewer. The rich atmosphere of Yellow Edge is dominated by a sea of orange acrylic with stains of acidic yellow across the surface. Splashes of red and blue appear in the top left, bottom right, and middle of the canvas, as a pool of electric green seems to emerge from an amorphous field of yellow in the lower right corner.

Gilliam was the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972. Among other prizes, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Norman Walt Harris Prize. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Louisville in 1980 and Northwestern University in 1990. Gilliam’s works have been acquired by numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Walker Art Center.

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