April 4 by Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam

April 4, 1969, Acrylic on canvas, 279.4 x 456.6 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase, 1973.115, © Sam Gilliam; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY

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Lament as Fractured Memory

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
William J. Danaher, Jr.

Many criticized Sam Gilliam for failing to create empowering, political images of African-American life. ‘Figurative art’, Gilliam responds, ‘doesn’t represent blackness any more than a non-narrative media-oriented kind of painting, like what I do’ (Binstock 2005: 71). Indeed, Gilliam’s work embodies, Mark Godfrey writes, a ‘Black aesthetic’ that loosened ‘the conventions of painting’ to make room for a ‘material improvisation’ analogous to John Coltrane’s ‘waves of sound’ (2017: 169).

To create cascades of colours in his work, Gilliam pours paint onto the canvas and then folds the canvas repeatedly, applying more paint as he proceeds. This introduces chance and contingency into his paintings—characteristics that he emphasizes by draping and hanging his unframed work, making its display ephemeral and non-repeatable. Gilliam’s paintings therefore blur the boundaries between painting, performance, and sculpture.

April 4 addresses, Gilliam writes, ‘the sense of a total presence of the course of man on earth, or man in the world’, (Binstock 2005: 71). Despite its abstraction, the work is unabashedly representational. The circles of red suggest gunshots and blood. The purple background suggests royalty. The colours caught in the folds trace an outline reminiscent of the Shroud of Turin. Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s death therefore reflects the death of many more African Americans who are unremembered and unmourned, and yet who have been murdered just as unjustly, as if they did not matter.

At the same time, the improvisational quality of April 4 reinforces the fractures found even in memory. How can art archive loss, when what has been lost is not merely an exceptional life, but the larger social vision behind it of integration through love and nonviolence? Without this wider horizon, who are we? What have we become? Gilliam’s painting invites the viewer to lament—to mourn what we have done, and yet to imagine what we might be.

 

References

Binstock, Jonathan P. 2005. Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Godfrey, Mark. 2017. ‘Notes on Black Abstraction’ in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, ed. by Mark Godfrey, and Zoé Whitley (London: Tate Publishing)