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.
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)
1How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the cities
has become a vassal.
2She weeps bitterly in the night,
tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4The roads to Zion mourn,
for none come to the appointed feasts;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her maidens have been dragged away,
and she herself suffers bitterly.
5Her foes have become the head,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6From the daughter of Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like harts
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
in the days of her affliction and bitterness
all the precious things
that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
and there was none to help her,
the foe gloated over her,
mocking at her downfall.
8Jerusalem sinned grievously,
therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
yea, she herself groans,
and turns her face away.
9Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
she took no thought of her doom;
therefore her fall is terrible,
she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!”
10The enemy has stretched out his hands
over all her precious things;
yea, she has seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom thou didst forbid
to enter thy congregation.
11All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and behold,
for I am despised.”
12“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.
13“From on high he sent fire;
into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
faint all the day long.
14“My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
by his hand they were fastened together;
they were set upon my neck;
he caused my strength to fail;
the Lord gave me into the hands
of those whom I cannot withstand.
15“The Lord flouted all my mighty men
in the midst of me;
he summoned an assembly against me
to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
the virgin daughter of Judah.
16“For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed.”
17Zion stretches out her hands,
but there is none to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become
a filthy thing among them.
18“The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
and behold my suffering;
my maidens and my young men
have gone into captivity.
19“I called to my lovers
but they deceived me;
my priests and elders
perished in the city,
while they sought food
20“Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress,
my soul is in tumult,
my heart is wrung within me,
because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
in the house it is like death.
21“Hear how I groan;
there is none to comfort me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble;
they are glad that thou hast done it.
Bring thou the day thou hast announced,
and let them be as I am.
22“Let all their evil-doing come before thee;
and deal with them
as thou hast dealt with me
because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many
and my heart is faint.”