Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel

  • Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel
  • Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel
  • Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel
  • Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel
  • Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel
  • Exhibition: Sam Gilliam ‘The Music of Color’, Basel

The Music of Color

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933 ) ‘The Music of Color – 1967 -1973‘ (9 June  30 Sep 2018) Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland

I was really looking forward to this exhibition, seeking for some further context for my current coursework, and looking for new inspiration. The scope of the exhibition was the early period ot the artist in context of post-war American Abstract Painting (1967-1973). A period that is characterized by his moving away from constraints of a stretched canvas with right angles and creation of drapes, capes, cowls, clovers and beveled-edge paintings.

“If you study art, our teacher can be very fixed. Your paper has to be up that way. …your can’t come up the top, you always have to use that baseline so that your figure stand up this way. If you bowl it up, you have different edges, it becomes sulptural, or if you fold it, and has stripes and move across, that’s me-”  – Sam Gilliam (Kunstmuseum Basel, 2018b)

and he continued with stating that what may become important:

“The objection to somehow”

Sketches during my visit – studying spatial relationship:

Gilliam’s beginnings were beveled-edge paintings that overcome the right angle of a stretched canvas to either give more attention to the sides of the canvas (with edges moving away from the canvas) as object or to make it flowing over the wall (with edges towards the center) – Fig 3:

Sam Gilliam 'Beveled Edge Paintings' 1967-70 - installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld

Fig 3: Sam Gilliam ‘Beveled Edge Paintings’ 1967-70 – installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld

What becomes visible are traces of folding, the canvas unstretched, painted, folded, unfolded, stretched. 

What occurs to me when entering the exhibition was how relevant Sam Gilliam did become to me. The folding and unfolding reminded me directly of my recent assignment 1 work (Fig. 4) and I could even put some experimental work I did earlier (Fig. 5)  – not knowing where this could lead me towards.

There is some relationship with the process painting of Jessica Warboys Sea Paintings.with folding, unfolding and letting the paint being shaped through folds and creases by chance, less control. I could see here great relationship with my work during part 1 on ‘removing gestures‘. What a great find was this exhihibition to become!

Giliam stepped further away from the canvas as a classical rectangular flat area towards his ‘Drapes’ (Niagara, 1968- Fig 6)


Sam Gilliam 'Niagara' 1968 - installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld

Fig. 6: Sam Gilliam ‘Niagara’ 1968 – installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld

Sam Gilliam 'Baroque Cascade' , Installation View, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, 1969; Photo: The Washington Post, DC - scan from exhibition guide

Fig. 7: Sam Gilliam ‘Baroque Cascade’ , Installation View, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, 1969; Photo: The Washington Post, DC – scan from exhibition guide

An extension into space, folds like water-cascades, and therefore the name of the Niagara Falls. The companion guide explained that this work was part of the Baroque Cascade installation at the Corcoran Gallery, spanning the gallery’s entire ceiling. Alongside the other series of of ‘Drapes’, ‘Capes’, and ‘Cowls’ it made me wonder how folds and Baroque are linked to each other. As I was introduced to the work of Gilles Deleuze as part of my UVC studies, I came across one book by Deleuze The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque (2015) – and wondering whether this – certainly rather philosophical approach would suit me in my further continuation during my course. What I did for assignment 1 with folding and unfolding, with some links to Japanese Origami and failure, was without knowing whether folds could actually have another connotation. The nex

The spatial arrangement of folded canvas aka textiles (is this textile work?), abundance, does truly have a sense of intensity, but also of hidden and secret. 

I did associate Gilliam’s work of the late 1960s strongly with the spatial paintings by Katharina Grosse, e.g. one of her latest work  The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped, 2017. Drapes that are not any longer suspended from the ceiling, nealry hard to reach but touching the floor. A downwards movement that I could see in Gilliam’s work, comparing Baroque Cascade and Niagara (though space constraints for the museums architecture might have an influence here, and if this is true how much the artist can ‘dictate’ intentions)

The next ‘shapes’ of canvas treated by Gilliam are bringing his personality more into stage. Drapes and Cowls, assemblages, partly with found objects belonging to the artist embedded into the picture plane (Fig. 8 & 9). Once again, a sense of Baroque, and still not knowng what to do with this reference. Besides the abundance and decadency of the Baroque and the music I played with my recorder of that time, I do know nothing of the cultural conditions and art specific ideas of that time. Time to learn?

Interesting the companion text:

“This body of work is dedicated to the possibility that a wall relief comprising objects from Gilliam’s everyday life could form a self-portrait of a sort”. – (Kunstmuseum Basel)

Self portrait as an assemblage, at this stage I am still reflecting on how me and my Self can be ‘looked at’ or being embedded in my painting, in paintings of objects, found objects, or objects that has some meaning to me, e.g objects I take with me on travels, objects with a purpose.

Another sentence in the text made me ponder, how Gilliam lived as an African-American in a country of Conceptual art and black activist movement

“Some African Americans working in figurative modes described Gilliam as making art in service to the white power structure and as not being relevant to the cause of equaliy an civil rights”. – (Kuntemusem Basel)

A strong critique and statement. What do I know of the 1960/1970s, the hegemonic power structures, and the life of African Americans in US or elsewhere in the West? What would it mean for Gilliam to be critiqued like that? What roles are we expected to play, to act on, to serve to? I went to another exhibition of Theaster Gates in the same museum with the theme of the Black Madonna and how blackness is being part of a narrative and power structures. Side comment: there were so many fab exhibitions in Basel at that time just after Art Basel fair, that it will surely take some time for me to digest all, it at all. It also reminds me the case of Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 the painting by Dana Schutz and the following protest against her painting and how race and the right to paint anything are subject to prevailing social-political structures (see also my blog post for UVC here), 

Sam Gilliam is at times associated with color-field painting and being a lyrical abstract painter. The large bevelled-edge canvases with folded/unfolded marks do convey this quite successfully, bringing up associations of Rothko, Newman and even the late Monet (Fig. 10) 


Sam Gilliam 'Atmosphere' series 1969+ - installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld

Fig. 10: Sam Gilliam ‘Atmosphere’ series 1969+ – installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld


Learning and Take away:

  • The break away from the limits of a stretched canvas to make the support, the canvas more fluid, a continuity of painted marks. This might by an idea to look at further. How to extend the flow of the picture plane nearly infinite.
  • Chance and control: a topic I am looking at since the beginning of this course. Also hiding and revealing. It seems the folds and creases might be one approach to that to explore further.
  • The extension of painted surfaces into the physical space of the museum and the space of the viewer might be more engaging, as I could partly walk around and through the work. Sculptural, still painted, rigid and fluent the same time.
  • I find Gilliam was possibly advancing his time (see Katharina Grosse, Jessica Warboys and others. Sophia Starling might be worth to look at once more in this context, and her exploration of space.
  • A very fascinating exhibition, more to ponder on. But I do feel as well some limitations, as if the idea is contrived now, repeated to an end in itself. What could be done more to overcome limitations of paintings supports?



  • All sketches and photographs made by me during the exhibition, if not indicated otherwise
  • Featured Image: Sam Gilliam ‘Drapes’  series, 1968 – installation view; photo: StefanJSchaffeld


  • Kunstmuseum Basel (2018a) Sam Gilliam, The Music of Color, 1967–1973, Neubau / 09.06.–30.09.2018 / Curators: Dr. Jonathan Binstock, Dr. Josef Helfenstein, [online], At: https://kunstmuseumbasel.ch/en/exhibitions/2018/gilliam (Accessed 25 June 2018). Basel
  • Kunstmuseum Basel (2018b) Kunstmuseum Basel , The Music of Color, Sam Gilliam, 1967-1973,  [online], At: https://youtu.be/rhITtbFridw  (Accessed on 27 June 2018).
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  • Aug 2,2018 at 5:01 PM

    Yes, I feel some of these could be called textile art. But as this ‘name’ often seems to be a ‘devaluation’ I guess Gillliam would not willingly call is that. 🙂 I think the ideas of subverting or challenging what is centre and edge is so interesting (I thought that too with your folded work).

    • Stefan
      Aug 3,2018 at 7:34 AM

      Didn’t think about ‘devaluation’ when talking about textiles – wondering when this happened to be seen as such. Perhaps a modern thing? Personally, I find all textile works very fascinating – perhaps because it is so human. In terms of clothing someone it touches or touched someone’s skin. A skin so personal. In a wider context one could even see Rachel Whiteread’ House (1993) with the negative cast and the visualization of the outer ‘skin’ of the interior similar. During my Basle art trip I wanted to visit the Bern/Riggisberg place Abegg (https://abegg-stiftung.ch/en/collection/taste-exotic-european-silk-18th-century/) 18th century silk capes or cowls. And with a decorative , painted pattern. There is a fascination behind – and this was possibly in my mind when talking ‘textile’ and Sam Gilliam. As his self portrait canvas ‘capes’ are having such a connotation for me. Thanks for binging this up that let me to reflect more on my motivation

  • Aug 1,2018 at 1:35 PM

    I’ve seen work by a Welsh Artist, Mary Lloyd Jones, on irregular canvases, sometimes hanging so both surfaces are shown, which I like very, very much – a punchy sort of powerful. There’s a lot of Welsh landscape embedded in them – she lives in one of those places in the Welsh hills where 18th and 19th century artists would trek off to for the ‘picturesque’ experience – but also something more? The works by Sam Gilliam seem much more controlled and constrained (to me). http://www.marylloydjones.co.uk/gallery/5.html

    • Stefan
      Aug 1,2018 at 1:54 PM

      Thanks for the reference. Quite valid – yes, two sides of a story. Like the idea of reflecting subject matters, environment, objects in the materiality of a painting. The process as analogy . Like strata and folds

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