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The Audacity of Sam Gilliam

Philadelphia Museum of Art:
Wissahickon, 1975, by Sam Gilliam (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the Brandywine Graphic Workshop, 1976-76-1)
Wissahickon, 1975, by Sam Gilliam (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the Brandywine Graphic Workshop, 1976-76-1)

On discovering a work of art online, and the shock of encountering it later in person

When the museum reopened after the first COVID-19 closure in September of last year, I had many slow days as a Visitor Services Assistant. Suddenly, I had time to familiarize myself with the collection, both on and off view. In particular, I wanted to know more about the Black artists in the collection. At that point, I was only familiar with those featured in Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, a show I had worked on as a curatorial intern in 2019. Luckily, a good portion of the collection is digitized and tagged, so learning about a specific category of work isn’t hard. It turned out there were nearly 800 objects tagged as “African American art,” so I had a lot to work with.

While browsing through the online collections database, Sam Gilliam’s Dakar I immediately caught my eye. I had never seen anything like it. At first glance, it seemed to be a large cape draped over a single nail, and I wondered how anyone could paint fabric so meticulously. A coworker explained that this work wasn’t the type of fabric I had been imagining—it was a “drape painting” using canvas. Instead of stretching the canvas around a frame, as most painters do, Gilliam left it hanging loose. At that time, the work wasn’t on view in the museum, but I bookmarked the website page so that I could look at it again another time.

A couple of weeks later, I was walking through the Contemporary Art galleries to see a recently installed exhibition—Expanded Painting in the 1960s and 1970s, which included Dakar I. Learning some facts about the work was one thing, but in person the painting was much more intricate than the two-dimensional image I had seen online. Dakar I is over nine feet tall, and I felt like I was almost standing in its shadow. The piece commanded my attention, demanding that I look at all the different colors adorning the canvas. I noticed that the canvas had been painted on both sides, and it was deliberately layered so that the back could peek out to form part of the composition.

Even though creating a work of this size involved a lot of planning and effort, the painting still appeared spontaneous and improvised—evidence of the artist’s skill. The way that Dakar I fit into the gallery itself also piqued my interest; the blue ceiling brought out the blue accents of the work and enhanced the vibrancy of the color palette. It was as though this was the only place a work of this nature could live in our museum.

I walked away from Dakar I with more questions than when I had started—the sign of a great work of art.