I want all of Sam Gilliam's paintings here to be book covers.
Perhaps it's because their flatness and angles handily resemble package design of a certain era. I've always felt similarly about Ellsworth Kelly's bright, cheerful paintings that look like they'd been stolen from the detergent aisle and had their explosively optimistic names removed. Gilliam’s paintings on view at David Kordansky look mostly to me like one of the more recent cover designs for JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which is white with simple text and a streak of rainbow angled diagionally across the top left corner. According to legend (i.e. a poorly sourced claim on the internet), Salinger made a contract rider diktat that none of his subsequent book covers could have cover images after one sales-savvy cover designer transformed a seven-year-old girl to a blowsy, busty blonde. That rule made Salinger covers a favorite for nostalgic graphic designers, though they tend to hate my favorite, the white/rainbow cover.
My copy got grimed and thumbprinted, tossed around and reread so that the crisp cut of the pages rounded with dirt and wear. This is my preferred treatment for slick modernist purity. Every time I see a John McCracken sculpture, a plank of pure shiny color leaning against the wall, I want to smear a greasy finger down all that gleam. Purity of that kind was always a tool of power. Sometimes power is fun, but coming from the underclass, fucking it up is even funner. I think the generic nature of the Salinger cover appealed to me, its simplicity a statement of its own. In my 80s youth, onslaughted by conspicuous consumption and garish graphics, simplicity and austerity became a revolutionary act. Making it dirty made it mine.
Despite some exceptionally breathy advertorial in the press release, these paintings are not all that 'revolutionary' as paintings. They came well-after Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, the first-string of what would later become known as the Washington Color School, who performed the same gesture earlier. These paintings are some might say that dirty d-word, derivative, but that doesn't mean you have to hate them. Gilliam is best known for the paintings that came at the tail of this body of work, these big drapey paintings tie-dyed with color and hanging loosely off the wall, often made with some site specificity in mind (or so I'm told). Those drapey paintings, though I've only seen them online, at least look more revolutionary than this crop. Bright and mournful, their movement appears to unite in their somber way the action and abstraction that made Pollock a giant but without the predecessor's tense freneticism. While Robert Morris's drapey materials had their own sex appeal, his was always S&M industrial. Gilliam's drapey paintings of the late 60s have a softness of color and form that puts the two artists side-by-side, but gives Gilliam a lyrical advantage. I've only ever seen pictures, so a lot of this is guesswork, but they look smashing and fresh forty years later.
Sam Gilliam, Helles, 1965, acrylic on canvas, framed: 73 1/4 x 72 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches; Courtesy of the Artist and David Kordansky Gallery.
But being really and truly original isn't always as important as marketeers and others would want it to be. I've wept to cover bands playing bang out heartbreaker versions of tread-worn pop songs to small beer-stained audiences. Playing the standards wasn't always a pure, nasty dig. These paintings are still pretty darn good. They have all the energy of a racing stripe and all the pacifying softness of a Prozac ad. They are as American as Jackson Pollock and apple pie and a brand-new Chevy rolling right off the line in the Eisenhower years. They are each and all a basic design, filled with cool unpretentious energy. And though as an authored gesture, they may not cut the mustard as revolutionary, but as a gesture, especially one that led to others, their simplicity is certainly so.
[Image on top: Sam Gilliam, Theme of Five I, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 70 x 83 inches (177.8 x 210.8 cm); Courtesy of the Artist and David Kordansky Gallery.]