In 1968—the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the signing of the Civil Rights Act—Gilliam began staining and folding raw canvases and suspending them from the wall, creating immersive bleeds of color. For Gilliam, “the year 1968 was one of revelation . . . something was in the air, and it was in that spirit that I did the Drape paintings.” The works’ tension and free fall—subject to forces beyond the artist’s control—paralleled the social turmoil of the time.
As a Black artist and civil rights leader, Gilliam deliberately worked against the grain. Unlike many of his peers, he refrained from literal depictions or messages in his art. He was committed to abstraction, stating, “the expressive act of making a mark and hanging it in space is always political. My work is as political as it is formal.” Gilliam’s titles refer to historical and artistic events alike: 10/27/69 marks the date he completed this painting, against the backdrop of mass demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War.
Gallery label from 2021
As an African American artist who remained committed to abstraction during the height of the civil rights movement, Gilliam deliberately worked against the grain. He is best known for unstretched abstract paintings that he drapes from the ceiling, slings over sawhorses, or, as is the case here, pins to the wall. They range from mural-size canvases to a small single sheet hung like a towel on a doorknob.
In this work, the cloth is gathered at three points and nailed to the wall, which allows its shape—two primary folds—to be dictated by gravity. Its complex surface is the result of several different methods of applying paint, including soaking, splattering, and folding the fabric onto itself. The work bears swaths and streaks of peachy oranges and yellows overlaid with violet and red that appear to have been rubbed into the canvas. On the right, purple and indigo shades dominate, offset by a large patch of yellow in the bottom corner.
In his earliest paintings, made in the mid-1960s, Gilliam depicted geometric abstractions on traditionally stretched canvases that resemble those of the Washington Color School painters of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, with whom he exhibited. Soon, however, these works gave way to the fluid drips and splatters that came to define his signature draped works. Delineating actual space with their accordion-like folds, much like sculpture, these works invite viewers to consider painting as an immersive experience.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)