Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series)

Sam Gilliam trespasses the distinction between painting and sculpture.

Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series), 1980, acrylic on canvas, 203.2 x 228.6 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) © Sam Gilliam

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, looking at a large, shaped canvas. This is by Sam Gilliam. It’s called “Purpled.” It was painted in 1980.

[0:16] Gilliam develops a very particular style that was absolutely revolutionary. He took the canvas off the stretcher, and he draped it.

Valerie Cassell Oliver: [0:24] It was an homage to both his mother and father. His father is a carpenter. His mother is a teacher, but she also sews, so there was this duality of how does one begin asserting one’s own language into the history of painting.

[0:43] Gilliam does that beautifully through taking it off the stretcher and draping it, almost to signify labor, but then also to signify the fabric and the idea that painting exists in many different places, and inspiration for painting comes from many different places.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] This is not draped. It is stretched, but it’s not a rectangle, it’s not a square. It’s not framed in the way that we understand a painting in a traditional sense.

Valerie: [1:11] The surface itself is quilted in a way. It is Sam’s version of quilting. The canvas is cut and reassembled.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] For me, Sam Gilliam trespasses this distinction between painting and sculpture. This is an object on the wall. It’s not so much a painting that we’re looking into. Its surface is so vibrant and so present.

Valerie: [1:35] There’s a kind of undulation here in the sense there are certain areas that are very heavily worked and the surface is built up. And then there are other areas where you do see a little more restraint by the artist. A lot of different ways of mark making, a lot of raking on the canvas. It’s hard to see where a brush would have existed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:57] There are so many ways in which paint is handled. Look, for example, at the way that some of the lower layers of green are allowed to emerge through the much heavier impasto of this deep, rich red that’s applied above it. This scumbling, that we might associate in the history of art with Monet’s work, but here brought to an extreme.

Valerie: [2:19] One can almost feel that the palette knife is being used to both rake across in many ways, but then also to release some of the built-up dry paint onto the canvas itself. It really is a beautiful feast for the eyes. There is a lot to take in.

[2:40] As with quilting, there are many different layers that are happening here, the piecing together of things, but rather than just leaving it with the objects that are just on the surface, there are layers that we’re seeing here. So there’s both the horizontal and the vertical that gets worked.

[2:58] He’s coming out of the deepest part of the South. Born in 1942, he doesn’t leave Louisville until 1962, when he lands in Washington, D.C. There is, throughout his career, an ode to the ordinary, the everyday labor.

[3:15] He sees his work as labor, but he also likens that labor to the carpentry that he would see his father be engaged in or the sewing that he would see his mother engaged in. So, he brings into this lineage of history of painting the ordinary, and what he understood as art making, which was quilting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] There is labor here, and that labor is made visible by the heavy working of the surface, but also by the carpentry that was required to build this frame, and of course, the stitching together of the cloth below.

Valerie: [3:47] Well, the evocation of stitching, because he glues it to the surface, but what I love is that he brings in the quilt-making pattern, the Flying Geese, which this is based upon. The Flying Geese has a lot of geometry in it, a lot of triangles and rectangles. Here, they’re irregular, but it all denotes the same thing. There is great movement in this piece.

[4:10] What is really beautiful about the Flying Geese is it’s part of a whole legacy of how many people who were enslaved navigated themselves northward toward freedom. The Flying Geese quilt was often hung in the spring to let people know that this was a time to depart and to follow the flying geese north.

[4:32] There now is so much history that we have understanding the role of quilts and the quilting code, if you will, in the whole lineage and practice of people leaving the South from enslavement into freedom.

[4:45] [music]

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Cite this page as: Valerie Cassel Oliver, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series)," in Smarthistory, June 13, 2022, accessed June 25, 2024,