Sam Gilliam, Purpled (Chasers Series)

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


Sam Gilliam, Purpled

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Key Points

  • Sam Gilliam approached artmaking with an interest in expressing both the labor of making a painting and the potential of painting to be more than just pigment applied with a brush on a square- or rectangularly-shaped canvas. He played with the expectations of what a painting can and should be, and emphasized the physical manipulation of his materials to create highly original and dynamic artworks. 
  • In Purpled, Gilliam built a 9-sided, irregularly shaped polygonal stretcher for his canvas and used hard-edged implements like a palette knife and comb to apply paint in a highly varied and textured way. The effect is an object that appears to be bursting from the confines of traditional painting in terms of both shape and surface.
  • Gilliam’s father was a carpenter and his mother a seamstress and quilter. He was influenced by the commonplace nature of their manual labors, and visibly applied the practices of carpentry and quilting in his work. The result was a celebration of the ordinary and its infusion into the history of painting.
  • Purpled is akin to a quilt made from layers of variously shaped, paint-covered pieces of canvas. Gilliam cut and glued these pieces together in a manner that evokes the stitching together of swatches of fabric in a quilt. With its pattern of repeated triangles and rectangles, Purpled’s composition draws on the Flying Geese quilt design, which was specifically used by enslaved Black people to signal the time of year (spring) when it was best to travel northward toward freedom, following the path of migrating birds.

Go Deeper

Learn more about Sam Gilliam from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Read reflections on Sam Gilliam from fellow artists Melvin Edwards and Rashid Johnson in the New York Times

Explore the 2012 photographic work “Flying Geese” by Hank Willis Thomas, who like Gilliam, draws on this motif from the tradition of quilting to reflect on Black experience.

More to Think About

How have Gilliam’s innovations in painting changed your perceptions of painting–as a practice and as a visual experience? Spend time observing Purpled up close and from a distance (by pausing the video at relevant moments) to inform your response to this question. And, consider and share about other artists who may have shaped your perceptions of painting.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.