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Sam Gilliam – Irish Spring Here

The Art

Irish Spring Here, created in 1980, is one of many heavily textured, geometric collage paintings that Sam Gilliam began creating in the mid 1970s. By this time Gilliam had already received positive critical reception for his draped and suspended paintings. In these paintings, unframed canvases soaked with diluted oil paints were twisted, folded, and suspended in exhibition spaces, drawing attention to their three-dimensional qualities. Irish Spring Here and his other collage paintings of this period are representative of an aesthetic shift in Gilliam’s artwork as well as a testament to his sustained devotion to innovation, whether it be through exploring uncharted aesthetic territory or refining past techniques. Curator Jonathan Binstock has written that Gilliam “pursues transformation as if the uncertainty resulting from it were something to covet.”

Measuring over six feet by sixteen feet, Irish Spring Here occupies the viewer’s entire range of sight when standing in front of the painting. Gilliam created the work by applying acrylic paint that is treated with rhoplex to a framed canvas. Rhoplex is an acrylic medium that allows for the thick application of paint. Deep blue, jade green, red, yellow, and white paints were applied across the canvas in what seems to be a random, improvised manner. In similar paintings from the same period, Gilliam used a shag-rug rake to pull and scrape the paint across the surface of a canvas. This process formed rough, sweeping grooves in the paint and created a highly textured, stucco-like surface similar to that of Irish Spring Here. In these highly textured paintings, Gilliam focused on the ability of the paint medium to endow the work with sculptural qualities.

Irish Spring Here also explores elements of collage. In this and others of his collage paintings, Gilliam painted on canvas, cut the canvas into geometric shapes, and then reconfigured the cut pieces into new compositions. Within Irish Spring Here, incised rectilinear canvas shapes fit together neatly and are held together with fiberglass tape that is visible where the collage pieces meet. The pieces fit together like a puzzle, suggesting preparation and measurements that compliment the improvised manipulation of paint. The linear qualities of the collage elements are a counterpoise to the emotive splashes, drips, and dense mounds of boldly colored paint that form the surface of Irish Spring Here. The artist chose the title as a loose reference to Saint Patrick’s Day, leaving the painting’s connection to the holiday open to interpretation.

Though much of Gilliam’s work is informed by color-field painting, where paint is applied to a surface in large, often pure areas of flat color to emphasize its two-dimensional properties, Irish Spring Here reveals his interest in incorporating the expressive marks, visual rhythm, and dramatic color associated with abstract expressionism. He was also greatly influenced by John Coltrane, an American Jazz saxophonist and composer. Like Coltrane, Gilliam spent a great deal of time practicing his techniques and conceptualizing his compositions prior to engaging in improvisation. Gilliam simply states, “One has to spend time practicing.”

The Artist

Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and attended the University of Louisville in the 1950s. Between 1956 and 1958, Gilliam served in the U.S. Army. He earned a Master of Arts degree in 1961 from the University of Louisville.

After teaching in Louisville for four years, Gilliam moved to Washington D.C. because his wife was offered a position at The Washington Post. In 1967, Gilliam received the first of two individual artist’s grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA grant helped him to focus on making art full-time. In 1968, he received a grant from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, which provided him a rent-free studio and financial support for five years. The guarantee of a base level of income and a studio enabled him to work on a larger scale.

Gilliam experimented further with these larger canvases, culminating in his first draped painting in 1969. He was prolific in his production and successful early in his career. Between 1965 and 1973, he had seven, one-person exhibitions. He later received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a second individual artist’s grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has taught at the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Carnegie Mellon University, and in the Washington, D.C. public school system.

Gilliam has been described as protean, and constantly in search of new visual and emotional vocabulary. In speaking about his process and his constant exploratory quest, Gilliam said, “One of our shortcomings here on earth is to define everything in terms of us, as opposed to pushing outwardly…and I have been criticized so much for not being a painter that defines humans.”

Sam Gilliam’s vacuum screen print, Meeker’s Press, is included in The Force of Color, an exhibition on view in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s State Street Gallery. The title Meeker’s Press pays homage to artist and University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Dean Meeker, who is recognized throughout the country as an innovator in the medium of screen printing. Gilliam and Meeker are widely respected for their boldly innovative, creative spirit and exploration of new techniques. Gilliam has also produced prints at Tandem Press in Madison, Wisconsin, including the 1,500-yard long Fireflies and Ferriswheels, one of the longest prints ever made. Both artists are recognized for their contributions to Wisconsin’s strong printmaking history. In 1997, Gilliam received an honorary doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gilliam passed away in June 2022.

Key Ideas

  • Exploration of painting as sculpture
  • Interest in innovation while simultaneously refining past techniques
  • Paintings that incorporate geometric collage elements with thick, paint-encrusted surfaces
  • Seeking inspiration from outside human experience

Discussion Questions

  1. The title of the painting, Irish Spring Here, is a loose reference to Saint Patrick’s Day. What qualities does the painting have that could suggest a connection to this holiday?
  2. Sam Gilliam is interested in the sculptural qualities of his materials. In what ways does Irish Spring Here bring to mind a sculpture? What qualities define a sculpture or a painting?
  3. Irish Spring Here combines many different colors, textures, and techniques. Which elements of the painting seem improvised and which seem carefully considered? Why do you think so?