Sam Gilliam is known for his hanging canvases, taken off the stretcher, which glow with vibrant colors that bleed into one another. His work is seldom structured, tending to feel more spontaneous, as if he cannot completely control what the paint will do. Yet this was not always Gilliam’s preferred method. When he painted on canvas, he savored his materials, trying to create perfect abstract renderings of color harmonies. It wasn’t until he was encouraged by a professor to paint in watercolors that he ultimately surrendered to the idea of letting the paint behave on its own.
When Gilliam painted Koa in 1965, he did not abandon all pretense of formalism. The modest square canvas is a study in the color harmony of green, and its primary color parents, blue and yellow. The subdued forest green canvas is slashed through the middle with streaks of bright blue and green, sunny yellow, and stark white, adding a flash of brilliance. Gilliam created his straight lines by placing masking tape on the canvas, and then removing it before the paint was completely dry, allowing for the edges to bleed and feather.
In an interview in 1982, Gilliam spoke about creating spatial relationships within his artwork and the surrounding space, “as a function of color and structure, as intention of the artist, as expression, as perception, as surface or as solid definition.”