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It’s Not the Years in Your Life, but the Life in Your Years Edition

New work by Sam Gilliam, 2020. © 2020 Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

WHEN we started writing about art, we decided we weren’t going to use certain narratives or language to describe artists and their works. Except for some well placed irony, our phrasing would be clean and pure, avoiding all the clichés we consider lazy or annoying. We didn’t want to indulge in any -isms; that kind of thing is bad writing and bad reading, irritating beyond reason.

FOR instance, we don’t talk about an artist’s age, mostly because there’s nothing especially significant about age after a certain point in development. On the other hand, attitudes about age change a lot during a lifespan. Teenagers wish they were older, adults hope to look younger, and children just want to be big enough to keep up with everyone else. But we think knowing an artist’s age is useful only as a yardstick to measure the evolution of their skills and talent, or to place them in a historical context. After that, commenting on the amount of years seems like ageism and takes attention away from the subject.

BUT we’re unusual in that regard: most people like to tag others with an age label, especially if creative work is being done. For some reason, every single article written about an artist 60-odd years or more, will mention their age, often using the adjectives ‘flourishing’, ‘going strong’, or ‘astonishing’ to convey a note of amazement. Mind you, these comments are usually written by people decades younger than their subject, so we suppose that they (and their editors) truly do find it astonishing old people can be innovative and creative. Youth is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

ALL of this brings us to this week’s featured show, Sam Gilliam Existed Existing at Pace Gallery. This well-known painter is associated with Washington DC’s Color School movement of the 1960s as well as pioneering the Drape paintings, which released canvas from its frame to create a sculptural dimension in the work. In 1971 Gilliam received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, in 1973 he became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. His awards, public commissions, museum and gallery shows are too numerous to mention, but he has never been represented by a New York gallery until now, something that was his choice.

GILLIAM continually tries new approaches to his ideas by changing his technique, compositions, and materials, keeping his work fresh. As he says, “It’s going to be the whole thing or nothing at all. So I practice and I change. If you have a problem, the important thing is to learn how to solve it. Then you solve it by listening, practice, choosing different ways.”

SO now that we’ve explained who Sam Gilliam is and why he’s important, do you really need to know how old he is? Or would you rather go see his work?