Unfurling Color

by Kristine A. Culp, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Dean of the Disciples Divinity House

last edited on Thu. December 28 2023

Sam Gilliam’s 1970 work, Rim, stands out in a way that most other works in the Smart Museum’s current exhibition do not. Literally. The work is one of Gilliam’s “drape” paintings, a method and metaphor that he arrived at in 1968; they are recognizable by their choreographies of color and how they dwell between painting and sculpture, setting the canvas free from stretcher frames and two-dimensional space.

The beauty and play of saturated colors drew me to Gilliam’s work, as well as the dramatic swoosh of its form. No unpainted or unstained canvas is visible. The sun-soaked yellow at the top merges to green, teal, sapphire, maroon, crimson; white and metallic silver paint splash the deep reds. In some places, the colors mix and merge like intricate Florentine patterns. It was as if a freshly laundered sheet had floated free of the clothesline and unfurled to absorb the spectrum of the rainbow. From a distance the colors look fluid; up close the splashed paint appears coagulated and to weigh down the canvas. I began to wonder, was the rainbow rim rising or was the painting’s rim—its physical edge and its metaphoric evocation—fiery or blood-stained, splattered by mechanisms of violence and war.

In the biblical saga of Noah (Genesis 7–9), God’s rainbow covenant is a pause between the cataclysm of the flood—an originary global climate disaster—and the moral cataclysm that results when Noah usurps divine vengeance and pronounces an enslavement of one branch of kin by another. In 1962, James Baldwin had described the “dreadful storm” gathering around the color line as fueled by “a vengeance that does not really depend upon and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance.” Baldwin called this a prophecy, one that was conveyed in a song sung by enslaved people, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.” But Baldwin was not summoning that prophecy any more than the tale of Noah was summoning cataclysm. Both warn what will happen if the storm continues to gather. If vengeance rains down, Baldwin asks, What will happen to all that beauty then?

Gilliam’s Rim conveys possibilities of color that are saturated, variegated, and randomly sorted, and of unfinished edges that may be touched with silver and/or singed with fire and violence. It may allow its viewers to stand in the narrow space between mythic and impending cataclysms and to apprehend a beauty that permeates life like a sun-soaked yellow, where humble things like laundry on the line are unfurled and set free.

Rim may do these things—or may not. Gilliam’s work is a sociable creation. It does not offer a puzzle to be solved by learning the artist’s intentions or the title’s significance or the work’s theoretical interventions. It resists over-reading and asks for conversation. As his contemporary, iconic sculptor Richard Hunt, once said in an interview about his own work, “They’re not narratives, they’re open to a range of meanings.” Hunt’s 1974 cast bronze sculpture stands outside the Smart Museum, asking, in its title and with multiple upstretched forms, Why?

Each time Gilliam’s drape paintings are re-installed, the loose folds of canvas hang differently. Rim has been displayed spread to near full width (61 1/2 × 117 1/4 in.), but in this exhibition it is arrayed like a cowl. Openness, indeterminacy, and freedom are built-in: the different folds of canvas randomly sort portions of the work into many fields of variegated color. Color lines and fields are complicated and variously inflected. We viewers are always left a bit unsure about what we are seeing and what the work is asking, a phenomenon that art historian Darby English calls being “discomposed.”

In his 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, English argues that, at that time and for artists like Gilliam and Hunt, “practicing abstraction served freedom”—but not by creating a generalized, oppositional “Black art.” Rather, abstraction “represented a decisive move across the color line, into the craggier terrain of social experiment, capturing the optimism inherent in standing down from the ideal in order to transact with what already is.” To borrow English’s phrasing, Gilliam stands down from beauty as an ideal as well as from painting as two-dimensional and from color as either mere decorative or evocative expression or as either only imposing or overturning hierarchies of valuation.

In an often bloody and fiery world, we must ask how beauty and devastation are construed, how color and valuation are apprehended, and how these considerations will inform us. At their best, this is what works of art and religious texts, the practices of artists and the practices of religious communities, can help us imagine, interrogate, and take responsibility for. Religious narratives—canonical texts, insurgent reinterpretations, and modern interpolations—and works of art can expand possibilities for engaging each other, and life. Gilliam’s Rim demands that we pay attention to it and to the world. It stands out and draws us in partly because we, as viewers and interlocutors, do not fully know and cannot fully anticipate what significance will emerge for us individually or collectively, what it will ask of us, or where it will invite us to go.

This piece is dedicated to Richard Hunt (1935–2023), who died December 16 in Chicago. I first knew of Sam Gilliam (1933–2022) from him. Forged in the crucible of the civil rights movement and by engaging everyday life and materials, Hunt’s practice of direct metal sculpture and Gilliam’s color field painting insisted that abstract art was a vital expression of human yearning for freedom and social transformation. It was my privilege to participate in commissioning Hunt’s 2021 sculpture, “Becoming,” for the courtyard of the Disciples Divinity House.

Smart Sightings is a new partnership between the Martin Marty Center and the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. This series invites readers to contemplate the many connections between art and religion through written reflections on pieces in the Smart’s exhibition, Calling on the Past: Selections from the Collection, which runs through February 4, 2024. Featuring illuminating pairings of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, Calling on the Past encourages viewers to see the collection—and themselves—with fresh eyes.

Kristine A. Culp is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and Dean of the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago.