Sam Gilliam (Washington, USA)
Simmering 1970

Artwork details

Date 1970
Medium Acrylic on canvas and leather string
Dimensions Object: 2159 x 1353 mm
Acquisition Presented by Mrs Nesta Dorrance through the American Federation of Arts 1974


Simmering is a painting on a rectangular sheet of cotton duck canvas that hangs vertically from a single point on the wall from a tied leather string. The sheet of canvas is hung so that its lower edge is a short distance from the floor. Its left and right edges are spread out slightly on either side, and a section is folded over at the top, forming a semicircular shape, and is held in place using the leather string. These are the only constant elements of the work’s overall composition, since each time Simmering is hung it takes on a different form, with the folds and curves of the canvas changing with each re-installation. Simmering is dominated by diffuse pink and orange tones in acrylic paint that has soaked deeply into its fabric, and these colours bleed into areas of blue and turquoise at the bottom of the painting. Several sections also feature splashes and lines of vibrant yellow paint that have been applied in a seemingly chaotic manner and are dried onto the canvas’s surface rather than being soaked in, giving them a greater vibrancy than the other tones.

This work was made by the American painter Sam Gilliam in Washington, DC, in 1970. He created it by spreading the canvas out on the floor and covering it with acrylic paint in layers of varying thickness. Gilliam used substantial amounts of water to thin the paint, and applied it wet-on-wet so that the colours mixed together within the fibres of the canvas, leading to their diffuse appearance. After the paint had dried, Gilliam suspended the canvas from a wall and applied the drips and splashes of paint using a less heavily diluted yellow acrylic.

Simmering is part of a series of paintings Gilliam made in 1970 called Cowls, a name that reflects the paintings’ resemblance to hanging cloaks. As with many of Gilliam’s works, the title Simmering does not have a clear relationship with the painting, although it is possible that he chose the word in order to reflect the spark-like quality of the dynamic yellow patches or the warmth of the work’s orange and pink tones.

This work is one of many canvases that Gilliam has painted since 1968 which, rather than being stretched over frames and turned into taut, flat surfaces, are left to hang loose and fold into flaps and curves. Gilliam has called these works ‘drape paintings’, and Simmering is one of the smaller works in this group, with several of the others covering long sections of walls or taking up large portions of a room (Gilliam in Forgey 1989, accessed 23 October 2014). In 1973 Gilliam claimed that one reason for working with unstretched canvas was that he wanted to ‘deal with the canvas as material … using it as a more tactile way of painting’ (Gilliam in Donald Miller, ‘Hanging Loose: An Interview with Sam Gilliam’, ARTnews, vol.72, no.1, January 1973, p.42). At the time that Simmering was made, many critics wrote that this new emphasis on the material characteristics of canvas sheets made Gilliam’s drape paintings highly innovative. For instance, in 1970 the art critics Walter Hopps and Nina Felshin Osnos claimed that ‘Gilliam stands as the first among current painters to eliminate the rigid supports and use directly the flexible, draping properties of canvas as an integral structural element of the painting itself’ (Hopps and Felshin Osnos 1970, p.32).

The artist stated in 1984 that works like Simmering were produced out of a desire to make art that would be ‘more process oriented’ and ‘fluid’ than most paintings (Kenneth Young, ‘Oral History Interview with Sam Gilliam’, 8 September 1984, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,, accessed 23 October 2014). Simmering produces a sense of fluidity through the way that many of its tones bleed into one another rather than being divided into neat areas. It also incorporates an ongoing process in that its appearance changes each time it is re-hung. The art critic Jonathan P. Binstock has argued that this lack of fixity and Gilliam’s refusal to create a ‘finished’ artwork is made visible in Simmering and in the other drape paintings through their ‘casual and even seemingly careless disposition ... [that produces a] seemingly haphazard effect’ (Corcoran Gallery of Art 2005, p.46). In the late 1960s and early 1970s this emphasis on ongoing processes rather than static objects was shared by many other artists working in America, such as Alan Saret, Robert Morris and Bill Bollinger, whose work is often known as ‘post-minimal’ or ‘process’ art since, like Gilliam, they made pieces that take on different compositions every time they are shown.

Further reading
Walter Hopps and Nina Felshin Osnos, ‘Three Washington Artists: Gilliam, Krebs and McGowin’, Art International, vol.13, no.5, May 1970, pp.32–42.
Sam Forgey, ‘Oral History Interview with Sam Gilliam’, 4–11 November 1989, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,, accessed 23 October 2014.
Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 2005.

David Hodge
October 2014

Supported by Christie’s.