It was 1967 when I met Sam Gilliam at Tom Downing‘s home on Mc Comb Street in the Cleveland Park section of DC.
Sam and I were both students of Tom Downings and we both painted towards the end of the Washington Color School era so we both have strong association with the end of the movement sometimes referred as second generation. Sam started painting color school style around 1966 making a significant contribution with his stained raw canvas by pouring paint.
My Color Field paintings were mostly the shape paintings that I was originally influenced by Richard Smith the English printmaker and painter. I had a solo show for my Color Field paintings at Jefferson Place Gallery in 1968.
Much to my surprise, Sam had mentioned, in his interview with Archives of American Art, that Tom Downing was actually influenced by my shape paintings and had produced some of his own. Tom did come to my studio and asked me how I produced the irregular shape paintings. I just did not know Sam was aware of this!
According to an Archives interview with Tom Downing conducted by the critic Benjamin Forgery “Sam Gilliam, Rockne Krebs and Michael Clark” were the only artists that Tom regarded as his students. Although I was signed up at the Corcoran in his class, he did not require me to come to class because of my schooling at the Pratt Institute and NYC experience. He really treated us like equals. He did critique my work and I really loved working with him. I was only 21 in 1967 so I was quite a bit younger than all the other painters. I eventually ended up going to Tom’s studio to assist him. When Gilliam came by, we all engaged in lively discussions about painting past and present. Sam was a brilliant person and was always quite astute in his observations. Tom opened us up to the idea that the sky was the limit to painting.
I guess my biggest contribution to the Washington Color School (besides my shape paintings) was to paint all 50 paintings in 9 days for the Gene Davis Popsicle Giveaway (which according to Gene Davis was the official end of the WSC). I was only 23 years old at the time so I did it as a performance piece on the condition that my original signature was on each canvas. It would be hard to guess that they were painted by me because Gene, Doug, and Ed also signed along with silk screened signatures of the assistants that helped me. They were distinctly my surfaces as was pointed out in an article —from Andrew Hudson, “Washington Letter,” Art International 19:9 (November 20, 1975): 46. I could not use Gene Davis’s technique to finish the paintings in 9 days, I had to make the paint thicker because it would have run under the tape. Boy, there was no room for error… but I pulled it off. As Ed McGowin said, ” Clark painted 50 perfectly painted paintings in 9 days”. I also created a tape sculpture from all the tape we used which ended up being a 3′ x 3″ ball . Doug Davis made a time capsule out of it. He put in plexiglass box along with all the information about the Giveaway and made a conceptual piece out of it and it was put in some western state museum.
Sam and I were in a Color School exhibition in Edmonton Canada in 1970 called “Ten Washington Artists“. After both of us were flown to the opening and a panel discussion, Sam had asked me if I would accompany him back across Western Canada by bus to Vancouver and ultimately to San Francisco. Sam wanted to experience the Rocky mountains and the great views from Banff . I think the idea of the mountains helped him figure out the scale that he wanted to work with his hanging canvas paintings. The mountains were incredibly impressive. His wife met him in San Francisco where we spent a couple of days together and I headed to LA. We later hung out a little in Paris at the opening of a left bank gallery called Galerie Darthea Speyer in 1973. The last real thing that we did together was at my gallery in DC called MOCA DC around 2002 in a show called “Clark Revolutionary Artist“. We also did a panel discussion together with Jonathan P. Binstock which was filmed. I believe that Sam and I have both always kept experimenting & developing ideas in painting the way Louis & Downing ‘s principles worked in their art.
Looking back, I can say we have both stayed true to Color Field painting principles.
Another thing we had in common was dealing with being minorities in the art world. He being African American and me a Native American – if you realize that desegregation didn’t even happen until 1965 and Native Americans were not allowed to practice their religion until 1984… Needless to say, it wasn’t easy being a minority in a white art scene. Speaking of which, we still have a long ways to go.