New York

Sam Gilliam

Phillips Collection and Jefferson Place Gallery

I mentioned earlier a “major breakthrough” in Sam Gilliam’s work: this occurred in the summer of 1966, and was first brought to public notice in his show that fall at the Jefferson Place Gallery. Suddenly and dramatically, a former follower of the Washington Color School emerged as having broken loose from the “flat color areas” style, and as an original painter in his own right. This season, Gilliam has followed up the excitement of that show with a couple of exhibitions running successively at the Phillips Collection (Gilliam’s first museum show) and at the Jefferson Place Gallery.

Gilliam’s show at the Phillips seemed to me badly chosen and unsympathetically hung. The selection, made by Director Marjorie Phillips, included a variety of work done over the previous year: the result of this mixing of dissimilar series was that Gilliam’s more recent, “vertical folds” paintings had trouble in exerting their slow, quiet resonance–especially since the earlier, vividly colored Red Petals (rather a weak painting, under all the immediate glamor of its brilliant, centrifugal puddle) was hung, jarringly and distractingly, on the best wall of the room. A selection of “vertical folds” paintings alone would have made a much stronger, more substantial and coherent exhibition.

This series (the paintings are made by folding the canvas and pouring paint in between the folds) in fact marks an important new step in Gilliam’s development—and one thing that the contrast between these and the slightly earlier works at the Phillips did show, was how much Gilliam’s poured painting benefits from having a certain minimum amount of deliberate formal organization. The first “fluid” paintings of the summer of 1966 (some of which are still striking) had retained fragments and hints of the masking-taped fan-shape organization of Gilliam’s immediately preceding series, much to their advantage; Gilliam has now hit upon a similar underlying and unifying structure, through manipulating the canvas itself.

Gilliam’s exhibition at the Jefferson Place showed further developments, notably the use of metallic colors and, in the larger paintings, an “opening out” in the disposition of the painting across its format. (In both exhibitions Gilliam also showed watercolors, made in a similar way.) The large Breeze, with diagonal foldings, from the latter exhibition, the wide, horizontal, mostly green Slide and the vertical, sharply articulated Clear from the Phillips show are the three major paintings, so far, of this well sustained series: all three are an unqualified success—indeed, I would go so far as to call them masterpieces of their kind. They are followed closely by others—a fourth painting from the series, Scope, held up well when exhibited on loan to the Corcoran’s “Gallery 30” or “Washington Room.”

Andrew Hudson