Washington, D.C.

Sam Gilliam

Corcoran Gallery of Art/ Marsha Mateyka Gallery

Sam Gilliam, an innovative abstract painter and éminence grise of Washington, DC’s artistic community, is currently the subject of a stimulating retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gilliam is known principally for his giant “draped” paintings and as an African-American artist who gained fame during a period of enormous racial tension. But as Jonathan P. Binstock, the organizer of the exhibtion, demonstrates, the artist has spent more than forty years experimenting with color, shape, and texture, breaking down numerous barriers between painting and sculpture in the process.

Gilliam’s content (like, say, Cy Twombly’s) can be elliptical—a complex and only partially decipherable stream of consciousness—and his application of paint ranges from delicate to brutish. Like Robert Ryman, he is acutely sensitive to relationships between surface and support, luminosity and texture. However, where Ryman’s approach reflects the influence of a controlling superego, Gilliam’s is more akin to that derived from Twombly’s giddy, orgiastic id. The current exhibition also illuminates change and continuity in Gilliam’s oeuvre by contrasting early and late works in the same space, while adhering to a chronological sequence that charts the artist’s cycles of expansion and paring back.

The exhibition’s earliest works, from 1967 and 1968, reveal Gilliam’s interest in engineering an organic fusion of paint and paper or canvas. Rather than simply layering the one atop the other, he unifies the two in a saturated whole, adding dimensionality via selective crumpling. It was works such as these that caught the attention of curator Walter Hopps, whose subsequent support helped the artist to flourish. When Gilliam exhibited his new painting Light Depth at the Corcoran in 1969, his practice took a leap forward. This work represents a boldly economic gesture: The artist draped a seventy-five-foot-long, ten-foot-high, paint-saturated canvas in swathes along two of the gallery’s walls. It remains one of his most spectacular gestures, bringing an imposing physicality to bear on the potential of pure abstraction.

A period of withdrawal followed in which Gilliam worked in a more conventional format. His “Black Paintings” of 1977–78, for example, were constructed from fragments of brightly colored abstract canvases that recall the work of Hans Hofmann—except that the Washington-based artist’s compositions are virtually buried under strata of granular black acrylic. Gilliam’s work of the ’80s is more varied: Often based on quasi-architectural supports built from various combinations of wood, metal, and canvas, it is distinguished by disparate collaged elements and chunky, trowelled impasto. Jostling curvilinear forms appear and juxtapositions of shape, color, and texture become ever more eccentric. The following decade sees Gilliam’s paintings become even more fragmented, featuring, for example, elements attached by piano hinges and cutouts that open onto additional passages beneath. By contrast, the “Slatt” series, 2003, is dominated by irregular grids of rectangular, monochromatic panels, though Gilliam’s adroit layering of acrylic makes these among his most luminous works.

The nine paintings from Gilliam’s latest series, “Sunlight,” 2005, shown at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, formed an exquisite complement to the Corcoran show. The best of these retain the bravado of the drape paintings yet achieve a new degree of refinement. Again, all are constructed from rectangular wooden panels covered with layers of acrylic, though here Gilliam applies color in broad strokes and diaphanous wisps. This approach engenders a tone of monastic serenity that is heightened by the hinged-panel format of six of the works, which evokes religious polyptychs. Gilliam remains absorbed in the dialogue around the unification of painterly elements that first earned him broad attention, but the work that results achieves a provocative new elegance while remaining as celebratory as ever.

Nord Wennerstrom