Sam Gilliam's final work can be seen at the Hirshhorn

Sam Gilliam’s final work can be seen at the Hirshhorn | Pro Club Bd


If you’re familiar with abstract painter Sam Gilliam – who died June 25 at his DC home – you’ve probably seen his icon drape paintings. Soaring over museum walls, adorning halls with high ceilings, some stretching over 70 feet in length, they’re the kind of drama Artworks that will inspire you to stand back in awe, even half a century after they first appeared brought Gilliam to the international art scene. But Gilliam’s latest work – a series of smaller circular paintings on wooden panels (or “tondos”), created between 2021 and 2022 and on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – demands something else from us: to get up close and personal. As, Yes, really close.

Sam Gilliam, abstract artist who went beyond the frame, dies aged 88

The Hirshhorn features 17 of Gilliam’s tondos along with an early screen, Rail (1977). The exhibition, which opened a month before the artist’s death, is aptly titled Full Circle.

Think of the exhibition as a way of showing respect to the artist—a way of paying a little more attention to these definitive works than you normally would do. Here, it’s the details that make the drama. Up close, high-contrast colors flood your field of vision. Paint cascades across the panels. Their surfaces appear so textured that you have to fight the urge to touch them. If you look closely at the Exciting piece, you can see wood shavings, shiny metal bits and studio scraps buried in the paint as if it were an archaeological site. You can see the spots on the plate where it looks like Gilliam grabbed the thick paint with his bare hands and shaped it to his liking.

On a recent visit, more than one visitor could be heard saying that all the paintings look the same. And on some level they do. But that’s one of the misleading qualities of abstract art: the illusion that it can be taken in at a glance and summed up in one sentence. It’s a blue square, a white speck, a hint of red. What else is there to see or say?

The answer, of course, is plentiful – but only with patience. And the instinct to stop at first impressions perhaps says more about us than the work. In a 2020 In the interview, Gilliam said he believes abstract art is political because it asks you to open yourself to a world that is fundamentally different from your own. At a time when clichés have clouded political discourse, social media has become a narcissistic hall of mirrors, and belonging has become a lazy metric for evaluating art, the high demand for abstraction – beyond ourselves and beyond our assumptions – feels too look – especially compelling.

Whether Gilliam’s work is political in a more conventional sense has long been debated. Gilliam worked at a time when many black artists were trying to make direct references to social justice and promoting art as activism. Focusing almost exclusively on abstraction, Gilliam positioned herself in the second wave of the Washington Color School. Art institutions don’t seem to know how to deal with this. In wall texts and biographies they awkwardly cross the name “4 were interested in depicting political disputes.

While other artists deal directly with racism and inequality, Gilliam’s work has a way of alluding to the structures beneath the surface. Through abstraction he challenges the shorthand we rely on to read a painting, the crutches of our own biased thinking. You can even see this in interpretations of Gilliam’s signature curtain paintings, which some have likened to hanging laundry or African-American quilts — descriptions Gilliam dismissed. What if his intent is more subtle than our eyes can immediately discern?

The work on the Hirshhorn cannot be reduced to the first impression. Take, for example, Something’s Happening!—a work whose title seems to scream almost desperately. It draws your attention with its thick color spilling over the edges and a burst of heart-shaped red that appears to be pulsing like a wound.

Look closely and you can see a slight contrast in tonality between the pinker “Cerebral” and the bluer “Ceremony”, a subtle shift almost soothes the eye. You can feel the rising sensation of moving from the billowing, shimmering “You Blue Moon” to the cloudy “A Sketch at Morn” hanging next to it. And if you take the time to read such poetic titles as “A Sunday Heart” and “Pretty Baby,” you’ll be prepared to feel the parallel warmth and joy the paintings evoke.

In many of Gilliam’s works, it seems as if he were testing the medium himself: breaking the surface, heaping up the paint. Thick with black impasto and bright colors struggling to be seen, “Rail” was cut apart and sewn back together.

Many of the recent circular panels follow the same line of experimentation. Some have been cut into quarters, preserving those that remained intact – like the sweetly titled, side-by-side pairing “Keep” and “You” – a sense of spaciousness. In two paintings, Gilliam left the gaps between the panes filled with paint, preserving a trace of the connection.

Gilliam has sometimes been referred to as the artist who freed the canvas from its stretcher with his Drape Paintings. With this, his final show, it’s really like he’s come full circle and is returning to paint on a flat surface. And yet, even within these confines, Gilliam’s art seems to extend outward, reaching into the gallery around her and expanding our lines of sight. His brush may have been discarded forever, but here his work knows no bounds.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW.

Where to Find More Sam Gilliam

From renowned museums to a pedestrian subway underpass, Gilliam, a 60-year resident of DC, has shaped the city.

At opposite ends of the National Mall, you can see bookends from Gilliam’s artistic endeavors: an early abstract work and a major commission from 2016 that is considered the capstone of his career. In the National Art Gallery, in a gallery that features Washington Color School artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, see Gilliam’s luminous 1965 abstraction Shoot Six, in which six shades of color seem to spread off the canvas like rays of light. In the National Museum of African American History and CultureGilliam’s large-scale five-part installation Yet Do I Marvel (Countee Cullen) greets visitors with jagged lines and a jazzy energy.

At art venues in the city

The range at Kennedy Center: For a glimpse of the signature curtain style that catapulted Gilliam onto the international stage in 1969, see Carousel Light Depth (1969) — a suspended canvas covered in hot pinks, bubbly blues, and sparkling silvers and stretching along the wall is Reach’s Studio K, where you can see the asymmetrical lunge from two viewing planes.

Phillips Collection: Gilliam’s first museum exhibition was at Phillips, which recently re-hung ‘Red Petals’ in its first floor lobby. The work, created specifically for the 1967 show, is a swirl of poppy red and fiery orange that Gilliam created by dying the canvas and folding it into itself – a precursor to his drape painting technique. A new exhibition, Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop, also features work by Gilliam, reflecting a decade-long collaboration between the two artists. On display: ‘Big Red Piece’, a beveled painting for which Stovall built the stretcher, and two 1972 prints by Gilliam made in Stovall’s workshop.

Kreeger Museum: Gilliam played a significant role at the Kreeger, being the first contemporary artist to have an exhibition there. Today you’ll find Cape, a 1969 stained canvas that is part of his Beveled Slice series. (His Cubism-infused acrylic-on-birch sculpture, Graining, will be on view later this summer.)

Howard University Art Gallery:Tulip Series: Petal is a good example of Gilliam’s work in the 1980s. It’s a puzzle-like sculpture that looks like what you’d get if you sampled dripping images like jazz tunes.

From the outside there is nothing remarkable about the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the Executive Office of the Mayor and the District of Columbia Council. It’s a quiet government building with stained walls and dingy lighting. But stroll through the first floor and you’ll find that the space also doubles as a gallery for some of DC’s finest artists, including Gilliam. The artist’s Steps and Folds hangs on the southwest corner. An accordion-shaped jumble of images reminiscent of an image that constantly comes into focus or a phrase uttered underwater. Gilliam’s work can also be found in between your tech conference sessions or Comic-Con events Walter E. Washington Convention Centerstarring Gilliam’s Many Things (2003) and Chevrons (1984). And later this summer, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library plans to install Gilliam’s 1967 acrylic-stained canvas Ship.

There’s something exciting about unexpectedly stumbling upon art on the street, like meeting a friend. That’s the effect of seeing Gilliam’s From Model to Rainbow in the cinema Takoma metro station. It’s the kind of street art that doesn’t interrupt space — I’m looking at you, murals in gentrifying neighborhoods — but rather respects it, counterpointing the subway system’s signature concrete with abstract, colorful tiles that create an illusion of generate three-dimensional fabric. In the Shepherd Park/Juanita E. Thornton Neighborhood Librarythere’s another hidden but conspicuous Gilliam: a copper piece called the Library Stars/Library Obelisk that climbs up the front of the plain brick structure and soars into the sky.

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