Sam Gilliam: a retrospective
Sam Gilliam: a retrospective marked the first full-career retrospective of Sam Gilliam and the most extensive presentation of his work to date.
Sam Gilliam (b. 1933) established himself as a major artist in 1968 when he jettisoned the wooden stretcher bars that had previously determined the shape of his paintings and allowed his vivid, sometimes ecstatic, rushes of color-stained canvas to hang, billow, and swing through space. This was not the first time an artist working in the venerable tradition of painting had decided to abandon the conventional rigid support. But it was the only time someone had done so to create a complete painterly environment. Gilliam’s idea that modernist painting could be sculptural and, moreover, theatrical, radically distinguished him from his contemporaries, including minimalists Donald Judd and Robert Morris, color-field painter Helen Frankenthaler, and the artists associated with the Washington Color School, such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Since that time, Gilliam has gone on to create work in an astounding variety of styles and media. Sam Gilliam: a retrospective explores many of the artist’s most important innovations while highlighting the aesthetic ideals that have remained constant throughout his career. Most important among these is his consistent disregard for the boundaries that have traditionally separated the disciplines of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Sam Gilliam is best recognized for the classic “Draped” paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and with good reason. They earned him a prominent place on the national and international contemporary art scenes. Yet Gilliam’s accomplishments extend far beyond these often monumental and always dramatic works. For more than forty years, Gilliam has pursued new aesthetic experiences without regard for theoretical prescriptions, political dictates, or marketplace preference for a singular signature style. His paintings have ranged from sheer and economical evocations of color, light, and space to complex, mixed-media, and multi-dimensional sculptural constructions.
Because Gilliam has always felt free to move back and forth between styles and formats without worrying about moving “forward” in some predetermined sense of advancement, this retrospective is not, strictly speaking, chronological. When Gilliam does “return” to a past technique or format, he incorporates it into newer approaches and transforms it as a result, making the so-called return not a return at all but a new exploration. For Gilliam, transformation and the uncertainty that results from change generate the creative spark. They provide ferment for continuation, revitalization, and hope for the value of the creative endeavor. Whether looking to the future or to the past, to the influence of other artists or to his own historical achievements, Gilliam’s love of the vicissitudes of color—beautiful, menacing, and confrontational—fuel his inimitable talent for formal invention. His expansive vision is one of the great testaments to the continued vitality of abstraction, now into the twenty-first century.
Sam Gilliam: a retrospective is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and made possible through the generous support of The Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, Ellen and Gerry Sigal, and the FRIENDS of the Corcoran.
The Corcoran also thanks the following donors for their support of the exhibition catalogue:
Judy and John Aldock
The Andrew W. Mellon Research and Publications Fund
Katherine Dulin Folger Publication Fund
Aldus and Dolly Chapin
The Distribution Fund
Don and Nancy Eiler
Raymond Garcia and Fruzsina M. Harsanyi
Marsha Mateyka Gallery
Dr. Robert and Mrs. Jean Steele