Man of Constant Color: Sam Gilliam’s Abstract Art Comes Home For A Retrospective

Jun 20, 2006 at 7:42 pm
Sam Gilliam, 1966.
Sam Gilliam, 1966. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1983, galleries full of Sam Gilliam’s paintings were on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in a show called “Modern Painters at the Corcoran: Sam Gilliam.” I had seen works from Gilliam’s Draped series, which firmly established him in the art world after its debut in Washington’s Jefferson Place Gallery in 1968. I was unprepared, however, for the powerful emotional impact of viewing a large number of Gilliam works for the first time in one setting.

Shortly after entering the gallery, I needed to sit down and concentrate on viewing just one piece at a time so I could manage the visual sensations they evoked. They bore a variety of intense colors, soft and hard lines and a wide scope of shapes, from controlled waves to blobs of paint. Many had rich textures, including impasto (thick paint). All of it impressed, surprised and intrigued me, and the exhibit also made me curious, like an archeologist, to know why he had chosen these colors, these shapes, these materials. I wanted to get inside his head. I wanted to watch him create.

The critics shared my passion. Paul Richard of The Washington Post wrote: “Today, a smashing, well-selected show of recent abstract paintings by Washington’s Sam Gilliam opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. (It’s) proof of his power and significance as a Washington Color painter.”

Even before that experience, I had heard of Gilliam, a Louisville native. During the summer of 1983, I was studying art history at the University of Louisville and working as an intern at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). You don’t study art at U of L and fail to hear about this famous alumnus who earned his bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1955 and his master’s in painting in 1961.

Later, while living in Washington and working at the National Museum of American Art, my education in Gilliam’s work continued, with more sightings of his paintings and constructions at the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art and various Smithsonian museums, which all own his work. I even had the opportunity to meet him at a reception (me and a thousand other people). I heard he was intelligent and shy; I told him I was from Louisville and got a smile and a nod.

Since returning to Louisville 15 years ago, I’ve experienced “Gilliamville” here. The Speed Art Museum and U of L own his art; he’s a Governor Emeriti of the Speed Art Museum’s Board of Governors; and he has received various awards, including an honorary doctorate, from U of L. The Central High graduate even maintains a presence here, returning once a year to visit family, he told me in a recent interview.

Now the Speed is one of four venues exhibiting “Sam Gilliam: a retrospective,” which displays work from 1967 to the present. (Others venues are the Corcoran, the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga., and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.) The Corcoran originated the current retrospective, with more than 40 “greatest hits” on display, including his drapes, collages and constructions. Gilliam, now 72, has a long association with the Corcoran, going back to his first show there in 1969.

This retrospective, and its accompanying catalog (available for $34.95 at The Speed’s gift shop), justifiably celebrates Gilliam’s artistic contributions. Gilliam’s body of work is abstract art, largely composed of non-figurative color and shapes that are exciting, engaging and sensuous (his Draped series, for example, with its soft and voluptuous flowing shapes). This is in contrast to the frequent notion of abstract art as intimidating and difficult to understand. Many viewers adopt such an attitude because abstract art doesn’t depict nature or objects in the natural world, thus leaving the viewer little to grasp. But Gilliam’s work, especially with its three-dimensional qualities and playful use of color and shape, takes hold of the viewer. Over his 45-year career, he has constantly sought out inventive techniques that prompt viewers to look at color, shape, texture and space in new ways.

“He’s a master synthesizer, following his own path but constantly absorbing influences and turning them into something fresh, unique and compelling,” wrote Ferdinand Protzman in The Washington Post in 1999. “Unlike some artists who’ve had relatively early success, he’s had the courage to keep exploring.”

Building a career

Gilliam’s history is full of important artistic moments. While in college, he co-founded the Louisville Art Workshop with other African-American artists, including G. C. Coxe and Fred Bond. The workshop produced several significant artists, such as sculptor Ed Hamilton, who wrote in his recent autobiography that it was “his foundation.”

“We started it from scratch, with people mostly from U of L,” Gilliam says. “It was open to the entire city, all races of artists. Writers too. We did shows in Central Park and showed in bars. People got to know us.” In 1962, when he was 28 years old, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., where he saw works by the Washington Color School. That group of painters included Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Tom Downing, and specialized in nonrepresentational color-field paintings, a form of abstract expressionism. Gilliam eventually joined and became one of their youngest members.

The group was part of a larger group of color field artists, who were part of the abstract expressionists that came to prominence during the 1950s, artists such as Mark Rothko and Frank Stella, working in a style that involved painting canvasses with large areas of solid color. These artists’ works were recognized for their serene yet austere qualities. Gilliam took the style and often married it with those of other abstract expressionists who were considered action painters, artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning who impulsively dripped, splashed and smeared paint onto canvas.

Over his career, Gilliam’s work has exemplified the controlled quality created by color field artists while exuding the energy and charisma of the action painters.

His first solo museum show was at The Phillips Collection in Washington in 1967. He showed his Slice series, named for the creases made by crumpling the paper when it was still wet with paint. He prefers to experiment through a series, reexamining an idea again and again, something he still does. Gilliam’s love of color and “happy accidents” fused to produce his first major identifiable style. The retrospective at the Speed begins with two of his 1967 watercolor paintings, “Green Slice” and “Least Rivers.”

The art world sat up and took real notice of Gilliam in 1968 when he displayed his Draped series. Taking a finished canvas painting off its wood stretcher supports seems like such a simple idea, yet it changed a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional one, a painting into sculpture. He then suspended the painted pieces, which allowed his rainbow colors to freely flow from one hanging section to another. These suspended works are in the style he is best known for and generate a place where physical interaction between art and viewer is recommended, even necessary to fully appreciate the art.

In 1969, the Corcoran featured the 35-year-old Gilliam in the group exhibition “Gilliam, Krebs, McGowin,” which became the pivotal show of his career. Washington Post critic Paul Richard declared it “an enormously important show,” and Benjamin Forgey, who wrote for The Washington Sunday Star, judged the exhibition as “one of those watermarks by which the Washington art community measures its evolution. I’ll never forget, and I’m sure many people will never forget, the draped canvases the first time we saw them in the Corcoran.”

The monumental three-pronged “Light Depth” (acrylic on canvas, 1969) was one of the exhibition’s highlights. It curves and undulates to the point that it’s impossible to ignore. It creates its own interactive, theatrical space as it juts out into the gallery. The Corcoran thought so highly of the painting that it was purchased for its permanent collection; it appears in the current exhibition at the Speed.

Through the early 1970s, Gilliam continued exploring familiar terrain when he created “A and the Carpenter I” in 1973. The piece, a variation of the hanging draped paintings, features acrylic on canvas draped over a pair of wooden sawhorses. The text for the piece in the current exhibition says the arrangement makes the work “a metaphor for the artist’s studio,” and adds, “These objects suggest work in progress and seem antithetical to the experience of art in museum, where one typically expects to find finished works.”

By the mid-1970s, Gilliam was not resting on his laurels, as have some artists who become famous for a particular style and continue re-creating it for the rest of their lives. His constant need to explore led him to create collages. In “For Day One” (1974-75), he cut up canvas painted with acrylic, then rearranged the pieces into circles and other geometric shapes. “For Day One” is now in the Speed’s permanent collection.

Gilliam returned to rectangular-shaped stretched canvas for his 1977-78 Black series. “Rail” (1977) is composed of a dark, thick surface of acrylic on canvas with a collage insert. The piece’s very limited, but not monochromatic, palette makes the eyes focus on the roughness of the paint.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gilliam experimented with combinations of canvas, wood and metal. He had two studio assistants by the mid-1980s, which enabled him to do larger, more complicated constructions. “It’s just in the cards that you’ll do something different next,” he told The Washington Times in 2002.

Aluminum and wood are part of the circular “Fine as a Cobweb” (1989), which features acrylic on canvas and primed aluminum with a plywood support structure. Here Gilliam is firmly in sculpture territory and incorporates bold strokes of bright color to move the viewer’s eyes from one shape to the next.

He began his latest series, Slatt, in 2003. Created by pouring acrylic paint onto the birch plywood wood, the monochromatic “Red Slatt” (2003) glows with deep, jewel-like color.

“Dance Me, Dance You” (2006), of acrylic on tobacco muslin, is a special treat from Gilliam just for the attendees of the Speed show. Suspended over the central staircase, these billowing bundles of color are on loan from the artist and will not travel to the other venues.

Connecting with the community

Because Gilliam comes from Louisville and has a renowned artistic reputation, Peter Morrin, the Speed’s director, has high hopes for the show attracting people from all corners of the community and region. “Because Sam Gilliam is well known in the West Louisville community, in which he grew up, we expect a special response from that part of town,” he says.

Morrin adds that Gilliam’s career shows how creativity and imagination are survival skills in the 21st century. “Sam Gilliam has never ceased to follow his muse, his inner creative path,” he says. “Sam is a model and exemplar for our age.”

Many locals have begun familiarizing themselves with Gilliam through this exhibition. Speed members Anne Marie Regan, 52, and Doug Magee, 55, saw the show on a recent Saturday. “We’ve seen his work in pictures,” Magee said, “but they’re more impressive in person. More vivid and bright.”

While many of the works intrigued them, they especially liked Gilliam’s collages. “We debated how he did it,” Regan said. “I’m not that big on modern abstract art, but this is different. It’s multi-layered, thought out.” Two other visitors to the Gilliam exhibition that day were Alena Burns, 23, and her 8-month-old son, Benjamin. She wasn’t familiar with Gilliam’s work but came because “she wanted to see something new.” She found the work unusual, and said that when you “show babies something new, it educates them, stimulates them. (My son) gets it; he’s staring at the color.”

Strong U of L ties

The University of Louisville owns 29 Gilliam pieces, and there is a proposed work designed for the Ekstrom Library, an installation of wood geometric shapes attached to a metal bar. (It has yet to be commissioned or funded to take it to full size. It only exists in model form, currently on view in the library.) And U of L shares a history with Gilliam, especially via art historian Dario Covi.

“As a graduate student, Sam Gilliam seemed to me to have a strong sense of direction,” says the U of L professor emeritus of art history. “At the same time, he clearly respected the advice of his thesis director, Charles Crodel, a visiting professor from Munich, and, as far as I could tell, my judgment as a reader on his thesis committee. Neither of us had any doubt that Sam was headed toward a highly productive career as an artist.”

A companion show to the Speed retrospective is an exhibition of Gilliam’s 1961 master’s thesis drawings, appropriately held at the Hite Art Institute’s Covi Gallery in U of L’s Schneider Hall. The show consists of drawings not previously exhibited.

Gilliam’s thesis idea came from a painting class Crodel taught in 1958, in which the teacher stressed the importance of learning from artists of the past. Gilliam’s efforts resulted in such images as the pencil drawing titled “Analysis of Michelangelo’s ‘The Prophet Jonah’.” In completing his thesis, Gilliam studied solid forms in paintings and graphic works by other artists by noting the dimensions of the solid forms as well as decorative or expressive shapes.

Even today, Gilliam continues to think about what Crodel taught him. When he sent a new work, “Thoughts on Pollock and Picasso” (mixed media collage on rag board, 2006), to the U of L exhibition, he wrote, “Dr. Crodel did not assign a work of Jackson Pollock’s as one of the eight artists works that I did drawings from for my thesis — although he did not leave him out in context either. In all these years since I graduated from the University of Louisville the making of my work has varied, but I always include a broad swath in my thinking. Those eight sketches from those artists suggested by Dr. Crodel have remained firm in my thinking all these years. Herein lies a drama that leads to much more than just the drawing. I still wonder why he didn’t suggest Picasso.”

When I spoke to Gilliam at the opening of the Speed show, I asked if he had seen his thesis exhibition while he was in town. “No,” he said, “but I loved my time at U of L, especially my professor Charles Crodel.” And, invoking the days when art historians used large glass slides to show artworks to their students, he smiled when he said he remembered carrying Dr. Covi’s slides. It was a colorful smile.