USA, 1973 (detail)
acrylic on canvas
85 x 36 x 12"
(approximate installed dimensions)
acrylic on canvas
111 x 114"
New Movie 3, 2008
relief, digital, ed. 20
38 x 33 1/4"
New Movie 1, 2008
relief, digital, ed. 20
38 x 33 1/4"
digital, relief, stencil, ed. 20 P.I.
38 x 20"
30 x 44"
Cool Zebras 14, 1997
multi-layered relief, die-cut, collaged monoprint
12 x 12"
"I've learned to 'get rid of rules' ... which is the best form of creation." The artist, quoted in Sam Gilliam: Of Fireflies and Ferris Wheels: Monastery Parallel, Art Museum Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen, 1996-97
Sam Gilliam: Owl in the Barn
Examine a list of influential abstract artists or color field painters, both common descriptors for Sam Gilliam, and you probably won't find his name. Why not, one has to wonder, for Gilliam is often credited with the freeing of canvases from stretchers and frames and employing them in new ways, as free forms, drapes, hangings, fabrics, and even public "sculptures." Some have wondered aloud if Gilliam's lack of notoriety has something to do with his race - Gilliam is African American - or with his being eclipsed by more accomplished artists. Perhaps Gilliam is overlooked because of where he lives and works, in Washington, DC, a relative backwater compared to New York City, the center of the art world for most of the last 75 years.
But whatever the reasons for Gilliam's obscurity, those reasons seem destined to fade. Art history is usually marked by conceptual upheaval, remarkable artists, and great innovation. Gilliam is an innovator, almost without peer, and he has challenged or changed virtually all of the ways we think about making modern art.
It started with Gilliam's removing the canvas from stretchers. This simple act made it possible for Gilliam to create not one but two artistic spaces. The first of these spaces is the more obvious, the traditional one, the canvas, where there is a kind of problem to be worked out between the fixed space of the canvas and the subject of the paintings. The second of these spaces is the space between the artist's brush, for example, and the surface of the canvas. When this space is opened, as it is when Gilliam frees the canvas from its stretcher, it can become enormous and revise everything about the artist's relationship to the canvas.
Many artists are aware of this space and seek to utilize it, as a kind of forum for phenomenological inquiry, social commentary, expression of identity, or political protest. Some use it as a space for discussing their aesthetic concerns or for explaining their work. Gilliam is one of these artists, yes, but more. He uses this second space not only to explain his works, but also to dramatize the larger creative process itself so that process and finished artwork might be simultaneously discrete and integral, the relationship between the two open to interpretation. As a result, Gilliam's landscapes are landscapes and considerations of landscapes in creative possibility. Further, his paintings are sculptures, and his sculptures are pieces of public "architecture." No genre contains him.
Anyone who has watched Gilliam work has seen him wading among the lengths of his canvases, folding, staining, spreading, cutting, adorning, and sharing them, the artist himself becoming subordinate to the creative process but letting it happen also, working within and without it, all of him subsumed, first in the existential crisis of expressing himself, but then in the process of enormous, spontaneous creation.
More than anything, Gilliam seems interested in challenging stratification: of making, thinking about, experiencing, and exhibiting art. His works are dynamic and alive, taking muse, place, light, time, color, form, texture, symbol, culture, and viewer—all the "beautiful" information that makes art memorable-and repurposing these elements to create art as varied and as engaging as life itself.
John A Haslem, Jr. PhD
Director, Center for Teaching and Learning
SAM GILLIAM, "Works '99"
October 15 - November 27,1999 PRESS RELEASE
It is with great pleasure that the Marsha Mateyka Gallery presents its first solo exhibition of the work of the renowned artist, Sam Gilliam. This exhibition will focus on his paintings and collages of the last year. It will be on view through November 27.
Sam Gilliam's work first gained national prominence in the late 1960's with the debut of his dramatically innovative drape paintings. Since that time, he has had a long illustrious career, which has included numerous awards, grants and important public commissions. His paintings are in major museum collections including the Metropolitan, MOMA and the Whitney, in New York; Art Institute of Chicago, Menil Collection, Tate Gallery, London, Musee d'Arte Moderne,Paris, and all the major museums in Washington, DC.
Sam Gilliam's most recent museum exhibition was at the Kreeger Museum in Washington. The following excerpts are from the exhibition catalogue:
"Gilliam's recent work continues to express his fascination with structured improvisation. He is now creating vividly colored three-dimensional constructions of acrylic on birch plywood, often with collage elements.
...These new paintings are as complex technically as they are spatially. Gilliam begins by staining sheets of plywood with acrylic and polymer paints, sometimes in a gel medium that creates a translucent, almost glassy surface. The sheets are then cut up and cut out... The parts are then hinged back together on either side of a stable center, creating wings in the manner of medieval altarpieces.
...Gilliam has always worked in series; his current paintings are no exception...Working in series allows him to explore chromatic and compositional relationships not only within a painting, but between several paintings in a suite.
...Collage has likewise been a consistent feature of Gilliam's work over the years. Typically the artist has pieced together the cut-ups of his own paintings.
...Like Matisse's cut-outs, Gilliam's paintings aspire at once to chromatic and compositional intricacy and to material and technical invention. Playful but serious, they embody a commitment to modernism...They are a celebration of artistic freedom, of the power and the primacy of the individual imagination: this is one of the fundamental articles of modernist faith".**
**"Gilliam in 3-D", catalogue essay by John Beardsley, The Kreeger Museum, Oct 16, 1998 - Jan. 2, 1999.
Sam Gilliam's spontaneous and improvisational techniques, particularly his pouring of vivid pigment on to unstretched, draped canvas, make him one of the foremost artists to emerge from the Washington art scene. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, Gilliam spent his youth in Louisville, Kentucky. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Louisville in 1955, he served in the Army (1956-1958), then returned to the University for his Master of Arts degree (1961). In 1962 he moved to Washington, D.C.
Following an early figurative period, Gilliam began painting in an abstract idiom. In 1968, he affirmed his place among the American avant-garde with the creation of his draped works. Between 1965 and 1973 Gilliam exhibited at the Jefferson Place Gallery, where Marjorie Phillips saw Red Petals in 1967 and decided to host a show of his work at The Phillips Collection. This was his first one-person museum exhibition. Gilliam has shown at various Washington galleries and taught art in the Washington public school system, the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He has received a number of awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Activities Grants in 1967, 1973–1975, and 1989, and a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1971, which gave him the financial independence necessary to paint full-time. Gilliam lives and works in Washington, D.C.
born 1933 Tupelo, MSeducation
public collections1955 University of Louisville, KY, BFA1961 University of Louisville, KY, MFA
American Federation of Art Museum Collection, New YorkArt Institute of Chicago, ILBallinglen Arts Foundation, County Mayo, IrelandBaltimore Museum of Art, MDMuseum Boymans - van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The NetherlandsMuseum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PACarnegie Library, Washington, DCCincinnati Museum of Art, OHCorcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DCDayton Art Institute, OHDenver Art Museum, CODetroit Institute of Art, MIElvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, WIGreenville Museum of Art, SCHigh Museum of Art, Atlanta, GAHirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DCHoward University, Washington, DCIndianapolis Museum of Art, INThe Kreeger Museum, Washington, DCLouisiana Museum, SwedenMadison Art Center, WIMemphis Brooks Museum of Art, TNMenil Collection, Houston, TXMetropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkMilwaukee Art Museum, WIMississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MIMusee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, FranceMuseum of African Art, Washington, DCMuseum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, FLMuseum of Modern Art, New YorkNational Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DCNational Gallery of Art, Washington, DCNational Museum of American Art, Washington, DCNational Museum of Jamaica, Kingston, JamaicaNew Orleans Museum of Art, LAOberlin University, OHThe Phillips Collection, Washington, DCThe Art Museum, Princeton University, NJRenwick Gallery, Washington, DCRockefeller Collection, New YorkJ. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KYDavid and Alfred Smart Museum, University of Chicago, ILSpencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, LawrenceStudio Museum in Harlem, New YorkSzepmuveszeti Museum, Budapest, HungaryTate Gallery, London, EnglandUniversity of Iowa, Iowa CityUniversity of Louisville, KYUniversity of Michigan, Ann ArborVirginia Museum of Fine Art, RichmondWalker Art Center, Minneapolis, MNWhitney Museum of American Art, New York
The Washington Post, Galleries
Friday, October 14, 2011, p. C5
by Mark Jenkins
Skeptics of abstract painting joke a non-figurative canvas can be hung any which way, without making an aesthetic difference. Sam Gilliam halfway agrees. The veteran color-field painter knows exactly how he wants his work displayed, but that can change. His exhibition at Marsha Mateyka Gallery includes four pieces, previously shown at the Katzen gallery, that have been hung differently and renamed. "Opened Box A-D" is now "Tempo Series: #1-4".
It's been almost 50 years since Gilliam rebelled against the flat, rectangular canvas, and he's still finding ways to tweak that traditional format. The four 2009-10 "Tempo" paintings, which are acrylic on nylon, are joined here by three new works on canvas, whose colors are less bright and textures more subtle. Where the pigment seems to flow on the nylon, retaining a sense of fluidity, it seeps into the canvas, melding color and form. The earlier paintings are stitched together, so that only the drape can change in different installations; "Tinkerbell's Bookcase" (composed of four pieces) and the knotty "Gordonian" can be arranged and rearranged, theoretically, in infinite variety.
Sam Gilliam's "Tinkerbell's Bookcase", on display at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, can be arranged and rearranged, theoretically in infinite ways.
The gallery is also showing, in rotation, two plain old rectangular Gilliam works: "Sea Color" and "Fog Light". Layering acrylic washes on birch panels, the artist has crafted a seemingly glazed surface that appears closer to ceramics than painting. "Fog Light" glimmers like the artist's soft nylon "boxes" but also has the canvas works' beguiling sense of depth. Painting on a flat surface hasn't limited Gilliam at all.
Sam Gilliam may well be Washington's most famous living painter. For 40-plus years he's taught and worked here, gracefully linking the Washington Color School ethos to latter-day abstraction. His first national, high-visibility moment came in 1969, when he defied the flat, stretched canvases of the day and floated grand-scale, rainbow-tinted "drapes" across the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. That rebel impulse led to a career of testing boundaries – rethinking color, shapes, texture, and, most significantly, the line between painting and sculpture. His current show at Marsha Mateyka Gallery consists of new acrylic paintings on birch. Works like Remembering Girls Ajar (pictured) continue his meditation on accident and control, advancing and receding surfaces. Also now: a 3-D work in a Parish Gallery group show and Double DC, stained, knotted and draped canvases above the Katzen Center's dramatic stairwell. The latter dates to 1972, the year Gilliam represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. More gold on the resume.
- Jean L. Cohen
THE JOY OF GILLIAM AT MATEYKA
by John Blee
The Joy of Painting could be the title of Sam Gilliam's latest show at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery (2012 R St. NW, Wednesday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm). Joy and the intensity of life and living abound in the work on the walls. The color has the headiness of late spring with floriation proliferating. De Kooning said that oil painting was invented to depict flesh, but Gilliam's use of acrylic has a sense of flesh and the peel of petal. It is a visual version of Gerard Manly Hopkins' celebration of nature.
Gilliam is playing with format and his use of wood support. In "Like a Black Pepper" the paint follows the grain of the wood that has been left exposed. The curving paint forms match the curling of the wood grain. Munakata, the great Japanese woodblock print artist, said that he always compared the uncarved wood to what he had carved into it. With Gilliam's paintings on wood the paint flows naturally into and from the lines of the wood. The birch of the wood is a honey color in the paintings.
"Seeds" is a Zen garden gone psychadelic. And "Smooth" is a love fest of paint. I remember a friend recounting that as a child she was so enamored of paint that she ate up several tubes and almost died. Gilliam's paint tastes delicious!
Structurally the works are cut up into pieces, but they flow with their breaking. Gilliam is stylistically so assured that the breaks only amplify the field of each work. The fracturing presents the wholeness more fully.
Also on view are some recent monotypes by Gilliam that are a combination of many different techniques including silkscreen. The monotypes are partly stitched together. There is a momentum in them that seems related to the Futurists. Often there is a feeling of landscape as seen from on high. They are very deliberate in their structure and more cerebral than the paintings. (Through July 28)
Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2006
"A Master of Color Too Long in the Shadows"
By TOM L. FREUDENHEIM
A high-risk museum venture: a retrospective exhibition of a living artist. Too se- lective, and the artist is only partially seen. Too inclusive, and one may think the artist might have been better served by no exhibition at all. Those apprehen- sions are quickly put to rest in the Corcoran's impressive array of Sam Gilliam's paintings.
Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1933, Mr. Gilliam landed in Washington in 1962, after earning a graduate fine-arts degree from the University of Louisville. That made for a late arrival at the doorstep of the so-called Washington Color School (Mor- ris Louis and Kenneth Noland are among its most prominent names). This was still the small-town national capital, with fewer museums than today's Wash- ington and a close-knit community of artists, many of them clustered around the Corcoran School of Art and heavily influenced by the accomplished paint- ers and teachers Tom Downing and Gene Davis. It's more a comment on the fast-moving world of art fashion than a reflection of quality that some of these names resonate from an irrelevant past.
Among Sam Gilliam's best-known works are his 'draped' paintings, such as 1969's 'Light Depth,' in which painted and unstretched canvas cascades in space—suspended by wires or tossed over wood supports.
Mr. Gilliam is an exuberant color- ist whose almost batik-like, thinly paint-stained canvases evolved into works with drips and splashes of paint sometimes so heavily layered that they suggest relief sculptures. The exhibition is a reminder of both his power as a painter and of the Corcoran's breathtakingly capacious galler- ies -- among this country's most beautiful. Some of the larger works bring back the nostalgia of discovering large Abstract Expres- sionist paintings: We wish that we might simply dive into the walls, but those walls just happen to be paintings. Nowhere is this more evident than in "Leah's Renoir" (1979) -- oddly named, since the layers of almost shimmering paint are more sugges- tive of Monet's large water-lily paintings.Freudenheim, Tom L., "A Master of Color Too Long in the Shadows," Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2006.
As strongly as anyone since de Kooning, Mr. Gilliam is a painter of passages -- lyrical melanges of splashes and streaks that often emerge from the rich strata of paint and challenge one another: Think of the Molto Allegro (last movement) of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, where the themes emerge, playing against and finally with each other. I found this musical quality one of the consistent strains in this Gilliam exhibition, giving me a new perspective on his best-known works: the "draped" paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which painted and unstretched canvas cascades in space -- suspended by wires or nonchalantly tossed over crude wood supports.
"Relative" (1969) -- huge rose and green stretches of canvas, knotted at the top for wall hanging, and suggesting the gore of bloody bandages -- still looks daring. These are so obviously a painter's heroic gestures that they don't lend themselves to other interpretations. However, when the canvases find their way onto stretchers with beveled edges, the illusion created by the folds of canvas and paint conjures up the classic dilemma of abstract painting: the tension be- tween imagined image and simply lush paint.
Throughout his career, Mr. Gilliam has investigated how colors interact, in the tradition of Hans Hofmann, to whom he often seems to be paying homage. There is a consistency in the dynamic movement within the canvas as Mr. Gil- liam layers, sometimes even slathers, his paints -- one of the most compelling ways in which the artist moves from his early stained, almost dappled, canvas- es to a palette that is at once far richer and also more subtle.
The irregularly shaped canvases of the 1980s lack discipline, as the artist ap- pears to grope with the challenge of finding a format for his colors. Yet we never doubt Mr. Gilliam's power as a painter, and even in these works, for example "The St. of Moritz" (1984), and in others that show a relationship to Frank Stella's relief painting/constructions of the 1980s, Mr. Gilliam maintains control in handling a myriad of moments -- painterly passages that are endlessly rich and often mesmerizing.
A recent sculpture, "A and the Kitty" (1998), is needlessly complex; yet we rec- ognize it as another version of a painting. "30,000 Knots (2005)," a commemo- rative return to the earlier draped paintings, hangs in the Corcoran's beautiful rotunda as a signature piece in which theatrics overpower Mr. Gilliam's truly impressive skills as a master of colors.
It's a bit disconcerting to realize that this is the artist's first full retrospective ever, and that Jonathan P. Binstock's excellent catalog is the first monograph.
The Sam Gilliam exhibition shows a painter secure in his work and thus un- afraid to suggest echoes of earlier modernist painters and contemporaneous artists. "Composed" (formerly "Dark as I Am," 1968-74) hints at Robert Rauschenberg's Combine paintings, and yet it is more hauntingly personal.
The most recent works, uncharacteristically monochromatic, with overtones of 1920s deStijl abstraction and highly polished acrylic surfaces, suggest a local boy's homage to the highly regarded Washington artist (and diarist) Anne Truitt (1921-2004); yet they have little in common with Ms. Truitt's mysteriously intense colors and the simple rectangular forms of both her paintings and sculp- tures. In contrast, Mr. Gilliam characteristically reveals the support mechanisms of his paintings -- here, birch plywood that remains visible at the edges -- again reaffirming the notion that, whatever the substratum of support, color is what matters most for him.
This overdue retrospective serves the artist well. Moreover, a visitor gets to share in the excitement of Mr. Gilliam's highly personal vision and his commit- ment to the apparently endless possibilities of paint and color.
Art in America
December, 2002, p.114
"Washington, D.C., Sam Gilliam at Marsha Mateyka"
by Joe Shannon
Sam Gilliam's new work, a series called "Slats", is a major departure for him. When one thinks of Gilliam's art, scale and emotional power come mind. Gilliam's protean career has covered a lot of ground, from the colored canvases draped unforgettably over and around the Corcoran Gallery's atrium to large fields of explosive and emotive color on stretched canvases. Then there are the wonderful monumental constructions made of shaped birch plywood, variously joined and hinged and painted, that rank there with the drapes as his greatest achievements.
All of the paintings in this recent show are, by past standards, small and cool- restrained in scale and austere in effect. "Blue Slat" ( 2002 ) is only 30 b 24 inches. It consists of five slats, all painted a rich blue that varies only minimally in each section. The paint is thickly poured on the plywood, then polished down to 1/16 of an inch. In each work there are usually four or five sections of different sizes, joined together but not necessarily flush. The height of the slats usually differs by a fraction of an inch. "Small Yellow Slat" ( 2002 ) is only 16 x 13 inches, but it has a precious, luminescent vibrancy. Built around an inverted "L" mounted over a smaller square at lower left, with a narrow horizontal rectangle added at the top, there's not much to it, right? Wrong. Mysteriously, this beauty speaks eloquently of esthetic subtleties of many kinds.
Most of the works are monochromatic and simply constructed, but the variations are endless. The edges are important in all the works; variations on the rectangular matrix of the pieces are as emphatic and improvised as this simplified mode allows. In "Red Slat", on the perimeter of the right lower quadrant, a tall thin rectangle extends by about an inch; nearby, a wider rectangle falls approximately an inch below the matrix line. This simple, telling maneuver, along with the scale and composition of the slats, their glittering surfaces and the stare of the simple colors, make the experience of viewing these works anything but Minimalist.
The Washington Times, Saturday, April 13, 2002
ON VIEW: Slats, Paintings fit in color and form
by Joanna Shaw-Eagle ( excerpts )
Sam Gilliam points to "Blue", one of his nine new minimalist works at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery in the Dupont Circle area. It's part of his exhibit "New Paintings: Slats", which he considers his best to date.
For a half-century the artist, 69, has come up with intriguing, challenging and sometimes extraordinarily sensuous and beautiful artwork.
The "Slats" paintings are spare, rectilinear and decorated with single acrylic colors. Mr Gilliam joins smallish plywood rectangles vertically of horizontally to create larger asymmetric rectangles. He pours layers of acrylic paint on thin panels of birch plywood to give them a seductive high-tech industrial polish. The artist then suspends the rectilinear images from the wall.
The works are radically different from the complexly organized and boldly colored earlier paintings that often verged on sculpture. Standing near "Blue Slat", one of the medium-sized works in the show, Mr Gilliam says, "It's just in the cards that you'll do something different next." He notes he had wanted to make this kind of reductive art since the 1960's.
The artist says he first saws plywood to make the cutouts, then combines them for the larger shapes. " A big challenge is making the form, and the hardest thing is finding the surprise in each shape. The interesting thing is that they're so hard to do," Mr Gillian says.
The slightly stooped, 6-foot-plus artist with salt-and-pepper hair says he believes art should not be talked about. With a sheepish smile, he looks for a variety of topics, " the Palestinian-Israel conflict, the place of color painter Howard Mehring in the history of Washington art " to avoid discussing his work.
Mr. Gilliam points to where he joined sections in "Blue Slat." His gentle hands, with their gracefully attenuated fingers and nails, touch one of the joints of the work. He explains how he wanted the joint to become part of the surface "like a painted seam".
Each painting has its own attitude that comes from the paint. "I pour the paint unevenly with different colors for slightly serrated surfaces. Some of the paintings even have small bumps. When I get near the top surface, I decide what the final color will be," Mr. Gilliam says.
Viewers will see this in "Large Red Slat", in which touches of blue vibrate through the richness of the red. The multiple pourings of acrylics also make for highly shiny surfaces, which the artist says he hasn't attempted before.
Although the works look strictly rectilinear and geometric, Mr. Gilliam still uses the stream-of-consciousness techniques of his famous "draped paintings" of the 1960's. Improvisational in nature, they were large color-saturated, unstretched canvases that he gathered and hung like curtains from walls and ceilings.
In "Blue Slat", he points out the flat upper section, which is colored with a light, but intense, blue. It thrusts into the painting's main midsection, which deepens into a darker, almost inky blue. The artist says he intentionally meant the artwork to be smaller than a painting called "Big Blue Slat" and have lots of space around it.
Mr. Gilliam crosses the gallery that was once an elegant, late 1880's home to talk about "Big Blue Slat". He gave this painting more physicality and more complicated working of color, he says.
The artist considered how all the paintings would look together in the gallery, and this is where his mastery of color and form is most evident. Mr. Gilliam placed the large blue painting next to a corner that held a smaller yellow one so the colors would bounce off each other. He also painted a series of smaller works for the gallery's hallways and middle room.
The artist says the early modernist Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld inspired his latest works. Mr. Gilliam first read about the constructivist furniture designer's work while he was in college. The artist especially admires Rietveld's reduction of chairs to rectilinear wood planes, often slats, painted in primary colors. Hence the name of Mr. Gilliam's show.
For the first time in his long career, Mr. Gilliam has designed sets for a Washington Ballet production. "Journey Home", with a Sweet Honey in the Rock musical score, was performed last week at the Kennedy Center and now goes on tour. "The sets weren't sets, they were like moments in the dance and play. We were trying to give an armature, to give it eight images," he says.
He made 20 elements for the "blue set", that the dancers could rock back and forth. In another, he created a red piece that dangled from the ceiling like an umbilical cord with a draped painting above it.
"Never before and never again", he says of the experience. "The results of the collaboration were the best thing for the Washington arts community, but it's difficult for me to go without doing my own work".
Mr. Gilliam has done public commissions for places, from Helsinki, Finland to Seoul to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He has received honorary doctorates of arts and letters, and his work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate in London among other art institutions.
Washington City Paper, April 19, 2002
"Less is More"
by Garance Franke-Ruta
Walk into the Marsha Mateyka Gallery on R St., NW and you'll be greeted by a series of smoothly minimalist rectangles, each in a single hue of blue, green, red, or yellow. The works, plywood panels, with their shiny, subtly metallic pigments overlain with thick layers of acrylic medium, are themselves assembled from smaller rectangles that have been fitted together like elements of a puzzle. The effect of the pieces is arresting and a decided departure for Sam Gilliam, one of D.C.'s best-known artists.
Gilliam, 68, long worked with jagged, swooping lines and a multiplicity of colors in his paintings and painted sculptural installations. His work was raw and fluid, with colors bleeding into one another and thick overlays of conflicting and complimentary patterns. Critic Walter Hopps once remarked on the "delicate balance between improvisation and structure and a sense of chaos controlled in Gilliam's works". The artist's new exhibition, on view at Mateyka to May 18, shows no evidence of chaos at all. "It was time for a change", Gilliam says.
"After moving into a new house and painting stripes on the wall, I was ready", he explains of his foray into simple planes of color. "The prints came first." Working on a computer, Gilliam in 2001 designed a series of templates for pieces such as that year's "Union Pacific" and the series of diptychs and triptychs that followed. Working with Tandem Press in Madison, Wis., he collaged birch veneers onto paper and printed them with simple ovals and pure geometric shapes. "Before. I would always overprint, overstain", says Gilliam, "This time [ I chose ] just to print a single time". The paintings followed from this newly restrained approach.
Though Gilliam had previously worked with acrylic on plywood, in the late 1990's, he had moved his riotously colored pictures into three dimensions with a series of hinged parts that defied painting's traditional flatness. Now, inspired by modernist Dutch designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld, "who was influenced by painter Piet Mondrian and made furniture reduced to planes of wood painted in primary colors" Gilliam returned to the flatness that he so long avoided. And he's christened his new works "Slats", in homage to the shapes from which someof Rietveld's chairs were built.
"Unless you have this kind of freedom in the materials or the way you make art," Gilliam says, "by some standards, you may not be an artist."
"National Reviews: Sam Gilliam at Marsha Mateyka
by Rex Weil, ARTnews, February 2000, p. 168
Washington patriarch Sam Gilliam continued his exploration of the conceptual space between painting and sculpture in this inaugural exhibition with his new dealer, Marsha Mateyka.
Since his 1960's post-Washington Color School stained canvases, Gilliam generally has been content to sacrifice traditional painterly illusions for a formidable her-and-now material presence. His major works, many commissioned for public spaces, are huge, complex wood, metal and canvas constructions. They function both as paintings and as architectural elements in the buildings they inhabit.
The new works here pushed the formal ambiguity further still, by incorporating images and movement. The central panel of "Summer", a triptych and one of the highlights of the show, is a tall, narrow slice of birch plywood hung flat against the wall. Gilliam has attached half-width wood panels to both vertical sides with long piano-lid hinges. Thus, like an altarpiece, the work may be opened, closed, or--as exhibited here--left partially ajar, with the "doors" jutting into the gallery. Both sides of each panel are brightly colored, so even the tiniest shift in position causes a permutation in the overall composition. ( Though viewers were not supposed to move the panels on their own, they were encouraged to request gallery assistance in order to view the changes.)
In constructing these panels, Gilliam laminates thin, transparent layers of synthetic pigment to the work, creating a perfectly smooth surface--a significant departure from the artist's signature "raked " crusts of thick acrylic paint. When "Summer's" panels are open, we see black skeins flowing through violent red, cerulean blue , and sunny yellow. A ghostly photographic image of a flower is visible under the paint near the top of the work. "Summer" "closed" is a strange, icy, metallic blue.
In "Along the Canal", the artist moves even closer to a full-blown image of nature. Though this work does not incorporate movable panels, it is painted on a series of rigid horizontal steps attached to the wall. Nonetheless, it gives the impression of flexibility, as if it could be collapsed and expanded like the folds of an accordion bellows. Its glossy pink-oranges and deep blues suggest a dawn horizon over an agitated sea.
Review in The Washington Post, Thursday, November 4, 1999
by Ferdinand Protzman
"Pushing the Drapes Aside, Sam Gilliam's Old Works are a Window on the New"
Sam Gilliam's first taste of success came in the late 1960s with his drape paintings, which brought the Washington Color School's raw, stained abstract canvases literally out of their frames and off the wall. Back then, they were colorful, innovative, spectacular and very now.
In our now, they're beautiful, still-spectacular specters that seem to haunt every Gilliam exhibition. Attend the opening of one his shows and you'll encounter someone, usually a person who was young, hip and high in 1969, saying his latest work is nice, but the drape paintings, they were really great, you know?
I don't. The implication is that Gilliam, Washington's best-known artist, a man whose works are in major museums across the United States and Europe, peaked with the drapes and his subsequent work hasn't quite measured up.
People can provide several arguments supporting that conclusion. His collages and constructions, like those currently on display at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, strike some as unfocused, diffuse and packed with too many diverse elements: references to European, American, African and Asian art, rubbery materials, piano hinges, push pins, plywood. The inspiration seems borrowed synthesized. Not like the drape paintings. They were original.
It is a puzzling attitude and its wrong. Which isn't to belittle the drape paintings. When I was a student at Oberlin College in 1973, the Allen Memorial Art Museum acquired a Gilliam painting that was draped over a sawhorse. It's a beautiful artwork, colorful, soft and lyrical but with tensile strength, a simple idea with complex visual and intellectual overtones, the kind of work that resonates for a long time.
The same thing can be said of Gilliam's new work at Mateyka. But the resonance is different. To use a musical metaphor, the chord structures, key changes and rhythms are more complex, in some cases bordering on chaos. There's an awful lot going on in some of these pieces, particularly the collages. But the music is coming from the same place that produced the drapes. A clear, logical line connects the old work to the new.
Gilliam has pursued the notion of making three-dimensional paintings since early in his career. That's why he created the drape paintings and brought the picture into the viewer's space. Before he abandoned the frame and the wall, he was a gifted and thoughtful colorist, like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis and the other Washington Color School artists.
It was inevitable that his quest for 3-D would lead him toward sculpture and that the presence of the object would occasionally obscure some of its painterly qualities. But the changes are not that great. The birch plywood and piano hinges of a piece like "Summer" in which Gilliam succeeds in painting every hue of a Washington summer day on few panels, create a flexible surface that extends into the room. Think of the wood as canvas and the hinge as both a grommet and a fold in the fabric. Sound familiar?
Despite their physical limitations, some of the plywood pieces are metaphorically richer than some drape paintings. "Along the Canal", for example, is a modest-size piece, about 3 feet high and 2 feet wide, made from four birch plywood panels painted with acrylic. The top panel is shaped like a half-moon. Beneath it is a rectangular panel, with two smaller panels attached to its sides, forming wings. When closed, they obscure the underlying panel.
The lovely mix of colors-scarlet, lemon, magenta, brown and blue, to name a few-suggests an autumn day on the banks of the C&O Canal. When the side panels are open, the work seems like a medieval altarpiece devoted to Washington's natural glories. Close them and it's a pure abstraction, geometric shapes and fields of barely modulated color. That's a quick trip through a art history in a small package.
Some of Gilliam's plywood paintings in the past few years haven't had as much condensed power as his new works. But not all of the drapes were kickers, either. Few artists produce an unbroken string of masterpieces.
His collages, made from pieces of paintings stuck together with push pins, have also been uneven at times. Some seemed overly whimsical, others forced. At times, it seemed he was going in an unpromising direction.
That isn't the case with the new collages. They are like cubist African kimono sculptures. They have the flow and formal presence of the Japanese garment, the fractured planes of a Braque painting, the vivid colors of West African art and structural and compositional elements drawn from European, American and West African sculpture. All that in three dimensions, encased in a glass box.
Is it a synthesis? Absolutely. That's what makes Gilliam a great artist. He's a master synthesizer, following his own path but constantly absorbing influences and turning them into something fresh, unique and compelling. Unlike some artists who've had relatively early success, he's had the courage to keep exploring. And he didn't let the drape paintings become a product or trap.
"I realized how much they meant and I realized I had to lose them," Gilliam says. "The drape painting was only thinking. The roots of that thinking are in what I do now. Your have to ask yourself what kind of artist you want to be. I had to get out on a limb and then decide how I wanted to get back. You have to constantly challenge yourself to find inspiration and to learn how to work. That's the most important thing".
Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective. Jonathan P Binstock, Walter Hopps, foreward, Jacquelyn D Serwer, foreword, University of California Press, 2005