Sam Gilliam – A retrospective exhibit spans Washintgon artist’s career

Sam Gilliam, like many of his structured paintings, stands on his own.

Many have claimed that he is an artist searching for a category, but the last thing he wants is to be lumped in with others, sharing a genre. The artist, whose career is celebrated at the Corcoran’s Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective, has created a style that is distinctly his.

Gilliam came to Washington, D.C., to follow his then-wife Dorothy Gilliam, a journalist who is now head of the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Prime Movers program, which matches up students and local media professionals to work with D.C. public high schools to develop journalism programs. Many of the works for the show are borrowed from Dorothy Gilliam’s private collection.

Once in D.C., Sam Gilliam became interested in the Washington Color School, a group of local artists who painted bands of color onto rough canvas. Their influence can be seen in his colorful work, but Gilliam is not a member of their club.

Nor does he fit the genre of the black painter. Some of his works are sculptural, but Gilliam is not a sculptor either.

Instead, he is an innovator. The show begins with his beveled-edge paintings, which transform the structure of a typical stretched canvas, before Gilliam discards with the canvas entirely. The show features Gilliam’s colorful “Draped” series of paintings, where the canvas is hung like a curtain above a stage, and the beauty is found in how the paint spreads across a canvas, freed from its frame.

Gilliam goes through a black phase and a white phase, and both are characterized by the texture he uses in his works. Paint does not lie flat on a canvas in his artwork – it is raked into thick stripes or bubbled up to reveal the color hidden underneath. Gilliam uses tape to cover up base colors on the canvas, paints over it in solid black and then rips up the tape to reveal solid and perfectly straight stripes of color below.

As Gilliam’s career progresses, his works become even more sculptural. “Fine as a Cobweb” includes plywood shapes that emerge from the canvas, all painted with Gilliam’s textural touch.

Whether one considers Sam Gilliam a Color School artist, a black artist, a painter or a sculptor is up to individuals. The beauty of Gilliam’s modernist art is that it does not have to be anything but itself. n

Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective will be at the Corcoran Gallery of Art until Jan. 22. Student admission is $4 throughout the week, but is pay-as-you-wish on Thursdays after 5 p.m.

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