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“Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective”

Sam Gilliam is irrelevant. To those who like to look at art history as some sort of family tree, the 72-year-old Washington painter is positioned at the very tip of a withered, dead branch. “His idea just didn’t amount to anything,” one critic announced in a recent conversation. “His work is a dead end. Period.”

It’s an easy argument to make—and that fact alone ought to make us suspicious. If art history were a simple question of picking winners and losers, then, yes, Gilliam would come up short. He arrived on the scene in the late ’60s, at the tail end of a period dominated by self-referential modernism—and just in time for the rules of the game to change completely all around him. But historical narratives that imagine baton-passing between successive generations of artists are of limited usefulness to anyone actually interested in studio practices, or in the physical stuff of painting. And they certainly don’t account for drama on a human scale—say, the drama of an individual artist out there on the margins, struggling with a single-minded pursuit.

Of course, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has never been all that worried about artistic irrelevance, anyway. Remember “Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber”? How about “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People”? Or the long-threatened (but so far unrealized) survey of paintings by Sir Paul McCartney? This time, however, the place has excused itself from the current dialogue for good reason. For “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective,” curator Jonathan Binstock selected approximately 45 works from 1967 to the present, and though not every one of them shows Gilliam at his best, as a whole the pieces document a fascinating artistic evolution.

Not that Gilliam’s idea of art has evolved much. He has always treated a painting as an object that is less an image of something else than an image of its own construction. It’s an idea that was executed earlier by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Stella, but one thing places Gilliam in the art-historical continuum as surely as any of them: He took the “object” part of that formulation seriously enough to remove his canvases from their stretchers and simply drape them on the wall. Take, for example, Bow Form Construction (1968). A long arc of unprimed canvas, stained and speckled with different concentrations of blue, yellow, green, and red acrylic pigment, descends the wall left to right, from just above the viewer’s head to about waist level, then twists ever so slightly and rises again. The two peaks are gathered and tied in place with strips of rawhide. In keeping with the heroic gestures of late modernist painting, the work would measure approximately 10 feet by 28 feet if laid out flat. Because of its scale—and, perhaps, of the baroque decorative impulse attending its creation—the piece feels as if it should be adorning some holy place: a curtain framing the apse of an enormous ancient cathedral, maybe. Yet this gathered, sagging mass also seems deflated, as if it were a monument to the last act in the history of modernist painting.

Or maybe next-to-last. In the show catalog, Binstock reminds us that “Gilliam has always remained open to the idea that abstraction’s potential, both visual and conceptual, is limitless,” and this expansiveness tends to undo the drape paintings a little. Take 1971’s Rondo. In this piece, a large canvas was stained aqueous shades of peach and violet and dotted here and there with occasional shocks of cool green and acidic yellow. The canvas has been arranged to look something like three color-splattered, raincoat-shrouded figures; it extends from just above the floor to a foot or so above eye level, suspended by three wires and a rope anchored to a post in the floor. Intersecting this apparent procession is a large, solid oak beam, tracing a diagonal from the wall to the floor. Yes, the piece vaguely recalls some figurative subject and extends itself into the viewer’s space, but it also stubbornly remains what it is: a pile of painted cloth. This is a self-sufficient modernist, formalist work dressing itself up in faux site-specificity, the clothing of contemporary practice.

The Corcoran commissioned a new drape piece for “A Retrospective,” and it gave the result a room all to itself—ample space to see just how exhausted the drape concept has become since the late ’60s. Gilliam apparently sees himself as akin to Matisse, able to receive fresh inspiration from earlier periods of his own production. 30,000 Knots (2005) is a mass of light, airy muslin sewn with visible nylon threads into giant, collapsed-tent shapes and suspended overhead at different heights. Though the strangely synthetic-looking fabric should probably appear ethereal compared with the heavy canvas Gilliam used in his earlier work, it instead just feels insubstantial—gimmicky, even. It’s decorative in the worst sense, too, arbitrarily superimposed over its space and full of allusions to craft-level fiber art.

If the drape paintings were Gilliam’s breakthrough—and really, he should have left them at that—the black paintings of the mid-’70s mark his first stirrings of real artistic maturity. Gone are the gathered tie-dyed sheaves; instead, there are pieced-together surfaces heavily encrusted with scraped and pitted masses of acrylic paint. Rail (1977) is representative: Splotches of pure color randomly peek out through what looks like a layer of grooved asphalt, an effect achieved with acrylic hardener and a shag-rug rake. In the bottom third of this long expanse of scorched painterly terrain, several long rectangles have been excised and then either replaced or collaged back in elsewhere. The subtle changes in the direction of the brush strokes in each provide plenty of evidence for the design impulses that lie behind all of this seemingly crude painting. This is lyrically ugly work, strangely forecasting the tide of expressionistic excess to come from Europe in the following decade.

The word “black” here might seem essential for unlocking these works. But Gilliam has always shied away from being identified first and foremost as a black artist. This is clearly reflected in his decision to retitle and reconfigure the piece Dark As I Am (1968–1974). As initially conceived, the work was uncharacteristically autobiographical, employing found objects—including the artist’s paint-encrusted boots and coveralls—to explore the connection between Gilliam’s race and his art. But the artist eventually changed the work, jettisoning some of the found objects, attaching the rest directly to a wooden door, and thickly coating the assemblage with predominantly green and white slathered and poured paint. The resulting piece, retitled Composed (Dark as I Am), was framed—an unusual decision for Gilliam. As Binstock points out, “The frame underscores, in a rather cool and disinterested way, the gap between what it contains…and the life that Gilliam lives outside the frame.” By the mid-’70s, it seems, the artist had made up his mind: The inside-the-frame stuff comes first.

“Art couldn’t be the same after 1967,” Gilliam said during the press preview. “But you can show that you’re a part of the world and still hold up your end of the art.” Thus April 4th (1969), a rumination on the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., alludes to history and identity in its title but doesn’t depart significantly from earlier works. A Rorschach-like mirror image of crimson and violet stains, the piece would be just as lovely—though perhaps significantly less haunting—disconnected from its bloody source material. It’s tempting, then, to identify Gilliam as a forerunner of what Thelma Golden famously refers to as post-black artists—young African-Americans steeped in their own identity but ultimately un-self-conscious about how much their artistic production demonstrates this.

Whatever traces of identity are present in the black paintings, the works opened the way for an astonishing variety of production. In the ’80s, Gilliam began an engagement with the aesthetics of Russian constructivism, building shaped supports out of aluminum and wood. These works became increasingly elaborate: For The St. of Moritz Outside Mondrian (1984), Gilliam cut countless interlocking squares, stripes, and triangles of canvas and impastoed them with paint the consistency of chewing gum. He then combined this assemblage with enameled aluminum cutouts. In terms of complexity of design and rightness of execution, this is a far distance from sagging bundles of stained cloth. The Generation Below Them (1989) actually startles with its unnatural-looking substance: Tall ridges of plasticized black gel announce that this is no luscious, traditional oil painting. The rest of the palette is pure Lite Brite, playing saturated primary and secondary colors off those relentless black grooves, all of it executed on large concentric arcs of aluminum. Gilliam went for broke with such works, gleefully trying every acrylic medium, every idea for a new support that came to mind. The results may look dated, limited by technique and technology, but this is imaginative material play of the highest order.

The best pieces, which occupy the final room, are some of Gilliam’s most recent work. Second Red Slatt (2003) is a birch plywood support of interlocking rectangular forms roughly 23 inches by 35 inches that looks like some reductive, early-modernist geometric. Over this, a rich translucent red acrylic glaze has been applied, either thickly poured or brushed in many successive layers. It’s a simple monochrome, yet it speaks volumes about both Gilliam’s formative works—hard-edged, reductive color statements—and the early European modernism to which he turns again and again. Like all of 2003’s Slatt paintings, it’s quiet, austere, unassumingly beautiful, and surprisingly far-reaching. These are supremely confident late-career pieces in which Gilliam has nothing left to prove—about modernism, black identity, or anything else.

If he weren’t so universalist in his leanings, we might find him post-historical, assured in his own private practice, speaking to art history but not necessarily owned by any one view of it. It might be better to think of Gilliam, at his best, as a painter’s painter. You can chide him for his unwavering commitment to his solitary, studio-based pursuit, but it has paid dividends. Despite all of the changes in the appearance and structure of his work, his commitment to a narrow idea of art-making—putting pigment on a support—has remained unwavering. As a result, his ability to manipulate the physical stuff of painting has grown exponentially over the decades. His most recent work isn’t necessarily saying anything more than his earliest pieces did, but much of it is saying it better, with greater economy and without the decorativeness that has long nagged his oeuvre. Accomplished and resonant, late Gilliam pieces make the viewer eager to see what else might be around the corner. Would that the same could be said about work by a whole crop of currently relevant artists.CP