Arts & Entertainment, Gallery Beat

Sam Gilliam Museum Show: About Time!

By F. Lennox Campello

Over the decades that I have lived in the DMV (an acronym that I invented decades ago in several meandering posts in my blog DC ART NEWS, which by the way… is now the 11th highest ranked art blog on this planet – yay!), one constant fact of the region’s museum art scene (with the notable exception of the beautiful American University art museum and most recently the Phillips Collection) has been the immense apathy that art museums located in the capital region show to their area artists.

DC art museums think of themselves as “national” museums, and are not, and have not ever been, part of a “regional/local” art scene.

Once, while a guest at the old Kojo Nmandi radio show on NPR (WAMU), I noted that it was “easier for a DC area museum curator to take a cab to Dulles to catch a flight to Berlin to visit some emerging artists’ studios in Berlin (or London, Madrid, wherever) than to catch a cab to Adams Morgan to visit a DC area emerging artist studio.”

Years of communicating this frustration to “new” museum curators and directors as the wander in and out of their positions at the Hirshhorn, the old Corcoran, various Smithsonian museums, most area University museums, etc. have yielded zero response — since 1992 or so, the only museum director who ever met with me to discuss why their museum ignored local artists was Olga Viso when she ran the Hirshhorn decades ago.

And it takes an artist of the immense stature and presence of Sam Gilliam, whose career was almost extinguished by apathy just a decade or so ago… but was kept moving forward through the hard work of legendary DC area gallerist Marsha Mateyka, until Gilliam’s work was “rediscovered” by New York and other “outside” forces and subsequently placed where this great artist always deserved to be – at the top of the art world food chain.

My point: Gilliam artwork deserved to be the main focus and subject of a local DMV museum years and years ago.

Hirshhorn: Thank you for exhibiting Sam Gilliam and shame on you that it took outside forces to make this happen.

According to the Hirshhorn’s press release, the Sam Gilliam exhibition “Will Spotlight His Decades-Long Investigation in to Abstraction.” Titled “Sam Gilliam: Full Circle”, the show will also debut new paintings and runs May 25–Sept. 4, 2022.

The museum tells us that they “will present an exhibition by pioneering abstractionist artist Sam Gilliam. Between May 25 and Sept. 4, “Sam Gilliam: Full Circle” will pair a series of circular paintings (or tondos) created in 2021 with “Rail” (1977), a landmark painting in the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection. Filling the museum’s second-floor inner-circle gallery, Gilliam’s first solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn will reflect the breadth of his multilayered practice and mark the first exhibition in Gilliam’s chosen hometown of Washington, D.C., since 2007. “Full Circle” is organized by Evelyn C. Hankins, the Hirshhorn’s head curator.”

They also note that “in the 60 years since moving to Washington, Gilliam has produced a prolific body of abstraction across media through which he has continually pursued new avenues of artistic expression. He initially rose to prominence in the late 1960s making large, color-stained manipulated, unstretched canvases. Gilliam continues to experiment with staining, soaking and pouring pigments, elaborating on the process-oriented tradition of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and other Washington Color School artists. In 1972, Gilliam represented the United States at the 36th Venice Biennale, and returned in 2017 with “Yves Klein Blue,” a draped work that welcomed visitors to the Venice Giardini. Gilliam’s approach focuses keenly on the cornerstones of abstraction—form, color and material—from which he creates artworks that reflect his career-long engagement with art history and the improvisatory ethos of jazz.”

“The Hirshhorn’s institutional support for Sam Gilliam began with the acquisition of his landmark painting “Rail” within a year of its creation,” said Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu. “The museum has since championed his practice by presenting this and other major works in exhibitions. “Full Circle” shows Gilliam’s most recent works in recognition of his indefatigable vision, presented in his chosen hometown on the National Mall at the national museum of modern art.”

Ahhhhh…. OK, but why then is this Gilliam’s first Hirshhorn museum show in the 60 years that he has worked in the DC area?

“I am greatly looking forward to premiering this new body of work,” Gilliam said. “The tondo series introduced in this show encapsulate many of the ideas that I have been developing throughout my career. Just as importantly, they reflect my current thinking about color, materials, and space. These spaces determined by color and texture are limitless.”

The museum adds that “Sam Gilliam’s most recent engagement with the Hirshhorn reflects his tireless propulsion of the through lines of abstraction. His tondos expand the body of beveled-edge abstract paintings that Gilliam first pioneered in the 1960s. Ranging in size from 3 to 5 feet in diameter, each tondo begins with a beveled wood panel, which the artist loads with layers of dense, vibrant pigments, their aggregate effect heightened through the addition of thickening agents, sawdust, shimmering metal fragments, wood scraps and other studio debris. Using a stiff metal rake along with more traditional tools, Gilliam then abrades, smears and scrapes the coarse surfaces to reveal a constellation of textures and colors below.”

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