Art Without Borders

By throwing off convention and following his inner voice, painter Sam Gilliam carved out his own place in the world of modern art


Painter Sam Gilliam likes to remember his formative years during the early 1960s, shortly after he arrived in Washington from graduate school at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

"The people I hung out with were moving around the art scene trying to figure out how you get to the top," Gilliam recalled of the countless late-night discussions with painters, musicians, dancers and other artists in Washington's cafes and jazz clubs. "We all wanted to know how to be real artists."

In 1968, Gilliam hit upon a solution that was as elegant as it was radical: He simply stopped stretching his abstract-expressionist-style canvases on traditional rectangular wooden frames and instead began draping them in loose folds from the wall or ceiling in ways that combined aspects of painting, sculpture and architecture. His works literally allowed viewers to walk under or through them, enveloping themselves within vibrant sheets of color.

By treating the canvas as a three-dimensional object that could "float" independently in space rather than as a rigid flat surface, Gilliam broke from a convention in Western art that went back to the Renaissance.

From his monumentally scaled "draped" paintings, with their bold swirls of color, to the White and Black paintings of the 1970s, the metal and wood "sawhorse" constructions of the 1980s and '90s and his most recent works, the severely monochromatic "slatts" -- precise geometric assemblages of painted plywood panels -- Gilliam's art has defied the centuries-old conceit of a painting as window on the world, as well as the theories of influential modernist critics such as Clement Greenberg, who insisted that flatness was the only acceptable aesthetic for ambitious American painting.

"The only way you can have change is not to do what has been done before," Gilliam says today. "I realized I could do something that was responsive to my own needs and also survive as an artist."

Now 71, the Tupelo, Miss., native with the disarmingly soft voice and gentle, grandfatherly mien who has always insisted on following his own lights, will be the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art that opens Saturday.

The show will present a survey of Gilliam's paintings, mixed-media sculptures and installations created over the past three decades that firmly situates him among the leading figures of his generation.

Today, Gilliam's works are sought by collectors and galleries around the world. He currently has a one-man show at the Marsha Mateyka in Washington through Nov. 26 and is part of a group exhibition at the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, N.J., that runs through Jan. 8. Next year, he'll have shows at Towson University and the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York.

He is represented in the collections of major museums such as the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran and the Phillips Collection in Washington, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

He is also a distinguished educator, who for many years taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Corcoran School of Art and other institutions.

"Gilliam's ambition was, and still is, not just to reinvigorate the modernist tradition, but also to create new possibilities by thinking outside the dominant critical modes through which modernism is generally understood," says curator Jonathan P. Binstock, who organized the show.

Thinking outside the box in terms of color and form weren't the only ways Gilliam showed his independence. As one of the relatively few African-American artists associated with the Washington Color School -- another was the painter Alma Thomas -- Gilliam also had to answer critics who charged that his work ignored the politically conscious traditions of African-American art.

Having grown up in the segregated South and served in the Army during the late 1950s, Gilliam was acutely aware of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements that were then transforming the country. But he made no apologies for drawing his inspiration from other sources as well.

"Absolute freedom of expression has always been very important to him, and he's diametrically opposed to being categorized that way," says A.M. Weaver, who organized the show on abstraction at the Noyes Museum. "Sam's work has a cross-cultural perspective, not a monolithic view of what being black in America means."

As an artist, Gilliam felt entitled to lay claim to the entire range of the Western art tradition.

"I really loved Grant Wood and Arthur Dove, who had a similar feeling for change and a stick-to-it-iveness I admired," Gilliam recalls. "My heroes were Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock."

He was also influenced by Pop Art, especially the mixed-media works of Robert Rauschenberg, and the minimalist sculpture of David Smith.

And from African-American culture he drew inspiration from a range of sources.

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