Abstraction is alive and well and on view in D.C.




As late as the 1970s, New York cartoonist Al Capp could still complain that abstract art was "the product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled, to the utterly bewildered."

No more. Today, abstraction is ensconced in the pantheon of 20th-century modernist art. Audiences once outraged or puzzled by Picasso's violent distortions and Pollock's artful drips now take them in stride.

So two new exhibitions on view in Washington - Sam Gilliam's retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Sean Scully's Wall of Light series at the Phillips Collection - offer an intriguing opportunity to examine quite different paths abstract painting has taken in the hands of contemporary masters born just a decade apart.

Gilliam, born in 1933 in Tupelo, Miss., stains, soaks and drips his pigments directly onto raw, unprimed canvas in fanciful swaths of color that sometimes resemble the spattered patterns of tie-dyed textiles.

Rather than stretch his paintings on traditional frames, Gilliam's signature works are draped or folded canvases suspended from the wall or ceiling in ways that combine aspects of painting, sculpture and architecture. These works, which allow viewers to walk under or through them, literally envelop the spectator in vibrant color.

But the "drape" paintings are only one aspect of Gilliam's art. Over the years, he has experimented with a bewildering variety of styles, from monochrome panels and severe black paintings to whimsical wall pieces, "sawhorse" sculptures and fabric installations painted in crazy-quilt, psychedelic hues.

The Corcoran show presents an amazing variety of work from the last 30 years that reveals Gilliam as a restless innovator moving from one style to another, sometimes backtracking to explore old ideas in new ways, then flitting forward again on some fresh tack.

Scully, by contrast, was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1945, and for much of his career he has stuck to a single, instantly recognizable compositional motif: the colored rectangular stripe, arranged vertically or horizontally either across the whole canvas or broken up into grid-like patterns.

Scully began working with stripes in the 1970s and seems never to have wavered in his commitment. The Phillips' second floor is devoted to the early stripe works, which include works on paper as well as paintings. The top floor presents the monumentally scaled Wall of Light paintings Scully has worked on since the 1990s.

Scully's works have a solemn austerity that seems the opposite of Gilliam's playful whimsy. Though all his works employ essentially the same device - repeated patterns of short stripes arranged in grids - each has its own character. There's no sense of the artist's having simply found a schtick that works and repeated it ad infinitum.

Through some alchemy of composition and color, the paintings seem to evoke such disparate images as a rainy day in New York, the golden light of the Mediterranean or the hot, iridescent hues of the tropics - all, it turns out, locales where the artist has lived and worked.

I think the difference between Gilliam and Scully's work must partly be a reflection of the different stance each adopted toward modernism as an aesthetic.

Of course, painters from Picasso to Warhol have felt free to defy these restrictions when it suited them; the postmodernists, in particular, have built a whole counter-aesthetic by systematically deconstructing modernism's underlying assumptions.

But Gilliam doesn't really think of himself as a postmodernist. Rather, he is a modern artist who is willing to push the boundaries in order to take modernism to another level. Though some aspects of his work seem to resemble postmodernist practice, he views his practice as evolutionary rather than a break with modernist tradition.

Scully has stuck to his modernist stripes with what seems like monomaniacal stubbornness. It's almost as if Jasper had never painted anything except flags, or Warhol created nothing but Marilyns. Yet, from the evidence of the Phillips show, there's absolutely no doubt Scully's paintings have deepened and matured over the years.

The late paintings have a mellow, meditative quality and lyrical calm that approaches the spiritual - indeed, they produce precisely the sort of "oceanic" effect on the viewer Freud identified with the highest states of consciousness.

I came away from both these exhibitions with a renewed sense of the great, perhaps still untapped potential of abstraction to express the deepest truths about life.

In an impatient, incautious art world where constant change for change's sake seems to have become the norm, the fact that modernist abstraction remains as vital as ever offers hope that some artistic values, at least, aren't merely contingent but truly are for the ages.

"Sam Gilliam" runs through Jan. 22 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington. Call 202-639-1700. "Sean Scully: Wall of Light" runs through Jan. 8 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., N.W., Washington. Call 202-387-2151.


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