Washington, DcHirshhorn Museum
Sam Gilliam: Full Circle
May 25 – Sept. 11, 2022
The late abstractionist Sam Gilliam’s obsession with painting is well documented in the artist’s 2019 interview with Tom McGlynn in the pages of the Brooklyn Rail. Gilliam spoke about how he was both influenced by, and positioned himself in relation to, his contemporary Color Field painters Thomas Downing and Kenneth Noland. He also cites the draping studies by Albrecht Dürer and the improvisational jazz compositions of John Coltrane and Miles Davis as formative to his art making. In the 1960s he recalls beginning to stain canvases and applying acrylic paints before crumpling them up—wet—and re-stretching.
In that interview, Gilliam also speaks of the forces outside his studio that contributed to his monumental move in the late 1960s to take his canvases off their stretchers. His decision to drape these for a 1969 installation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in his home city of Washington, DC emerged from a domestic project: “I was in the process of renovating a house and on the third floor bathroom I made curtains hanging from a flat oval. I thought I could replicate something like that in the atrium space of the Corcoran.”1 This thought resulted in the enormous, draped, Light Depth installation, which reached ten feet high and suspended a corner of the Corcoran’s neo-classical atrium.
Sam Gilliam: Full Circle opened at the Hirshhorn Museum on May 25, and returned Gilliam to DC for what would prove to be his last institutional solo exhibition. The show opened exactly a month before his death of kidney failure at the age of 88. Full Circle, as the title suggests, frames Gilliam’s career by what he began making and showing in DC in the 1960s and 70s with the large scale Rail (1977) from the museum’s collection, alongside the series of seventeen circular tondo paintings he made the year before his death. Displayed in the Hirschorn’s second floor galleries, which look into the courtyard of the spherical building, the curators attest that the circular paintings “resonate within the Hirschhorn’s distinctive architecture.”
Rail opens this annular presentation with ninety-degree edges. The rectangular painting depicts a central black bar that, despite its hulking presence amidst the rest of the composition, both burgeons and recedes into the bespeckled red, purple and yellow around it, achieving a simultaneous sense of weight and levity. Gilliam used scraping instruments to reveal the multicolors beneath a black overcoat. It is a process he continued into 2021 with the surfaces of the tondos, which proceed from Rail around the gallery’s curving walls.
The tondos all share a round shape and beveled frame. Their size, palette, and material diverge from there. Some are sectored into quarters or halves (like a pie). Many contain glitter and sawdust. Something is Going On!(2021) features a central gash of bright vermilion. Most have clean frames but a few are paint splattered to their edges.
The curators’ insistence on contextualizing these more recent works with Gilliam’s lifelong oeuvre prompts me to also think juncturally. Returning to 1969, if Light Depth was, in part, created for the vertiginous atrium at the Corcoran, then I wonder how the Hirschhorn’s distinctive architecture also occupied Gilliam’s mindspace as he completed his final body of work. While there are many ways to understand the tondos, their display in the museum’s interior ring calls attention to how Gilliam formed his language of abstraction in a particular time and place: mid-century Washington DC.
Designed in 1969 by Gordon Bunshaft and opened to the public in 1974, the formidable concrete exterior of the Hirshhorn compliments the brutalist federal buildings (Federal Office Buildings 5 and 10A) directly across the museum on Independence Avenue. Initiated by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the early 1960s, these blockish offices sit on comparatively lanky stilted columns, and this design allows for traffic and other activity underneath
The efficiency achieved within the cumbersome aesthetics of brutalism is a distinguishing, dichotomous characteristic of the built environment that formed in Gilliam’s city as he experimented in his studio. While he shaped his painterly vernacular, the architects of DC were constructing a language of post-war nationhood in a tabula rasa period of urban design for the burgeoning capital of the American imperial project.
With a simple checklist, Full Circle displays works that bookend Gilliam’s artistic career. This opens the door to a multitude of interpretations for how he got from point A to point B, and what remained consistent throughout. The conventional forms of rectangle and circle in the works on view are constraints he actively contended with, and expanded upon, as such steadfast shapes popped up in the architecture around him.
While all the elements that seeped into Gilliam’s brain from the outside world are, of course, unclear, what we do know—from his consideration of his bathroom curtains to the shape and scale of his installations—is that he was thinking about the relationship between a body and its environment. In his 2019 conversation with McGlynn, he goes into detail about the configuration of walls and planes and rafters for his installation that year at Dia:Beacon; about “activat[ing] movement within space.” “Art” Gilliam said, “ comes from the idea of inversion, from the change you want to make to what you see and wherever you find it.” In his final tondos, and throughout his career, Gilliam explored and expanded the possibilities of painting wherever he could find it.