- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

Sam Gilliam points to "Blue," one of his nine new minimalist works at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery in the Dupont Circle area. It's part of his exhibit "New Paintings: Slats,'" which he considers his best to date.

For a half-century the artist, 69, has come up with intriguing, challenging and sometimes extraordinarily sensuous and beautiful artwork.

The "Slats" paintings are spare, rectilinear and decorated with single acrylic colors. Mr. Gilliam joins smallish plywood rectangles vertically or horizontally to create larger asymmetric rectangles. He pours layers of acrylic paint on thin panels of birch plywood to give them a seductive high-tech industrial polish. The artist then suspends the rectilinear images from the wall.

The works are radically different from the complexly organized and boldly colored earlier paintings that often verged on sculpture. Standing near "Blue Slat," one of the medium-sized works in the show, Mr. Gilliam says, "It's just in the cards that you'll do something different next."

He notes he had wanted to make this kind of reductive art since the 1960s.

The artist says he first saws plywood to make the cutouts, then combines them for the larger shapes. "A big challenge is making the form, and the hardest thing is finding the surprise in each shape. The interesting thing is that they're so hard to do," Mr. Gilliam says.

The slightly stooped, 6-foot-plus artist with salt-and-pepper hair says he believes art should not be talked about. With a sheepish smile, he looks for a variety of topics the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the place of color painter Howard Mehring in the history of Washington art to avoid discussing his work.

"I never have my picture taken. If I'd known, I would never have worn navy blue," he says with a laugh as the newspaper photographer arrives. He acquiesces gracefully especially after his wife Annie Gawlak, who is a gallery director and art consultant gives him a playful shove.

Mr. Gilliam points to where he joined sections in "Blue Slat." His gentle hands, with their gracefully attenuated fingers and nails, touch one of the joints of the work. He explains how he wanted the joint to become part of the surface "like a painted seam."

"Each painting has its own attitude that comes from the paint. I pour the paint unevenly with different colors for slightly serrated surfaces. Some of the paintings even have small bumps. When I get near the top surface, I decide what the final color will be," Mr. Gilliam says.

Viewers will see this in "Large Red Slat," in which touches of blue vibrate through the richness of the red. The multiple pourings of acrylics also make for highly shiny surfaces, which the artist says he hasn't attempted before.

Although the works look strictly rectilinear and geometric, Mr. Gilliam still uses the stream-of-consciousness techniques of his famous "draped structures" of the 1960s. Improvisational in nature, they were large color-saturated, unstretched canvases that he gathered and hung like curtains from walls and ceilings.

In "Blue Slat," he points out out the flat upper section, which is colored with a light, but intense, blue. It thrusts into the painting's main midsection, which deepens into a darker, almost inky blue. The artist says he intentionally meant the artwork to be smaller than a painting called "Big Blue Slat" and have lots of space around it.

Mr. Gilliam crosses the gallery that was once an elegant, late 1880s home to talk about "Big Blue Slat." He gave this painting more physicality and more complicated working of color, he says.

The artist considered how all the paintings would look together in the gallery, and this is where his mastery of color and form is most evident. Mr. Gilliam placed the large blue painting next to a corner that held a smaller yellow one so the colors would bounce off each other. He also painted a series of smaller works for the gallery's hallway and middle room.

The artist says the early modernist Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld inspired his latest works. Mr. Gilliam first read about the constructivist furniture designer's work while he was in college. The artist especially admires Rietveld's reduction of chairs to rectilinear wood planes, often slats, painted in primary colors. Hence the name of Mr. Gilliam's show.

For the first time in his long career, Mr. Gilliam has designed sets for a Washington Ballet production. "Journey Home," with a Sweet Honey in the Rock musical score, was performed last week at the Kennedy Center and now goes on tour. "The sets weren't sets, they were like moments in the dance and play. We were trying to give an armature, to give it eight images," he says.

He made 20 elements for the "blue set" that the dancers could rock back and forth. In another, he created a red piece that dangled from the ceiling like an umbilical cord with a draped painting above it.

"Never before and never again," he says of the experience. "The results of the collaboration were the best thing for the Washington arts community, but it's difficult for me to go without doing my own work."

Mr. Gilliam has done public commissions for places, from Helsinki, Finland, to Seoul to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He has received honorary doctorates of arts and letters, and his work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate in London, among many other art institutions.

So, what's next? The artist will continue the "Slats" series for a show at the Klein Gallery in Chicago. He also plans other public commissions.

WHAT: "Sam Gilliam New Paintings: 'Slats'"

WHERE: Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, through May 18


PHONE: 202/328-0088

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