- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

Color and light — that’s what Sam Gilliam’s seductive art is about, as the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective” trumpets. I found, as always, that the retrospective — his first — shows the two distinct sides of his creativity: an emotional, explosive, Dionysian one coupled with Apollonian intellectual order.

Forget the District artist’s “developments” from lyrical beveled and draped stained-and-soaked canvases to collaged “white” and “black” works, architectonic wood and metal constructions, and paintings fully realized as sculptures and environments.

Sure, he broke new ground by removing his paintings’ usual wooden stretchers and letting his poured-and-folded acrylic canvases take flight with sensuous, theatrical swoops and dives. While the artist, 72, suspended and draped them in different free-form combinations, he also spread them over wooden sawhorses on the floor. The “Drapes” were popular from the start; the National Gallery of Art and Corcoran Gallery immediately scooped up two of them.

Yet it’s clear that brilliant color carries the exhibit’s 49 Gilliam works in the Corcoran’s Rotunda and five galleries.

Color energizes every work — and visitor — whether in the 1960s “Draped” and “Sliced” paintings with what exhibit curator Jonathan P. Binstock describes in his catalog as “Gilliam’s torrents of color” or with the subtle, stained color vibrations under the tarlike, raked and roughened surfaces of the more structured 1978 “Black Paintings.”

Color is crucial to the 1976 “White Paintings” and 1990s “Wood Constructions,” as well. Less thickly painted than the “Black Paintings,” the “whites” — such as “Double River” (on extended loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) — let only bits of bright color shine through their “stucco-like painterly crust,” Mr. Binstock writes.

Mr. Gilliam’s 1980s, 1990s and current works retain his color passions. Although delving into more formalist concerns in structuring paintings as three-dimensional and free-standing collages, he keyed his colors higher through their metal supports — as in the circular aluminum ridges of “The Generation Below Them” of 1989. Even with more complex, geometrically oriented and piano-hinged works such as “Color of Medals” (1998) and “Gondola” (1996), color rules — as it does most emphatically in the reductive, brilliantly hued “Slats” acrylics of three years ago.

Mr. Binstock’s expertly lighted exhibit installation couldn’t be better. He starts with the then-revolutionary Gilliam “Drapes” series, first stretching the softly colored acrylic-on-canvas, 10-foot-high-by-75-foot-wide (when laid flat) “Light Depth” across the first room’s far corner. Hung from five supports close to the gallery’s curved ceiling, the painting, with its shadows, becomes an exultant, baroque shout of joy.

Across the room, the National Gallery’s smaller but more structured and intensely hued “Relative” is hung from four supports. Mr. Gilliam closely bundled up the thicker canvas and stained the folds more intensely.

Nearby, in the much smaller, almost circular “Ward Circle III” (1973), he combined pieces of red acrylic-on-canvas with sewn felt-and-woven fabric swatches. Also nearby is his playful, lesser-known “All Cats Are Grey at Night” (1996).

In the next room, by contrast, Mr. Binstock shows the artist returning to stretched canvases with two of Mr. Gilliam’s largest, most joyous beveled-edged “Slice” paintings: “Red April” of 1970 on the left and “In Seconds” of 1968 on the right of the gallery’s long horizontal wall.

They could be called “Fire” and “Ice” as well, with the artist’s splashed, fiery reds ricocheting off the gold-green, transparent background of “Red April” and his cooler deep greens and lavenders providing a more flowing organic base for “In Seconds.”

After successful shows at the Phillips Collection in 1967 and the Museum of Modern Art in 1971, and United States’ representation at the 1972 Venice Biennale (he was one of six artists), demand for site-specific Gilliam art grew.

With works of this kind in cities as varied as Helsinki, Seoul and Washington; art in the world’s major public collections; and honorary doctorates from major universities, Mr. Gilliam should be recognized as a great artist, not as a “black” or “African American” one — a description that, unfortunately, continues with curators and critics.

The Corcoran-commissioned, pliant muslin-with-nylon-thread, 15-foot-plus-tall “3,000 Knots” installation in the gallery’s graceful Rotunda appropriately crowns Mr. Gilliam’s first retrospective and four-decade career. As always, the color is glorious, and its hovering forms, as the title implies, are replete with sensations of wind and motion. The number of knots, also, refers to the many he and his assistants tied over the length of his career.

Hopefully, the Corcoran will send it on the retrospective’s national 2006-2007 tour.

WHAT: “Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street at New York Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Through Jan. 22

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 seniors and military personnel, $4 students with current ID, $3 member guests. Pay-as-you-wish Thursdays after 5 p.m.; free for members and children younger than 12

PHONE: 202/636-1700

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