Breaking Through Convention

by | Dec 9, 2006

“All Cats Are Grey at Night” by Sam Gilliam

This afternoon with Stefania in town we opted for culture, which brought us to The Telfair Museum’s exhibit on contemporary American visual artist, Sam Gilliam. Sam Gilliam: a retrospective, organized and circulated by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. is an interesting collection of draped art, sculptural pieces and paintings that benefit from unique use of materials. I particularly liked seeing how much paint the man places on a canvas. For Gilliam, in many cases paint becomes a structural element, like wood or metal.

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933) established himself as a major artist in 1968 when he jettisoned the wooden stretcher bars that had previously determined the shape of his paintings and allowed his vivid, sometimes ecstatic, rushes of color-stained canvas to hang, billow, and swing through space. This was not the first time an artist working in the venerable tradition of painting had decided to abandon the conventional rigid support. But it was the only time someone had done so to create a complete painterly environment. Gilliam’s idea that modernist painting could be sculptural and, moreover, theatrical, radically distinguished him from his contemporaries, including minimalists Donald Judd and Robert Morris, color-field painter Helen Frankenthaler, and the artists associated with the Washington Color School, such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Since that time, Gilliam has gone on to create work in an astounding variety of styles and media. Sam Gilliam: a retrospective explores many of the artist’s most important innovations while highlighting the aesthetic ideals that have remained constant throughout his career. Most important among these is his consistent disregard for the boundaries that have traditionally separated the disciplines of painting, sculpture, and architecture.