Sam Gilliam buried the hatchet with the Corcoran Gallery last night.

"With this show we will let bygones be bygones," announced John Beardsley, guest curator for the Corcoran's new exhibition of 25 recent works by Gilliam. Beardsley then hauled out a block of wood and presented a long-handled ax to a broadly grinning Gilliam and Corcoran associate director Jane Livingston.

Everyone laughed as Gilliam swung the ax into the block. "It was all symbolic of the classic feud between Washington artists and the Corcoran," said Corcoran spokeswoman Carolyn Campbell about the artists' in-joke.

During a 1981 forum between former Corcoran director Peter Marzio and a group of Washington artists who felt neglected by the Corcoran, Gilliam was one of the more vocal local artists, at one point calling Marzio a "turkey."

Gilliam, whose upcoming 50th birthday was noted in the biographical sketch at the exhibition's entrance, appeared relaxed at the reception celebrating the opening of his solo show, thanking his family and the SCM Corp., the sponsor, and the Corcoran.

Wearing a purple velvet jacket with colorful fabric insets that was made by a friend, Gilliam described his new work as "a progression" that took him from unstructured canvases to "more shapes and architectural references." He is currently involved in large-scale commissioned works for the cities of Boston and Niagara Falls, according to his dealer, Chris Middendorf.

About 100 guests wandered about the Rotunda, nibbling at tiny roast beef sandwiches and chocolate-dipped strawberries, surrounded by Gilliam's vibrantly colored, thickly textured "Rondo" series of 13 oddly shaped puzzle-like canvases executed specially for the Corcoran exhibition.

"The whole premise of the 'Modern Painters' series is to show a limited body of work by an artist, either at the top of his form or who needs to be seen," said Jane Livingston. "I don't think Sam's show is at the expense of other local artists. I think it's in addition to.

"I think the ongoing political movement between artists and museums is a healthy process," she said. "Artists need to support each other, and I think museums need to respond."

"I think this is the best stuff Sam's done yet," said Abram Lerner, curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which has a Gilliam in its permanent collection. "He's always changing. He's a young guy yet, he's still got 30 good productive years in him, if he plays his cards right. Who knows when an artist peaks? Look at Titian--he just kept peaking till he was 95."