ARTISTS ARE NOT always the most articulate when it comes to talking about their own work. That's why they're artists, not writers. Still, Sam Gilliam said something pretty intriguing at the press preview for the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective" the other day. Along with the Marsha Mateyka Gallery's "Sam Gilliam -- Sunlight: New Paintings," the exhibition celebrates the work of the longtime Washington-based painter, whose career, as both venues demonstrate, goes well beyond the draped, dropcloth-like unstretched canvases stained and spattered with paint that first brought him celebrity in the late 1960s and 1970s.
"All of the works remain on the floor," Gilliam said, seemingly apropos of nothing (since no one at that point had asked about his creative process) and with perhaps unintended irony (since one of the paintings, a piece commissioned by the Corcoran called "30,000 Knots," is suspended from the ceiling of the museum's rotunda).
"What do you take for lower back pain?" joked artist and critic William Dunlap, apparently taking Gilliam (who turns 72 next month) literally -- an easy thing to do considering the obvious debt at least some of his art owes to Jackson Pollock's drips and splotches. "Two weeks off," came the answer.
This, however, was not the interesting part.
Gilliam went on to describe his process of collaging, folding, cutting and reassembling; of incorporating metal and other media; of switching back and forth among styles and series and materials with a kind of restlessness that belied his laconic delivery. "All the work is alive," he said.
All the work is alive.
It made me think of something I once heard by writer and documentary film producer Paul Gardner, who said that a painting is never finished, it just stops in interesting places.
Looking back on Gilliam's work feels a bit like looking at a well-worn road map. There's a beginning. That would be the flat, intellectually severe, hard-edged geometric stuff of his early- to mid-1960s period, which he made shortly after moving to Washington from Louisville and taking up with the Washington Color School crowd. And there's an end. That would be the droopy billows of "30,000 Knots" (2005), which despite its full-speed-ahead nautical title, resembles, as much as anything, tie-dyed sails with the wind taken out of them; the sensuous, glazed color of his wooden puzzle-piece compositions known as "Slatts" (all from 2003); and the hinged plywood panel constructions of recent years, several of which are on view at Mateyka.
In between, as curator Jonathan Binstock says, "the middle is a little more complicated." For, if Gilliam has a hallmark, it is that he has never been content to keep making whatever it is that critics -- and collectors -- like.
In between the beginning and end points of the generally nonchronological Corcoran show, the artist can be seen moving forward and backward stylistically, dropping one thing, only to pick it up again years later. "30,000 Knots" -- whose title also plays on the number of times Gilliam and his studio assistant must have tied up various soft, swaglike drape pieces -- looks nothing like his "Slatts," whose candylike poured acrylic surfaces have an almost enameled coat. Nor do the "Slatts" look anything like the thickly impastoed, raked and decalcomania-ed surfaces of some of his 1970s paintings, which bear just as little resemblance to the deeply striated, rubbery texture of such works as 1989's "The Generation Below Them."
Still, even with fewer than 50 pieces, Binstock has placed enough dots on the map that you can connect one stop on Gilliam's crisscrossing journey to the next. If anything seems missing from the retrospective, though, it is a piece to rival the impact of "Baroque Cascade," a massive draped work originally hung overhead from the Corcoran's sky-lit atrium during Gilliam's first museum exhibition in 1969, and whose convention-busting eclat is still remembered today by those who were there to see it. (I was just a lad and had parents who were more interested in dragging me to the Phillips Collection to see the "Luncheon of the Boating Party" for the umpteenth time.)
There are works in the Corcoran show that approach that grandeur. Like Jennifer Steinkamp's recently de-installed "Loop" computer animation, "30,000 Knots" makes great use of the Rotunda's architecture. Still, I can't help feeling that there's something small and sad about it, like a bouquet of partially deflated helium party balloons.
That sadness isn't necessarily a bad thing. Few of Gilliam's other works invite you to feel much of anything, with the possible exception of "April 4," a traditional stretched-canvas abstraction created on the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and whose composition evokes dried blood on curtains.
Gilliam's work is, at least as far as the tightly edited Corcoran show is concerned, almost uniformly handsome. There can be felt, however, even in the frenzied and scarred surfaces of his so-called "Black" paintings, which roil with depths of color beneath tarry skins, a kind of reserve on the part of the artist. In a way, that cool, clinical detachment -- not so foreign after all when you consider Gilliam's early formalist work -- keeps viewers at arm's length, too. It's almost as if the artist, despite all the acclaim he has gotten and all the success he has achieved, has never really allowed himself the satisfaction of arriving -- or staying very long -- at any destination that matters.
Binstock, in the show's catalogue, describes Gilliam's career as "fluid," identifying as the artist's greatest asset his "willingness to lose everything in order to gain something else." I'm not sure that Gilliam, for whom artmaking seems to be more about the trip than the destination, would necessarily disagree. "The paintings were fun," he said at the preview, "because they were always getting somewhere."
"Not that we got it right," continued Gilliam a moment later, with a tone of almost wistful reminiscence, "but we got what we wanted."
SAM GILLIAM: A RETROSPECTIVE -- Through Jan. 22 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 to 5; Thursdays to 9. $8; seniors and military personnel $6; students $4; guests of members $3. Members and children younger than 12 free. Admission on Thursdays after 5 is "pay as you wish."
SAM GILLIAM -- SUNLIGHT: NEW PAINTINGS -- Through Nov. 26 at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-332-0520. www.marshamateykagallery.com. Open Wednesday-Saturday 11 to 5. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibitions include:
Nov. 3 at 7 -- "Talking About Sam Gilliam's Art: A Dialogue With Lowery Sims." The artist talks about his work with the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. $25. Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Nov. 12 at 1:30 -- Open Studio: The artist and exhibition curator lead high school students on an exhibition tour, followed by a hands-on art workshop utilizing Gilliam's techniques. Free. Registration required. 202-639-1727. Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Nov. 15 from 11:30 to 1:30 -- Business Professional Women luncheon and exhibition tour. Free for BPW members; nonmembers $20 in advance; $30 after Nov. 8, if available. Registration required. 202-639-1796. Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Nov. 16 at 4:30 -- Sam Gilliam at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. Art dealer Marsha Mateyka hosts a private viewing of her gallery's Gilliam exhibition, featuring wine, snacks and conversation with the artist and Corcoran curator Jonathan Binstock. $30. Registration required. 202-639-1770. Marsha Mateyka Gallery.
Dec. 5 at 3 -- Curator Binstock leads a discussion with the artist. Free. Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Jan. 15 at 3 -- Gallery talk: "Art in Motion." Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, talks about his experience choreographing dance in response to Gilliam's art. Free. Corcoran Gallery of Art.