Anyone who has recently landed in the Washington art scene -- say, in the past 10 or 15 years -- will have heard its coming-of-age myth. It's the story of 1960s abstraction and of the so-called Washington Color School: of the stained, raw canvases of Morris Louis, the diamond-shaped paintings of Kenneth Noland, the stripes of Gene Davis, the erect beams of Anne Truitt and then the crumpled fabrics of Sam Gilliam. But it's a tale of art more likely to have been talked about than witnessed in the flesh. Aside from taking in some Louis pictures that the Hirshhorn Museum tends to keep on view and the occasional commercial show of other figures in the group, it can be hard for newcomers to see what the fuss is all about -- or to decide, on solid evidence, if it is warranted.
For one figure, at least, that situation is about to change. On Oct. 15, the Corcoran Gallery of Art launches "Sam Gilliam: A Retrospective," the first full-scale survey of that artist's career. Gilliam was the only African American among the pioneers of Washington abstraction, and he is the only one still alive and working in the Washington area.
Of course, like most "schools" of art, Washington's was never a coherent movement. Where Louis and Noland's work from the early 1960s was all about exploring the flat surface of the canvas, Gilliam, who hit his stride a little later, believed in breaking free of it. Curator Jonathan Binstock -- who did his doctoral thesis on Gilliam -- writes that "Sam Gilliam's concentrated focus on painting and his belief that, as a discipline made up of objects it is essentially no different from sculpture, radically distinguishes him from his contemporaries."
Binstock's show will let us get a glimpse of Gilliam's most radical moves. We'll see, especially, his pioneering "draped" paintings, for which he soaked and stained his canvases with color, then allowed them to flop across a building's architecture. But we'll also see a career's worth of works, in a wide range of mediums and forms, that play with how color, paint and shape can interact in art.